“Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles”- Sir Alex Ferguson.
Barcelona have been characteristically associated with a leaky defence over the years despite of the presence of talismans like Carles Puyol or Gerard Pique. Their defence was never considered a valuable asset of their team as much as their midfield and attack was prized.
During the Pep Guardiola era, when the defence was in a mess, the rigidity, experience and leadership of our iconic former captain Carles Puyol used to bail them out and save themselves from embarrassment.
Well past his heydays, Puyol spent most of the 2013-14 season on the sidelines with injuries marring his year. Coincidentally, the mess of the Blaugranas' defence culminated in that very season as giving away cheap goals from set pieces, constant mix ups between the players and some individual errors became a common sight. Barcelona badly missed Puyol as they ended the season trophyless on an underwhelming note.
Enter Luis Enrique.
The man is known for his immense focus on fitness and physicality. He is tireless and constantly works with the same energy that has seen him compete in many a marathons and ply his trade for clubs like Sporting Gijon, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Although the first part of his debut season is somewhat forgettable thanks to his incessant rotation policy which also saw some bizarre decisions, the fruits of his policy are paying dividends as Barcelona can proud themselves of having all their 23 first team players fit, at a time when other clubs are sweating on the fitness of their star players.
Focusing on the defence, the impact that Enrique has had on it is simply monumental. Anyone who has been following Barcelona’s games since 2013 can understand that there is a big gulf of difference in the defending this season as compared to the previous one.
The failure of the defence is what cost the team three points in the previous season in the games against Getafe, Real Valladolid and Granada. Thankfully, Barcelona have learned the way to shut shop now.
The fact that Barcelona has conceded only 19 in the league, the lowest in the Spanish top flight, is ample proof that it isn’t the leaky back four it once was. 33 goals had been scored against Barcelona in the 2013-14 season, with even lower-rung teams sometimes getting on the scoresheet as a result of some passive defending by the Catalans.
As we are speaking about the defence, Gerard Pique deserves immense recognition in this part of the field. He has bounced back in style after some off-field issues which Enrique punished him for by demoting him to the bench. The elegant defender has already matched the number of successful tackles (40) he made in the previous season of La Liga, despite having played 194 minutes less as compared to the 2013-14 season.
In the UEFA Champions League this season, Pique has made five more interceptions than what he made last year, though his game time this year stands at 720 minutes as of now in Europe, exactly the same amount which he garnered the previous season.
He is not that type of defender who is just meant for clearing the ball away for safety. Although an effective ball carrying defender, he can make that killer long ball for Barcelona’s deadly front-three to pounce upon.
Set pieces were considered Barca’s Achilles Heel. In the previous years, neither were they well known to head in from set-pieces, nor well acclaimed defenders of it. Luis Enrique has taken care of this. When Jeremy Mathieu headed in the only goal on a tricky night in Celta on April 5, it was the 13th time the Catalans had scored from a set piece this season, the most for six seasons.
There is an unsung hero behind this - assistant manager Juan Carlos Unzue. The former Barca keeper rejoined the club as Luis Enrique’s No. 2 this summer. He has succeeded where so many people failed - getting the right routine for set pieces.
And it’s not like only towering defenders like Mathieu and Pique have scored from set pieces. Even Messi has headed in from a set piece. Quite surprising.
Whenever a set-piece is awarded to Barcelona, Unzue is seen on the touchline, as Luis Enrique steps aside for a moment for his No. 2 to take charge. He is seen ordering his troops, to get the routine right, just as they do in their rigorous training sessions.
Moving onto the goalkeepers, Claudio Bravo and Marc Andre Ter Stegen are turning out to be the steal deals for Barcelona. Their signings did not garner much media attention and hype, and their presentation at the Camp Nou was a rather lowly affair too.
Claudio Bravo has been assigned to guard the posts in La Liga, while young German Ter Stegen plies his trade for Barca in Europe and in the Copa Del Rey. Earlier on in the season, Bravo broke Pedro Artola’s record of being unbeaten for 560 minutes in the league, by creating his very own record by being unbeaten for 754 minutes in the league before Ronaldo scored from the penalty spot in the 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid.
The Chilean international came to the rescue in dire circumstances when he saved a penalty in the 2-0 win over Valencia. If it wasn’t for him, the Catalans would have had to face some serious consequences. Bravo has churned out such performances throughout the season, most notably in the Clasico win over Madrid when he tipped Ronaldo’s powerful drive from outside the box over the bar, and also made two solid saves from Benzema’s shot which only a keeper on top of his game could save. Luckily, Bravo was, and has been on top of his game throughout the season. He is way ahead from everyone else in the race for the Zamora trophy.
Meanwhile, in Europe and in the cup competition, it is Ter Stegen who has been trusted by the manager. Just 23, he is being tipped as the long-term Barcelona as well as his national team Germany’s goalkeeper. His most notable contribution has been his penalty save of Aguero in the 2nd leg of the last-16 tie against Manchester City in the Champions League. Despite being so young, he has got what it takes to handle the big game pressure in the Champions League. Clean sheets against the likes of Manchester City and PSG reflect this fact. Ter-rific!
All in all, Barcelona have conceded 31 goals in 52 games across all competitions- an average of 0.59 goals conceded. These two goalkeepers have given no chance to ponder on the departure of veteran goalkeeper Victor Valdes. Barcelona have moved on since he left the club with minimal fuss.
As the front three superstars Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar Jr. continue to grab headlines week in and week out for their heroics, it is to be realised that the goals scored hold no importance if you concede more than you score. Our defence, like a silent guardian, takes care of it.