Agent Zero

One of the most difficult – and overlooked – positions in all of sports is the goalkeeper. In many ways, they are the most important player in the defense. In a team like FC Barcelona, they are important tactically as well. As they can see the whole pitch, the keeper is often called upon to play the ball just like a midfield player. Being a keeper is an important job. Which is why I’m proud to say ours is Marc-André ter Stegen.

But first let’s begin at the back. Ernesto Valverde’s defense has been nothing short of impressive so far this season. Having kept a clean sheet in their first four games, he’s clearly decided on his first choice defense. Jordi Alba at left back, Gerard Piqué and Samuel Umtiti as centerbacks, and Nelson Semedo at right back. This is a lineup he’d been using since the preseason, and it’s worked better than any other.

As you can see, this lineup won the Gamper trophy against Chapecoense. Ter Stegen hadn’t yet rejoined training after playing with Germany during the summer, but the defense was already set up.

Jordi Alba appears rejuvenated this year, saying that he’s been “playing with more happiness and spark” lately. Much has been made about Semedo’s offensive prowess, but not to be overlooked is that he’s really good defensively. As he showed against Juventus, he was more than capable of dealing with players like Paulo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic one on one and was good at reading plays and breaking up passing lanes. He and Alba make for two very quick, speedy full backs that can chase down offensive players and bother them.

As I predicted last season, Samuel Umtiti has taken over Javier Mascherano’s starting spot. He has become one of the best young center backs in the world, strong and quick-thinking. He’s also cold-blooded and plays very well in possession, perfect for a Barcelona player.

Piqué seems to have improved his form after a shaky preseason. There was a time when there was an argument for him being the best center back in the world. Let’s be honest – those days are long gone. However, he remains an invaluable leader and a solid defender, great in the air. Any goals he can give you, like the one against Espanyol, are just icing on the cake.

Disclaimer, though: no defense can completely keep out the great players. While I did say they did a great collective job against Juventus, they didn’t completely limit the Italians. They had them out of rhythm, which is what great defenses do. But players like Dybala and Pjanic, as I mentioned before, will always get up some dangerous shots. Which leads to the last line of defense.

Ter Stegen’s performance has so far been exemplary. He had several key saves, one on a low, hard strike by Dybala, another a leaping finger tip deflection on a shot by Rodrigo Bentancur. Pjanic and Gonzalo Higuain tried to get past him, also to no avail. Against Espanyol, he made sure to keep the visitors scoreless. Even when Pablo Piatti had a clear chip for a goal, ter Stegen bothered him just enough. He ended up chipping well wide.

He’s allowed no goals in his first four games. When it comes to goals allowed, zero is a very good statistic.

He’s also been asked by Valverde, like he was asked by Luis Enrique, to be another passing option in the defense. The difference this year is that he’s improved and grown. The passes he makes seem more mature, and technically better as well. Whereas last year he might turn the ball over against pressure, he is able to clear lines and pass straight to the midfield. Another favorite pass of his is towards the sides, i.e. Semedo or Alba, which opens up the field and keeps them wide.

Just look at this goal and how simple it is once ter Stegen makes the pass to André Gomes:

While we sing the German’s praises, it’s also important to remember and give some love to Jasper Cillissen. He’s more than a capable backup, also used to playing on the ball, and he’s got some saves in him too. He showed off his skills during the preseason when ter Stegen was still on vacation. The Dutchman impresses whenever he plays, even against top sides, so you know he’s reliably good.

We’re in very good hands with them in goal.

Valverde seems to have righted the ship following the Super Copa defeat to Real Madrid, as opponents have scored zero goals against us since. Among one of the many areas he’s put his stamp on has been the defense. If we can continue playing it at such a high level, this team might accomplish more than anyone thought they would. We’ll see if ter Stegen, with the help of our other talented players, can remain an Agent Zero.

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