It is tough to understand this massive drop-off in Barcelona’s defensive record. They had absolutely no turnover in the defensive department over the summer as far as regular starters are concerned, and their head coach has not changed either so the team’s playing style has stayed the same tactically.
However, upon closer inspection, this makes total sense. Both tactically and statistics-wise, all indications suggested such a drop-off was almost inevitable.
Contextualising the 2022/23 Season
Before delving into Barcelona’s current issues, it is worth looking back at their record in 2022/23.
While the record of 20 goals conceded in 38 matches seems very impressive, it does not paint the full picture of how well Barcelona defended.
Their xGA (Expected Goals Against) tally was a significantly higher 33.8, which provides a fairer reflection of their work as they were closer to conceding a goal per game rather than once every two games.
A major chunk of their defensive overperformance can be put down to their goalkeeper. Marc-André ter Stegen had an incredible season as he saved his side close to 9 goals by the Post-Shot Expected Goals (PSxG) model.
Essentially, this means he saved about nine goals’ worth of shots more than the average goalkeeper would be expected to.
In particular, he excelled in one-on-one situations as he was quick off his line, made the right decisions between rushing and staying to minimise the clarity of the chance and obviously reacted quickly to stop the shots.
The German international also did a great job of sweeping, averaging 1.1 sweeping actions outside his penalty area per 90 in the league last season.
On top of that, there was a bit of variance and luck involved as there always is. That is an uncontrollable factor that can go either way, so it is certainly not a sustainable factor to rely on.
Nevertheless, even their xGA tally of 33.8 is pretty decent all things considered, so the stats did not ring any major alarm bells about their defensive record.
Busquets’ Departure Accelerates the Drop-Off
Perhaps the most impactful summer transfer for Barcelona was the departure of Sergio Busquets to Inter Miami.
Even as he approached the latter half of his thirties, the veteran defensive midfielder remained a key cog at the heart of Xavi’s side as he set and dictated the tempo from the base of midfield, securely helped the team retain possession and play out against pressure, and offered an additional line of security right in front of the back line.
Thanks to his presence in the side, Barcelona were able to safely adopt a pretty aggressive 3-2-2-3/3-2-5 shape in possession with five designated attackers supported by Frenkie de Jong from midfield as well as the right-back.
Barça’s initial succession plan for Busquets seemed to involve Oriol Romeu, who they snapped up from Girona for just €4 million in what seemed a fantastic piece of business.
Romeu had excelled as a defensive midfielder in Michel’s possession-based style, so it seemed logical to expect him to slot in at Barcelona.
Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case. The ex-Southampton midfielder looked nowhere near as secure as Busquets as his defensive work was quite simply not up to the mark.
As a result, Xavi was forced to work out a different solution. He decided to do so without compromising or changing the team’s attacking shape, so he simply tried to plug someone else into the defensive midfield position.
The replacement he picked was fellow summer signing İlkay Gündoğan. The German midfielder was presumably signed to play in a more attacking midfield role but has been forced deeper now. To his credit, he has done a pretty good job, but just profile-wise he is quite different to Busquets.
This has also had a knock-on effect on Frenkie de Jong. He has tried to continue to operate with the level of attacking freedom he enjoyed last season, but he has had to share greater defensive responsibility.
This is an area of weakness in his game, so asking him to defend more ultimately leads to net harm to Barcelona’s defensive solidity.
So, Barcelona have lost defensive quality in midfield by replacing Busquets with someone not as good as him and asking De Jong to defend more.
In addition to that, they have also missed his composure and control in possession. Neither Gündoğan nor De Jong can be considered tempo controllers, which is why Barcelona’s possession play this season has been excessively attack-minded, leading to very end-to-end matches.
All of this explains why Barcelona have been the fourth-worst team in La Liga this season when it comes to xG conceded from counter-attacks.
They not only lack the pure defensive midfielders to defend in transition and counter-attacks, but they also lack the midfielders to appropriately regulate their tempo in possession, which would limit the number of counter-attacks conceded at their very stem.
Tactical Questions in the Defensive Phase
While we have adopted a very data-driven and player-focused approach to the issue, it is worth analysing Barcelona from a broader tactical standpoint.
Throughout his coaching career from his time at Al-Sadd, Xavi has placed quite a bit of emphasis on his team’s possession play and paid a good deal of attention to the minuter details to ensure they got the edge over their opponents.
However, his defensive schemes have never been the most polished, and perhaps overly simplistic at Barcelona.
Roughly speaking, Barça’s out-of-possession approach has involved setting up in a very player-oriented 4-4-2 high block, often with complete player-marking all over the pitch.
This approach might work against lower-quality opposition but can be brutally exposed when they come up against top-class teams such as Real Madrid in the Supercopa this weekend.
Unsurprisingly, then, they conceded 9.3 xGA in their six Champions League group stage matches last season in a group which included Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. Clearly, the signs of weakness were always there.
Add to all of this the injury issues to key players in their defensive department including Ter Stegen, Ronald Araújo and Jules Koundé, and it becomes clear why Barcelona have gone from having what was actually a decent defence last season to a poor one this term.
While this issue could have come up at any point in Xavi’s tenure as defence is far from his strong point, several other factors have led to Barcelona suffering a rather drastic drop-off defensively.
Stats courtesy Opta via Fbref and Soccerment.
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