Barcelona’s attempts in recent transfer windows to fill that defensive gap have been torrid to say the least. However, with Carles Puyol now entering the final stages of recovery work from injury, could La Blaugrana find their solution for the season?
Throughout Pep Guardiola’s reign, the Catalans prided themselves in not only possessing the world’s strongest attack but were also blessed with a versatile back-line. Guardiola honed his defenders into pressing high up the pitch solely with the objective of obtaining the ball back within six seconds of losing it. And it could be argued that the Puyol’s pairing with Gerard Pique during the opening years of Guardiola’s reign was the strongest centre-back pairing in the world.
However, fast-forward 2 years and this is no longer the case. Puyol’s chronic injury problems have coincided with Pique losing form and a Barcelona defensive slump. In 2011-12, Barcelona conceded 29 goals. And despite claiming La Liga last term with a record of 100 points, Barca conceded 40 goals and by the time the Camp Nou outfit were humiliated in the Champions League with a semi-final 7-0 aggregate thrashing at the hands of Bayern Munich, it was simply too little too late.
As Barcelona’s narrow 3-2 victories over Valencia and Sevilla have highlighted this season, the summer’s failure to sign a reinforcement to the back-line has, in Puyol’s absence, left them still looking as vulnerable under Tata Martino.
It has now become apparent that Barcelona can no longer get away with experimenting with a make-shift defence. Although Javier Mascherano has proven useful, with his transition from defensive midfielder to centre-back seemingly successful, the Argentine is still struggling at times and, in Martino’s early work that has the team facing periods of play without the ball, has been shown to lack the same instincts as a natural defender.
All summer long, the Blaugrana were linked with some of the greatest defenders in the game today – Thiago Silva, Mats Hummels, Daniel Agger and Vincent Kompany were all listed as possible targets, but as sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta joked at the market’s close, a fit again Puyol could be the club’s “summer signing.
Whilst not what fans will have wanted to hear, he may have a point. Barcelona’s defensive woes cannot be attributed to a specific lack of talent. In fact, Pique is still highly regarded as one of the best defenders. However, in Puyol’s continued absence through the last season, leadership in defence hasn’t been as apparent.
Yes, the 35-year-old may no longer possess the same speed that made him one of the greatest defenders of in the game for over a decade, but he still retains the same aggressive determination in defence – the willingness to put his body on the line as he leans in for the tackle or dives for a header. Added to that, his work ethic during training still continues to inspire teammates.
“He's someone who, even if you're winning 3–0 and there's a few seconds left in the game will shout at the top of his voice at you if he thinks your concentration is going,” Pique has commented of the captain.
The No 3 also sees value in Puyol’s development at La Masia in comparison to others: “It's hard to find the right profile [of player] because our style of play is unique.”
Technically speaking, Puyol is no new signing, and the club’s failure to acquire an adequate player still leaves Martino with very few options. With Marc Bartra still very young and inexperienced, and Mascherano still not a convincing long-term solution, Puyol’s impending return may signal the changing of fortunes.