After keeping clean sheets in their first seven matches in all competitions, Barca’s back line was beaten twice in the first 26 minutes of Tuesday’s Champions League game at Paris Saint-Germain.
And both goals came from set-pieces — a familiar failing for the blaugrana side over recent seasons, as bigger, stronger opponents have apparently scored at will from corners or dead-balls around the box.
Barca sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta tried to fix the problem last summer, signing two new centre-halves and two new goalkeepers. But on Tuesday new coach Luis Enrique still went into the biggest game of the season so far with converted midfielder Javier Mascherano in defence. Career centre-backs Gerard Pique and Marc Bartra, both much taller and better in the air, were left out.
That appeared a mistake when PSG’s David Luiz outmuscled Mascherano while scoring on 10 minutes, and again when tiny midfielder Marco Verratti headed in after goalkeeper Marc Andre Ter-Stegen misjudged a corner kick.
Luis Enrique offered a different reason why his team had suffered at the back.
“The explanation is very clear,” he said. “In this game, you pay for errors, especially when bringing the ball out from defence. Those mistakes led to the set-pieces. It is not easy, but we knew that.”
That sent the pundits back for another look at the tape. And the free which led to the first goal came from Barca right-back Dani Alves misplacing a pass and then handling the ball trying to win it back. In the run-up to the corner headed in by Verratti, both Jordi Alba and Jeremy Mathieu made basic errors in possession.
The Barca argument is that if you do not make these mistakes, if you manage possession well and force your opponent back towards their own goal, then they will not have corners or free-kicks from which to hurt you. Hence the preference for back four players who push up the field and are comfortable on the ball, over those happier sitting deep and heading away crosses.
This goes against pretty much all orthodox defensive thinking, but it’s been the Barca way for quite some time. Mascherano played centre-back in the 2011 Champions League final win over Manchester United. Pep Guardiola played Yaya Toure in defence when also beating United to the trophy two years previously. In 1992 Ronaldo Koeman, who was not known for his aerial ability, was in the middle of a back three as Johan Cruyff’s Barca side won their first European Cup. Current boss Luis Enrique is trying to tweak Barca’s style, but without changing the fundamentals.
Knowing Xavi Hernandez, now 34, can no longer dictate games by managing possession as before, Ivan Rakitic has been chosen as a replacement.
That idea took a hit as the Croatian struggled in Paris and was withdrawn on 69 minutes. Xavi entered but, along with other important figures of recent campaigns like Alves and Andres Iniesta, he found it tough when put under pressure by younger, more physical opponents.
Pique and Bartra started Saturday’s 2-0 La Liga win at Rayo Vallecano in defence, and Xavi played all 90 minutes. But bigger tests lie ahead, such as October 25’s clasico at Real Madrid.
But on Friday Luis Enrique said he was not for turning.
“Without any doubt if we make errors when starting moves we will be penalised,” he said. “But I won’t change my ways over one result. Or over 50.”
When Barca get it right, they are thrilling to watch. When it goes wrong, as it has done a lot recently, the results are painful. But there remains something admirably stubborn about the attempt.