Exciting. Nervewracking. Surreal. Take your pick as each and every one of these words can fairly describe the bizarre event that was Deportivo vs FC Barcelona on Saturday evening. As has been commonplace (amazingly) over the recent years, another match results in more historic records and statistics to note and reflect upon. Though not all are good this time.
Let’s start with the good news. Come on, obviously it’s Lionel Messi. Two tough (and rough) matches in South America, baby number one on the way: no bother, hat-trick time. With those goals, Messi has now scored three or more goals for FC Barcelona 15 times. That’s a club record, beating César’s record of 14.
Pele is the next man on Messi’s radar, though he seemingly couldn’t care less. When asked post-game about his records the humble man replied, “Statistics, they’re just that”. Often statistics are just that, but not this guy’s. Lionel Messi already holds the all-time record of goals for a club in a single season (72), the most goals in a La Liga season (50), the highest goals tally for a European Golden Boot winner (50), and he recently matched Argentina’s record of most goals in a calendar year with 12. Saturday’s game took his 2012 tally for Barça to 59, which beats his 2010 record (a club record too). Messi’s 2012 total, club and country, now sits at 71 (59 vs 12), only 4 shy of the all-time record of goals in a calendar year set by Pele in 1959. It would be a brave man to bet against him breaking it.
More good news: this time Tito Vilanova. With his 7 victories and 1 draw thus far in La Liga, Vilanova has equaled the best ever debut of a coach in the Spanish first division. Not a poor feat either.
Ok, bad news time. Isn’t it also obvious: the defense. Eleven goals conceded in the first 8 matches is the leakiest FC Barcelona has been since 2002. It’s double last season. For some context, Osasuna in last place have also let in 11 goals. Not since a 4-3 defeat in March 2009 has the team let in 4 goals in a game.
Valdés has picked the ball out his net this season a total of 17 times (11 Liga, 4 Super Cup, 2 Champions League) in 12 matches. It took the following number of official matches to concede that same amount in the previous 4 seasons: 2011/12 – 32 matches (January 12th), 2010/11 – 38 matches (February 16th), 2009/10 – 35 matches (February 14th), 2008/9 – 21 matches (November 26th). Those are the numbers, black and white.
In Guardiola’s last 3 seasons, it required more than 2.67 additional games/time to concede 12. Even in his first season, to compare with Vilanova’s debut, it took 57% less games. Those aren’t good numbers.
But, let’s look deeper, past the numbers. Fair enough, it is a debut season, but does that hold as much weight if Vilanova was essentially Guardiola’s conjoined twin and fully involved in everything he did? What does hold water is the serious injury issues with Puyol and Piqué, they have barely been in any of the matches we have conceded. At this point I want to qualify that I am not one who has wanted the signing of a new center back. In fact I argued against it in pre-season and I stick by it.
The issue was not that we didn’t bring in a center back; it’s that we are not using one. Step forward Marc Bartra Aregall (21). This kid has looked solid at the very least in each of his Barça showings, has captained Spain in various youth levels, and lastly he has trained as a natural center back his entire life. Bartra isn’t a spring chicken either, 21 is not young enough to worry about age. I’m not in training day to day but aside from that, I cannot see a valid reason to not give him the shout. All the pre-season talk of him was excellent, suggesting his ability convinced Vilanova NOT to sign another center back. Plus, Montoya in his few appearances has arguably been our most consistent defender (more below). And if I cannot convince you, here is FC Barcelona’s description of Bartra:
“Combining great technique with his 1.83 meters, Bartra has drawn comparison with Gerard Piqué. Bartra is particularly strong in the air, good at bringing the ball out under control and also reads the game well, which allows him to cover his full backs and dominate at dead ball situations. A fast, safe and committed defender.”
Manuel Traquete appreciatively does totalBarça’s player ratings. So using these ratings, as it keeps it objective and consistent, here are the average scores for defenders (in which they participated) in the 8 matches (not including Super Cups) Barça conceded a goal or more:
Daniel Alves 5.9
Gerard Piqué 7.2
Carles Puyol 6.5
Javier Mascherano 6.5
Alex Song 5.5
Jordi Alba 6.8
Martín Montoya 7
Those aren’t pretty seeing as the base level for scoring is usually a 6. Personally, I would have the pair of Mascherano and Adriano even lower as I feel their ratings versus Real Madrid in the league of 8 and 7 respectively were far too high as both goals resulted from their errors. The gist of this is our defenders are not playing well. Song has been woeful, predictably, and Adriano managed in one match to receive a rating of 2.
Of the 17 goals let in thus far, 11 have been more a result of poor defending than opposition attacking. And I am not one that always makes it about “my” team, as far too many fans do. More often than not, goals come from solid attacking. If defending was perfect, how boring would football be? But 11 times this season, either incorrect positioning/covering, own goals, poor communication, and/or pure gifts (3 alone in the Super Cup) were to blame. The defenders need to stop these individual and collective errors. I have never in all these resurgence years sincerely felt a genuine critique about the defense was justified nor needed, but right now I do.
So with our best center backs injured and our replacement center backs not performing, why hasn’t Bartra seen action? My best guess is that Vilanova wants to continue test runs of the Alex Song experiment despite the failed results thus far. The problem is that this experiment is not new, it’s been tried before at Arsenal, and it did not work. Yes, he’s older now, and fine it’s conceivable that Barça can train him in different methods, but when do you make the call? When does the terrible performances of a midfielder leading directly to goals become tantamount to insanity (Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results) over giving a La Masia legitimate defender his chance? I’d say the time is fast approaching, if not here . Or, why not put Song in the holding role where he played quite excellently once this season and let Busquets fill the void in a position he is far superior in. What the team loses with Busquets in defense is less than with putting a capable midfielder like Song in his preferred role.
Tito Vilanova needs to get the team to stop leaking goals. There has been some poor luck, but not enough to justify the statistics thus far. Tweaks need to be made and sooner than later, and options do exist. Song and Adriano have been tested in the middle, it has not been resounding, so why not Busquets, why not Bartra? You may agree or disagree with the analysis and the suggested solutions, but the numbers don’t lie in this case, both in a good and bad way.
PS: I have not forgotten Valdés, the usual scapegoat, and no, it is not his fault. Valdés has and still is the best keeper for this team; please don’t wipe your memory clean of his stellar form in these last seasons.