It was the most unexpected of outcomes. Barcelona had raced into a 2-0 lead within 11 minutes and it looked as if the game would be over as a contest by the interval.
But Real Sociedad hadn't read the script.
The Basque side found themselves on the rack early on as Barca’s midfielders played deft balls over the top of a static local defence, exploiting the home side’s badly-positioned backline at will. And even by half-time, there was little or no indication of what would follow.
Barca looked composed as the second period got underway, but like Real in the opening half, the Catalans were left shell-shocked by two goals in two minutes. And they never recovered.
Feeling the strain | Fontas doesn't look like the answer to Barca's defensive woes
After the game, Barca coach Pep Guardiola claimed his side would learn from the experience. And that’s all very well, especially as both goals could have been avoided, but he may look back at his side’s summer signing policy with a tinge of regret, too.
Barca brought in just two players during pre-season: Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez. Both look like excellent acquisitions. Cesc scored one and set up another as he filled in for Lionel Messi in the ‘false’ nine role, while Alexis was the best player on the park until a poor tackle from Real’s Daniel Estrada left him hamstrung, facing up to two months on the sidelines.
The Catalan club had been lucky in 2010-11 in that they had not suffered any major injuries in midfield or attack. Xavi’s Achilles problem had healed quickly, Andres Iniesta enjoyed an injury-free campaign after missing a large chunk of the previous season, while Messi, Pedro and David Villa were almost ever-present. Had any of those players been out for long periods, the repercussions would surely have been felt.
The arrivals of Cesc and Alexis have ensured such a risk will disappear this season for the Catalan club, but in addressing one problem, Guardiola has ignored another: the defence.
|THE MEN AT THE BACK | Barca's defensive partnerships this season
Captain Carles Puyol was missing for large chunks of last season due to a persistent knee problem, which required an operation in the summer. In his absence, left-back Eric Abidal was asked to fill in in the middle, and he did so superbly until he himself was laid low by a tumour in his liver. With Gabi Milito unreliable, Andreu Fontas untested and the others unavailable, Guardiola was forced to use midfielders Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano at the back.
But perhaps that was the plan all along.
After all, the Barca coach had failed to replace Rafa Marquez or Dmytro Chygrynskiy after the pair left in the summer of 2010, while Milito was allowed to depart for Independiente ahead of the current campaign.
Barca began the season with a Spanish Supercopa success over Real Madrid in two legs, with holding midfielder Javier Mascherano twice filling in at the back and appearing again as the Catalan club claimed the Uefa Super Cup with victory over Porto. Barca then thrashed Villarreal 5-0 at Camp Nou with a three-man defence including only one orthodox defender, Abidal, alongside Busquets and Mascherano.
All looked well.
Sometimes, however, a specialist is required. At Camp Nou, where Barca push high up the pitch and monopolise the possession, pressing their rivals back into deep positions, the Catalans could probably play Messi and Villa at the back and still prevail, but at tough away grounds like Anoeta, where teams will hustle, harry and pile pressure on their back-line by bombarding the area with crosses, the presence of a Puyol-type figure remains fundamental.
“Games like the one last night show how difficult it is to win, especially at a rival ground. We have to correct our errors and turn over a new leaf.”
- Sergio Busquets
On Saturday night, Busquets erred in Real’s first goal as he lost his marker, Imanol Agirretxe, despite a significant height advantage, and was unlucky not to be dismissed for a handball as the Basques levelled the scores.
Busquets is a fantastic footballer, but he isn’t a central defender – and it showed on Saturday. Fontas, meanwhile, had been left out of the game against Villarreal even though no out-and-out central defenders were available. The youngster looks promising, but is relatively unprepared, and needs to be eased into the first team alongside a proper centre-back, an old head like Puyol.
Puyol is finally available again following months of inactivity, while Gerard Pique is also back from a recent injury, but both were left on the bench for the trip to Anoeta, as Guardiola looked ahead to Tuesday night’s Champions League group game at home to AC Milan.
Perhaps that was the right decision, but when one considers the departures of Bojan Krkic, Jeffren Suarez and Oriol Romeu – and the money received for the sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Milan following a year on loan in Serie A – a defender could and should have been brought in as cover.
“It's a good lesson for the future. This is a very tough league and you always have to be at your very best and most alert to win games in the Primera Division.”
- Pep Guardiola
AC Milan’s Thiago Silva was linked, but the Brazilian would have cost in excess of €25 million and his club were not interest in selling, in any case. However, an alternative could have been found, such as former Barca defender Alberto Botia, who is starring at Sporting Gijon, making his first steps in the national side and who was available on a buy-back clause for a cut-price €2m. It would have been money well spent.
Puyol and Pique may yet complete the rest of the season without further injuries, but with Primera Division, Club World Cup, Copa del Rey and Champions League fixtures aplenty to come in the next few months, it’s a risk Guardiola really should not have taken. Because in eight months' time, he won’t want to be seen as the tactical genius who came second.
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