Barcelona: Martino gambles with his fleeting back-line despite the lessons of seasons past

As Real Madrid have been active in this summer’s transfer window in preparation to wrestle the La Liga title back from Barcelona, their Catalan rivals have been quiet, preferring instead to allow new manager Tito Martino inherent a settled squad rather than risk destabilising a winning formula.

The high-profile €57 million capture of Neymar has been their only signing while Madrid have spent over £60 million so far as they refurbish their squad under new manager Carlo Ancelotti, with Gareth Bale still to complete his move which is likely to be in excess of £85 million.

Compared to Madrid, Barcelona have been stagnant and with Neymar coming in to raise the debate of whether the Brazilian can co-exist in a successful side alongside Lionel Messi, it has rather overshadowed the issue of a porous defence that will threaten to compromise Martino regardless of how much attacking talent he loads his side with.

On their way to winning the title last year the Catalans conceded 40 goals, the biggest total since before the Pep Guardiola era, and they were ruthlessly disposed by Bayern Munich in the Champions League with a 7-0 aggregate scoreline in the semi-finals.

Starting the summer faced with making the transition from Tito Vilanova, who has stepped down through illness, to Martino, it was clear that the overriding priority was for Barcelona to add reinforcements at the back.

According to the media they have tried, with bids being knocked back for both David Luiz and Daniel Agger, though Chelsea and Liverpool were able to deflect the offers away with little fuss, the Spanish champions appearing not to pursue their defensive targets with the same relentless intent they have used with previous signings, much to the ire of many a club.

Thiago Silva of PSG did receive sustained attention but there was little realistic chance that Barca would comply with the huge sums of money involved with the Brazilian that eventually saw him sign a new contract with the French club.

With a huge chunk of the budget being lavished on Neymar, it appears like Barcelona will overlook the need to bolster their defence in favour of persisting with what they currently have in place.

Martino has made it clear that he is reluctant to spend large amounts of money, €35 million was the figure linked with Luiz, on an area he has installed his faith in, saying “What I say is that as long as (Carles) Puyol is fine – and he will be because his recovery is going well – with Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano, Marc Bartra, Adriano or Sergio Busquets as centre-backs, we are fine”.

Puyol has not yet returned to train with the squad following knee surgery in the summer and it forced Mascherano and Piqué to continue their makeshift pairing in the heart of defence against Levante in the curtain raiser to Barca’s title defence.

With the home side 6-0 up at half-time without the help of Neymar, and eventual winners by 7 goals to nil, there was little word to be had on supposed defensive frailty. Perhaps that is the plan, relying on the declining standard of La Liga to cover up defensive leaks with displays of attacking dominance.

This after all, is a side that has scored over 90 goals in each of the last five seasons and amassed point tallies above 90 in four of those five campaigns. There will be a feeling in the Martino camp as well as many onlookers, that with Neymar and Messi being supplied by a mesmerically gifted supply chain of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas, they could field two amateurs at centre-half and still register enough points to win the league title.

There can be no escaping in the Nou Camp hierarchy however, the schooling they received from eventual champions Bayern on the European stage last April and there surely can be disillusion that if they were to reach the latter stages once more, they cannot afford to go to battle with the elite armed with such a rocky defence.

What matters domestically though are the two El Clasico meetings with Madrid and under the newly-implemented guidance of Carlo Ancelotti, they are likely to put up more of a challenge than the 15 point deficit they conceded to Barca last term.

With 35 year old captain Puyol still sidelined through injury having made just 12 appearances last season and Piqué also having a history of fitness struggles, he has started only 44 league games out of a possible 76 in the last two campaigns, there is a great deal of naivety in Martino’s decision to rely on just two established centre-halves, both of whom notoriously battling fitness issues, until at least the winter transfer window.

Martino mentions the 22 year old Barta as an option yet the La Masia graduate has made just 24 appearances in four years at the club whilst Mascherano and Adriano have been repeatedly asked to convert from their natural midfield stations to fill in at the back.

Lack of pace and the tendency to be caught on the counter-attack is also an overriding issue, Madrid carved them open in an unerring display on the break in last season’s Copa Del Rey while Atletico Madrid, in the 1st leg of this year’s Supercopa, utilised their own frantic counter to score the game’s opening goal through David Villa. There seems to be a willingness to ignore the lessons despite them repeatedly being taught.

Neymar may have been added to an attack-line already packed with extraordinary firepower and talent, but it is all being built on the rockiest of foundations. “I knew what the club was doing before I came here and what they wanted, even when Tito was here” said Martino, possibly aware of the need to bring in a centre-back.

The priority was Neymar, then a chase for a central-defender which Martino has cut off to instead gamble with the creakiest of back-lines. It will almost certainly cost them success on the continent but it may also cost the La Liga, too.


Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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