Out of Bounds: FC Barcelona off track, future remains bright

With three losses in its last four matches, FC Barcelona has soccer fans the world over asking the same question: What has gotten into the best team on the planet? Barcelona has eight wins, three ties and four losses in 2013, a far cry from its 24-2-2 record during the last half of 2012. While head coach Tito Vilanova’s absence may be affecting the squad’s performance, it has only been in recent losses that serious questions started looming.

The swoon began on Feb. 20, when AC Milan put on a superb showing at home and silenced Barcelona for a 2-0 win. Milan was nearly flawless in its defensive execution and the hosts frustrated Barcelona’s superstars, including Lionel Messi, whose only chances were poorly executed free kicks.

After a 2-1 rebound win over mediocre Sevilla FC on Feb. 23, Barcelona faced off with archrival Real Madrid CF. In the Feb. 26 game, Madrid stepped up while Barcelona seemed to lack the confidence it usually displays. Cristiano Ronaldo scored two goals to put Madrid up early while a Raphaël Varane header in the 68th sealed Barcelona’s fate, with a goal from Jordi Alba coming too late to help.

The rematch on March 2 in Madrid proved that they could win again. This time it was Karim Benzema who opened the scoring. Although Messi finally showed some life, knocking home his record-tying 18th goal in El Clásico matches, Sergio Ramos connected on a corner kick to give Madrid a lead that would persevere until the end.

There are a few factors that have contributed to the losses. One is the absence of Vilanova, who is seen not only as a tactical leader, but also the team’s spiritual leader and guiding light. Playing without a head coach is like driving a car without a steering wheel: movement is possible, but a change of direction is not.

Another reason for Barcelona’s recent slippage is its poor defensive effort. Against Milan, Kevin-Prince Boateng’s goal came after a questionable no-call for a handball. Instead of playing until the whistle, the Barcelona defense protested while Boateng slotted a shot into the net. The goal could have been prevented by constant defensive pressure.

Barcelona’s lack of defense also was on display in the first match against Madrid on Ronaldo’s second goal. A Madrid clearance led to a foot race between Ángel di María and Carles Puyol. After blowing past Puyol, di María fired a shot that was deflected by goalkeeper Victor Valdés to Ronaldo. The rest is history. In the replay, only two Barcelona players rushed back to aid Puyol on defense.

A third struggle is Barcelona’s lack of height. Barcelona has the shortest average height amongst all European clubs with an average of 5 feet 10 inches. This leads to problems, especially when defending set pieces, which have accounted for three of the seven goals scored against Barcelona in losses.

Barcelona’s woes are fixable, however, and its struggles should not cause alarm. Barcelona’s offense does not have any glaring problems, but its attack is often supported by defensive wingbacks, which means that any well-placed clearance will lead to unbalanced situations on the counterattack. Barcelona’s wingbacks, Daniel Alves and Alba, need to stay away from the alluring lights of the opposing goal.

Another solution to Barcelona’s problems is to replace Puyol. It is true that the defender has been a fixture on the team for 14 years. As we’ve seen in his recent performances, however, the 34-year-old cannot keep up with the pace of younger players. Instead of taking him out of the starting lineup, Puyol’s minutes should decrease in order to give a younger player an opportunity. Barcelona’s youth system has future studs Martín Montoya and Marc Bartra, who would be able to keep up as well as adequately challenge opponents on set pieces – especially the 6-foot Bartra.

In all likelihood, the greatest team of this generation is not finished yet. Even Spain’s national team loses to the United States. Barcelona simply needs to take a step back, refocus and tweak its style of play to overcome what has been thrown at it recently. If Barcelona can do that, it has years of success to come.