Last May, when Luis Enrique was appointed manager of Barcelona, the 44-year-old inherited a group of players that hadn’t lived up to the lofty expectations of previous Barcelona sides. Former coach “Tata” Martino played a role in the Catalan club’s domestic and European decline last season. The Argentinian’s tactics and man-management upset the core of the squad, as Barcelona saw their Champions League and La Liga campaigns ended by league rivals, Atletico Madrid.
This season, Barcelona hit the ground running under the leadership of Luis Enrique. The club has returned to the attractive and effective football which supporters have been accustomed to seeing over the years. The dominant possession and attacking play has been on display during the early part of the season, and Barcelona have gone undefeated through their first six La Liga matches.
The surprise statistic during Barcelona’s early season had been that the club had not allowed a goal through seven matches in all competitions (eighteen goals scored – zero conceded). But that streak of clean sheets was ended on Tuesday night as Barcelona fell to the defending Ligue Un champions Paris Saint-Germain, 3-2, in their Champions League Group F encounter. Defense has been a concern for Barcelona, and in Europe, that is a liability that will be exposed by the top clubs.
Just two seasons ago, Bayern Munich steamrolled Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals by an aggregate score of 7-0. Although the Bundesliga side would go on to claim “The Treble”, winning the Bundesliga, Champions League and the DFB-Pokal in 2012-13; the writing was on the wall for Barcelona. The Spanish club needed to improve defensively if it were to keep competing for trophies in the European competition.
This summer – following the retirement of Carles Puyol and departure of Victor Valdes – Barcelona set out to find a replacement for their stalwart central defender and perhaps the best goalkeeper in the Catalan club’s history. Barcelona were able to sign centre-backs Jeremy Mathieu from Valencia and Thomas Vermaelen via Arsenal, and goalkeepers Claudio Bravo from Real Sociedad and Marc Andre ter Stegen from Borussia Monchengladbach. While those signings should provide enough defensive coverage to help Barcelona fight for the La Liga title this season, they won’t be the defensive presence needed for the club to make a serious run in the Champions League. Questions were being asked of Barcelona’s defense and goalkeeping in the opening weeks of their domestic campaign, despite the fact that Enrique’s side has not allowed a goal in the league. It can be argued that the club benefited from a comfortable fixture list at the start of the 2013-14 La Liga season, and that could be a valid point. But the truth is the players Luis Enrique has acquired will be enough to keep the club above water against the majority of Spanish clubs – but it is in Europe where Barcelona will be exposed.