Last week, I said that Barcelona was the heavy favorite to win the league again. And just to prove that it’s always dumb to make predictions because we don’t know anything, Barca’s first two official matches of the season saw it concede eight goals for the first time since 2001, raising all sorts of alarm bells at the Camp Nou.
Against Sevilla in the European Supercup Barca went up 4-1 before conceding three goals in a row. Barca won it in extra time with an agonizing Pedrito goal. Then, four days later, Barca faced Athletic Bilbao in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup and got walloped 4-0, shocking everyone. Especially those who make predictions on TV. (It finished 5-1 on aggregate.)
So why is Barca’s defense so bad?
It’s dangerous to draw too many conclusions so early in the season, but it has conceded an average of 2.85 goals this preseason. Last year Barca only conceded an average of 0.63 goals per game. Now I’m not a mathematician, but that seems like a big difference to me.
So what’s the issue?
People are pointing to a drop in quality whenever Luis Enrique has to go to his bench. Players like Sergi Roberto, Rafinha, Marc Bartra, and Thomas Vermaelen just don’t offer the same guarantees as the starters. Gerard Pique has probably had his typical summer in which he downs a few too many mojitos. Now he might be suspended 12 games for telling a linesman, “I [poop] on your [prostitute] mother.”
Dani Alves is still left very exposed on the right flank as Messi doesn’t do anything to cover his space. (This is especially bad when Ivan Rakitic is not in the lineup as he is usually the one that covers Messi’s back whenever he decides to roam.)
And Marc-Andre ter Stegen, the keeper who has been lauded for his Manuel Neuer-esque risk taking has taken a few risks too many, such as in Athletic’s first goal in which he came way off his line to head the ball straight to Mikel San Jose, who smacked right back over his head and into the net.
This may all be just preseason pains. And to be fair Barca does have a more loaded calendar than anyone else. It’s one of the small drawbacks of winning the treble the season before.
In the game against Bilbao, Luis Enrique made five changes to the starting lineup including a never before seen midfield trio of Javier Mascherano, Sergi Roberto, and Rafinha and a center back pairing of Bartra and Vermaelen. It was a total disaster. The midfield was unable to to connect effectively with the Messi and Suarez. Bartra and Vermaelen, about as tough as Drake eating froyo, where overwhelmed by the much tougher and all around more badass Athletic striker Aritz Aduriz, who scored a hat trick.
That said, Luis Enrique was criticized heavily in the first half of last season for rotating so much that Barca struggled to find a rhythm and a system of play. So much so that after a loss against La Real Sociedad in Anoeta, with Messi on the bench, the club entered into a serious crisis that resulted in the sacking of the sporting director, the calling of elections, and a serious fight between Luis Enrique and Messi. However, Barca did reach the last few months of the season in great shape, with everyone healthy, while their main rivals Real Madrid limped through with a host of injuries to several key players.
Was it luck or a result of Luis Enrique’s aggressive rotation policy? He clearly believes in rotating his starters. We’ll see how it plays out for the rest of the season.