Barcelona's old problems still remain in sharp focus under Tata Martino

Denis Doyle

The centre-back conundrum remains a recurring issue in Catalonia despite the change in coach

One of football's great shames is that the way in which the media works to whip up controversy and fuels transfer speculation only serves to alienate players away from doing in-depth interviews with the media. In-depth discussion has been discouraged in favour of bland, repetitive one-liners and often a single phrase is taken out of context in an attempt to stir the pot.

Take Gerard Pique's question-and-answer with Italian paper Gazzetta dello Sport. He spoke candidly on a number of issues, touching significantly on the changes that Barcelona have made under Tata Martino and how the new coach's philosophy contrasts with his predecessors.

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"We've had home grown coaches for the last few years -- first Pep and then Tito and maybe we just overdid our playing style to the point that we became slaves to it," he mused. "Now Tata has taken over. He's come from outside the club and, whilst he shares the same basic ideas around maintaining possession, he is also keen to show us alternative approaches."

"We're now pressing much higher up the pitch and are winning the ball in our opponents' three quarters area. It's much easier to create chances from there than from further back, particularly against those teams who like to close us down."

Sadly though, the only extract mainstream markets extracted from the intelligent comments Pique made was the "slaves" line. It quickly became the key line, the fuel for the fire, and incredibly, Pique had to explain what he had meant in the press conference before Tuesday's press conference.

"The headline was taken out of context," Pique said. "I wanted to say that we had become very predictable. We cannot change our style of play -- it has been good for us, and we will always have it, although in recent years teams have known how we play. They hit us on the break, while we have been moving the ball horizontally, always through Xavi [Hernandez] and [Andres] Iniesta. Sometimes it looked like a game of handball."

The handball analogy is a neat one to summarise the conclusion many fans have drawn from Barcelona's stumbling last season in the Champions League. While recording a record points tally to win La Liga was certainly impressive - and probably an underappreciated achievement - the 7-0 aggregate loss to Bayern Munich in Europe cast an enormous cloud over Barcelona's season. The general consensus was that Barcelona had been showed up by a team that could combine their dominance of possession with counter-attacking - exactly the sort of variety Pique referred to when talking to Gazzetta.

The idea of Barcelona becoming more direct is an idea that has been bandied about quite frequently, ever since Guardiola all but perfected the short passing game. Direct in this context does not mean Tony Pulis inspired long balls, but rather quicker attacks from back to front, rather than the slow, methodical keeping-of-the-ball that Barcelona's philosophy espouses. The rule that the La Masia youngsters are taught is when you get the ball, make sure you keep it by playing the safe pass.

Such obsession with possession runs contrary with the idea of taking risks to try and expose an opponent's exposed defence. Barcelona will always be able to break down deep-lying defences thanks to the creative genius of their attacking players and because of the sheer brilliance of Lionel Messi, but when coming up against teams taking extraordinarily reactionary measures to counter these threats, it always helps to have an additional angle of attack.

As space in central zones higher up the pitch becomes increasingly endangered, the role of Barcelona's centre-backs becomes even more paramount. They're often the ones who win the ball when the opportunity rises to launch a quick counter - that, on top of the need for them to fit into Barcelona's pre-existing short passing game, exaggerates the requirements for technically excellent defenders.

It was not really a surprise when Guardiola started using midfielders at the back - given the way opponents were sitting back and Barcelona were dominating the ball, the nominal central defenders were spending most of their time sitting on the halfway line, helping to score goals rather than prevent them.

It is why Barcelona could get away with using Javier Mascherano at the back, because his lack of natural defensive skills was compensated for because he didn't have to do much defending, with Barcelona's high pressing game rendering the things Mascherano was weak at - broadly speaking, penalty-box defending - all but void.

It was silly, though, of Barcelona to think that this would be the case all the time. It was patently obvious the rest of Europe's elite were catching up to them, forcing them to play on the back foot more than they had become accustomed to. That was painfully exposed against Bayern Munich, but the signs were there against PSG and AC Milan too. Barcelona couldn't get away with just having good passers who could also defend - they clearly needed defenders who could also pass.

The list of targets they drew up all fitted this mould. David Luiz, Daniel Agger, Vincent Kompany Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Sebastian Vergini, Inigo Martinez, Mamadou Sakho and Eliaquim Mangala suited the profile, but none suited the price.

"Experience says it's not easy to find a centre-back for Barca"

It is difficult for Barcelona to compromise on their ideals even when it was clear that their long-upheld principle of promoting players from within was not going to bear fruit either. Marc Bartra, Alberto Botia, Marc Muniesa and Andreu Fontas have all moved on despite being schooled in the Barcelona style - a reflection on the club's assessment of their quality.

The paradox is intriguing. Barcelona don't need an outstanding defender in the majority of their matches, but in the ones that count - think of El Clasico, of the big European knockouts - they desperately do. Pique again sums it up nicely. "It's hard to find the right profile [of player] because our style of play is unique," the 26-year-old told a press conference in Thailand in pre-season. "Experience says it's not easy to find a centre-back for Barca."

The failure to address the problem is already proving to perhaps be an error in judgement. Twice in two weeks in the league Barcelona have conceded two or more goals, against Valencia and Sevilla, and even the Champions League fixture against Ajax, despite a clean sheet, showed more of those familiar failings. It seems likely Barcelona will continue to get away with their centre-back conservatism in La Liga, but be shown up against stronger teams.

Indeed, tougher challenges await, and the fixture against AC Milan looms as an intriguing barometer of Barcelona's progress under Martino.

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