There has been a lot of finger-pointing going around since our loss to Celta Vigo. A lot of it has come Marc-André Ter Stegen’s way. And sure, he made yet another crucial mistake that cost us points, on a weekend where Real Madrid had dropped points and had presented us an opportunity to make up the points deficit. And sure, this is definitely not the first time Marc has done something of the sort. And yet again, sure, Claudio Bravo was mostly immune to any such mistakes (as we saw on his Manchester City debut). But is it fair to put so much blame on one man?
Ter Stegen likes to use his feet, as we’ve all seen. He is mostly praised for this. In fact, Lionel Messi once remarked that Marc had a better pass than he did. Our style of play has demanded a keeper who is comfortable with the ball at his feet, as our keeper receives much of the ball. And Marc definitely receives a lot of the ball. In fact, it may be too much and this may be what has contributed to some of his mistakes.
There was once a point in the season not so long ago where Marc-André Ter Stegen had completed more dribbles than Cristiano Ronaldo. Just think about that for a second. Cristiano Ronaldo. Now, bare in mind, this was right after our 1-0 victory at San Mamés against Athletic Bilbao, and Ronaldo had just come back from injury and had only featured in one game. But he’s still ‘CR7’, the man who’s abs can grate cheese and who does more stepovers than Ronaldinho ever did (joking). And for a keeper to have more dribbles than Ronaldo, under any circumstances, is quite extraordinary. This is the problem.
Although our blaugrana keepers are expected to use much of the ball, as we have moved into the Luis Enrique era, this has become an even larger responsibility. Back in the Víctor Valdés-José Manuel Pinto days, on average, Barça keepers would make 21 passes per game (Copa Del Rey numbers not taken to account as these numbers are rather hard to find). This average relates to the 2012/2013 season, and not Victor’s last season as he suffered a season-ending injury midway during the season. The Bravo-Ter Stegen combination made 27 passes on average last season, up from 23 the season before. Marc-André Ter Stegen made 34 passes in our recent 0-5 victory over Sporting Gijon, and 28 passes in our loss against Celta.
So what have we established here? Well firstly, these numbers are through the roof. But to summarize, this shows that Barça keepers are having a larger impact on games the longer we go into the Luis Enrique era.
Let’s employ some logic here. When a player receives more of the ball and is attempting more passes, does it not mean that he will invariably make more mistakes?
More ball=more mistakes.
It’s just basic math. This rule applies to any and all player/s. The difference is, when Ter Stegen makes a mistake, this ends up being match-threatening, as we have recently seen. We’ve seen the best midfielders in the world put in bad passes, or be dispossessed. Such is life. But why are Barça keepers receiving more of the ball, and why are they making more passes?
This is a system error that has come from Luis Enrique’s own innovations. The longer we have gone into Lucho’s era, our team has increasingly found it more difficult to get out of its own half due to intense high-pressing systems. Whether it be the fact that Sergio Busquets has been drowning under pressure as of late, or that Andrés Iniesta may not be the right deep-lying partner to give Busi adequate support, or even that what our midfield has gained in the dynamism of Ivan Rakitić, it has also lost in the problem solving of Xavi Hernández. This is all Lucho’s making.
Ter Stegen has suffered from our midfield’s inability to get the ball out of its own half. This is at the core of why he has had a larger presence on games. What is the first response of Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano/Samuel Umtiti or Sergio Busquets when they are pressed by a marker? To pass back to Marc-André Ter Stegen. What follows this? Most often a long ball to Jordi Alba or Sergi Roberto, who are then pressed, and this results in the ball moving back again until Marc receives it once more, who then follows this up with the same pass to either the right or left flank. This process repeats over and over and over again until it is the 40th minute and we are 0-1 down away from home and we can count on one hand the number of times we’ve made it out our own half.
There are so many objectives the opposition is achieving by doing this. Firstly, this is a strategy to ultimately stop our MSN attack. How? Through completely cutting off their support. The longer the ball is kept in our own half, the less of the ball is received by either Messi, Neymar or Suárez. And when they do receive the ball, often they are completely out of rhythm. Genius. Effectively, teams are admitting defeat in the possibility of dealing with either Messi, Neymar or Suárez by throwing numbers back and defending from deep. Teams are still doing this, however, this is a last resort, with the main defensive priority being completely suffocating our defense and midfield to keeping the ball in its half for large periods of games.
In doing so, this puts added pressure on Ter Stegen. And as long as we follow the mathematical formula “more ball=more mistakes”, this is ultimately why Ter Stegen has made and will continue to make, more mistakes. This is until Luis Enrique finds a way of dealing with this type of pressure.
How can this be done? Through a 2 man pivot system(4-2-3-1)? A change in personnel? It’s impossible to really make a suggestion. All one can do is point to the facts. And the facts are that Andrés Iniesta is playing a deeper role for the first time in his career at 32 and is being expected to offer Sergio Busquets adequate support. Ivan Rakitić, who is a specialist in many things, is not a specialist at problem-solving a high pressing system, and maybe these factors are what have forced the ball to be played back to Ter Stegen.
Marc-André Ter Stegen is an excellent keeper who has come under unfair scrutiny about a problem which he never created. One must remember that for a keeper to play the ball with his feet is like juggling a hot potato. You will most likely be able to juggle it effectively if you are not having to juggle it for a long period of time. The longer you juggle this potato increases the odds that you will drop it. The more touches Ter Stegen has, or passes he makes, will logically result in him making more mistakes. The longer Lucho goes without solving the problem of pressure, the more these mistakes will become more prevalent.
Stats courtesy of Whoscored.com