Back in May 2011, FC Barcelona were on top of the football world. Coming off a resounding victory over Manchester United in the Champions League final, it was obvious the club was alone on the mountain top. Spearheaded by a 23-year-old Lionel Messi, it was not unreasonable to believe they would remain there for the foreseeable future.
Three short years later, and Barcelona are firmly lost in the wilderness.
For all the talk that tiki-taka has had its day, it’s hard to be sure when Barca’s defense is already in the tank. Whether that’s because Barca mistakenly believes in the personnel they’ve already got, or they’ve forgone the very notion of defense in an attempt to build a team that can retain 100% of possession is unclear, but I would guess the former. Regardless, the reality is that since 2011, Carles Puyol got old, Gerard Pique struggled with form, Dani Alves became a full-time winger while Eric Abidal was allowed to leave. As a Barca supporter, I can tell you that any time Barca get dispossessed you feel uneasy, and if the opposition even sniffs the final third with their brief time on the ball, that unease makes way for panic.
All this just makes Barca’s pursuit of Sergio Aguero even more mystifying. If the club wishes to move away from the style of play which has brought them so much success in recent times, surely it makes even more sense to aggressively pursue the construction of a formidable back line?
Right now Barca’s back four is the inconsistent Pique, natural defensive mid/comically short Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba and the mercurial Alves, with utility man Adriano filling in as needed. If Barca was a superpower, it would have the best nukes in its offensive arsenal, and an immigration department that consciously ignored buzzwords like “terrorist”, “drug mule” and “saboteur”. Part of the problem is that none of those guys is a leader — someone that possesses the tactical mind to see the gaps before they can be exploited, and can marshal his colleagues to fill them, while only Pique provides the necessary physical presence to come away consistently with 50/50 balls, and stop opponents from getting in the box — compared to its domestic rivals, Barca conceded 57% of its shots inside the box, compared to 50 and 48% for Real and Atletico Madrid respectively (per whoscored.com). Now while certainly style of play factors into that number, it’s still too high. Barca doesn’t have to turn into football’s version of the ’85 bears — maintaining possession is our first line of defense after all, but they severely lack someone who has the ability and wherewithal to not be exploited on a counter.
What makes the Aguero rumours worse is that Barca has more seldom-used weapons than a Russian AK-47 stockpile after the end of the cold war. A rotating cast of Neymar, Alexis, Pedro, and Cesc Fabregas steal minutes from each other alongside Messi, while Ibrahim Afellay and Cristian Tello live in the hope of getting off the bench at all. Even selling Cesc and Alexis would do little to alleviate that problem if Aguero is brought in, and it may very well weaken Barca’s depth in midfield.
So forget Aguero, Barca’s summer shopping list should only contain defenders. Whether it’s guys linked with the club like Mats Hummels, Mehdi Benatia and Ricardo Rodriguez, or less-heralded players worth a look such as Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Barca should be willing to break the bank (if they still have banks in Spain, that is) to make several such transfers happen.
A team that can shell out 56 million pounds for someone as unnecessary as Sergio Aguero should not have a defensive centre of Pique and Javier Mascherano. We’re not Tottenham. Players want to come here. There’s only a handful of teams you can argue are year-in-year-out champions league contenders, and Barcelona is one of them. It’s really a credit to Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and their lot that Barca is regularly thought of as such, but it’s obvious they need help. Not to mention there’s the creeping feeling Barca is wasting the back-half of Messi’s prime, as he will be 27 by the time next season begins — even if you’re not a Barca fan, you should want a team with Messi in his prime to be contending for every trophy they play for. The Argentine is a superb talent, playing in a team that is designed to set up his brilliance. Continuing on this path of shelling out for big-name attackers so they can further congest our roster is unnecessary and insulting to a fanbase that knows how trophies are won. Anyone with half an understanding of how battles are fought knows that any attack is susceptible to a counter-attack, and sometimes holding your ground is more important than advancing. It’s an age-old lesson Barcelona continues to ignore, evidently at their own peril.