A Spanish-American by the name of George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
History at Barcelona is indeed repeating itself and it is because they do not remember the past. It’s been seven days since AC Milan ruthlessly exposed FC Barcelona’s frail defense which has them nearly out of contention for the UEFA Champions League. Exactly a week after that defeat has come another setback. Real Madrid thrashed Barcelona 3-1 at Camp Nou to eliminate them from the Copa Del Rey.
This has been an eerie seven days. Eerie because it is the exact time table in which last season, FC Barcelona lost La Liga to Real Madrid at the Camp Nou, after being eliminated by Chelsea FC from the UEFA Champions League during the week. Clearly Santayana’s statement does have some basis in truth and it’s almost safe to say that Barcelona are out of two knockout competitions within the span of seven days. Just the situation they found themselves in a season prior.
So what have Barcelona forgotten of their past that they are repeating? To provide this answer is basically to address everything Barcelona has done wrong from the last season of the Guardiola-era till present day. Simply put, they never corrected their frail defense, as their attacking players deteriorated they never replaced them, and they continue to suffer from a leadership that is inadequate to lead FC Barcelona to victory.
Frail defense is something that will always cost you titles but at Barcelona it is an area that has never thoroughly been reinforced. Guardiola opted once, in 2009, to purchase a center-back by the name of Dmytro Chygrynskiy for a fee of €25 million. That didn’t last long as the next season he was sold right back to Shakhtar for a cut-price €15 million. It was the second and last transfer window since Guardiola took over Barcelona in 2008, that the team procured a center-back.
Since then other top teams such as Real Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus Turin, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, etc…have bought themselves world-class defenses that can secure them what they all are after, the UEFA Champions League trophy.
During this time FC Barcelona has instead opted to acquire players such as Javier Mascherano and Alex Song, who are really defensive midfielders, with the idea of retooling them to defenders.
They have done this because their defense has been racked by injuries and age. Gabriel Milito, Rafa Marquez, and Eric Abidal have been the worst casualties. The former two retired and the latter, Eric Abidal, is just returning to fitness. Carles Puyol is now aging, injury prone, though still reliable. But age is taking effect on his reflexes.
In essence FC Barcelona have lost around three defenders within the last four seasons and instead of replacing defenders with defenders, they have bought defensive midfielders. The only true defender brought in during this time, who has stayed with the club, has been Jordi Alba (a converted left-winger it must be noted).
It’s a terrible trend that started under Guardiola, and still continues to be the norm under Villanova. It’s not going to work. Players are meant to play the positions they are naturally more talented at. FC Barcelona needs defenders and until they get serious about replacing the numbers lost, they will continue to concede goals and continue to lose.
Defense is very important for FC Barcelona. When one comes to the conclusion that teams are scoring more goals on FC Barcelona, a team that dominates roughly 70% of the ball, you know something is wrong defensively. This means that teams can defeat Barcelona with 30% or less possession. But when FC Barcelona is also not scoring goals, on these squads with that same 70%, it also suggests that the attack is weak.
A weak attack is the next point. Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry where sold. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was brought in, lasted a season, and was also sold. Lionel Messi is the only attacker left from Barcelona’s original sextuplet side. Today he’s the only genuine goal scoring threat available to the team. Alexis Sanchez has endured an average first season with the team and a torrid second.
If someone told you he was once voted Serie A’s best player they’d hardly believe you. David Villa enjoyed a successful first season with Barcelona but his second season saw him break his leg at the Club World Cup. Since then FC Barcelona’s technical staff has never entrusted him with a starting role. Pedro, once a reliable goal scorer has also gone dry. Cristian Tello is the only newcomer to the attacking trident but even he doesn’t receive much playing time to establish himself.
FC Barcelona has never recovered from the loss of Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry. Those two strikers along with Lionel Messi struck fear into defenses across the continent. Now only Lionel Messi is Barcelona’s main threat. David Villa and Cristian Tello are marginalized to bench roles. Pedro who is getting more playing time has proven ineffective. FC Barcelona instead entrust the third attacking slot to midfielders Cesc Fabregas or Andres Iniesta. For all of FC Barcelona’s possession there is no end product when teams around Europe get defensive. The reason is Barcelona drives all the possession into a bottle neck. That bottle neck is Lionel Messi.
But if enough defenders are put there to clog the hole, there is no leakage and FC Barcelona scores no goals. By playing Pedro on one wing and Cesc/Iniesta on another, Barcelona’s technical staff adds to the bottle neck problem. They surround Lionel Messi with passers. Possession is futile if the only exit for the possession to turn into a goal is blocked. Put enough men to mark Messi out of matches and FC Barcelona don’t score.
So now here stands FC Barcelona. A team bereft of a defense that cannot even stop teams taking advantage of the 30% or less possession they get. An attack that cannot be efficient with FC Barcelona’s huge lion share of 70%, a team that cannot win knockout rounds. The current technical staff is handicapped by the fact that Tito Vilanova is not actually managing the team. His assistant Roura is managing Barcelona in his absence. At the beginning of the season Tito should have corrected these errors. But since the season in La Liga started very positive they masked what is really wrong with this squad. History repeated itself.
It only took one week of suffering, a season later, to realize FC Barcelona have still not recovered. Tito is once again absent from the bench as he was at times during Guardiola’s era and Barcelona seem alone, leaderless, and lost without him. One cannot point the finger at Roura and say it’s his fault. After all, he’s just taking Tito Vilanova’s orders. Tito never chose to address defensive or attacking deficiencies. Vilanova accepted the squad as it was from Guardiola, and they’ve succumbed to the same fate. Out of two competitions within the span of a week.