One noticeable difference between the previous seasons and the current isn’t only about the entire team defending as a unit with compact two banks of four. The revelation center-back pairing of Gerard Pique & Samuel Umtiti need to be given utmost credit before anyone for having marshalled things perfectly at the heart of our defense. There have been different ways in which teams have lined-up their defensive unit especially with the back-three becoming more and more common these days. Let’s take a look at some of the frequently used defensive set-ups:
A back-three in which the central defender is a ball-playing center-back and he is allowed to charge forward/ initiate attacks with the other two center-backs on the sides covering him.
A deep defensive line of four in which the center-backs are conservative and just deal with keeping the ball away from danger. They try to absorb the pressure and keep the ball as farther away from their goal as possible. They generally are risk-averse and both center-backs are no non-sense defenders.
A ball-playing center-back paired up with a traditional old-school center-back with the former being in charge of initiating attacks, build-up play and keeping the ball moving. While the latter being in charge of the dirty work like sweeping lose balls, making tactical fouls, containing counter-attacks and being the guard to ensure the gate remains closed for the opposition.
Since the Guardiola Era, we have resorted to the ball-playing center-back pairing up with a dirty-worker. The most famous center-back pairings in the last decade we have had are Pique-Puyol and Pique-Mascherano. In both the cases, Pique was the ball-playing center-back with Puyol & Mascherano being the ones throwing in the tackles, trying to win the ball higher up the pitch and breaking up the play.
How apt was Mascherano?
One major problem that we had with the pairing of Pique-Mascherano was that Mascherano being the dirty-worker didn’t have the physique to challenge opponents in duels. Especially in situations when the opponent goal-keeper kicks it long to a tall, strong striker then Pique himself had to come high up the field to win the air balls. Even otherwise, Mascherano could be outmuscled had it been a striker who could hold the ball up and have Mascherano to his back. So there was a lack of clarity in terms of who would be going higher up the pitch and who would be of cover as at times, Pique had to be the stopper for the sake of posing a bigger challenge to the attacker in terms of physique.
Given that there are 2 center-backs, there needs to be a clear assignment of duties as to who would be going higher up the pitch to stop attacks then and there and who would stay back to provide cover to the gap created as a result of one center-back charging forward. Over the years, this always seemed to be a challenge also because of the fact that we were largely a possession-based team with the focus of the center-backs mainly on build-up play, initiating effective attacking play and as far as defensive diligence was concerned, the major focus was only on stopping counter-attacks.
Pique-Umtiti: A perfect stopper-cover duo
What has happened under Valverde is the creation of a proper, solid relationship between the center-backs Pique & Umtiti. This is what many call a stopper-cover center-back pairing as one person is clearly assigned to charge forward to stop attacks, intercept, challenge aerial duels or 50-50 balls while the other stays back and takes care of covering up the vacated space.
Lets deep dive into this and look at if its fair to make that statement:
Pique & Umtiti together have featured in 23 games so far this season considering La liga & UEFA Champions League (not taking into account Copa del Rey):
As you can see from the numbers above, when the two have played together, Umtiti is way ahead of Pique in terms of number of tackles & interceptions per game. This is simply because Umtiti is the one charging forward to follow attackers who drop deep in different situations where they can receive the ball, control it and turn (especially from goal-kicks). This is the role of the stopper that we were talking about earlier, the objective is to stop attacks right before the attacking team enter Barca’s half. It could either be by winning the ball back, winning the aerial duel to head it clear or even a tactical foul to allow the Barca players more time to organize themselves. There is more scope for Umtiti to tackle, intercept, make tactical fouls and recover the ball than Pique simply because he is the stopper. Just as the numbers suggest, the Frenchman is clearly good at what he does and this is exactly what we had been in need of for many years.
While on the other hand, Pique when paired up with Umtiti, has 0.9 tackles and 0.9 interceptions per game. Again, don’t be misguided by these numbers into thinking that Pique’s defensive contribution is any less. These numbers are merely as a result of the role played by Pique while playing next to Umtiti as he tries to provide cover and stay back as part of the defensive line. This provides balance to the back four because while Umtiti charges forward to win back possession, Pique stays back as cover in case Umtiti doesn’t win the duel higher up the pitch and needs to track back. This is also the reason why Pique’s clearances are higher in number than Umtiti as Pique is usually the one staying further behind playing the role of a no non-sense defender. Thus naturally there is more scope for Pique to be more of a sweeper than to win back possession like Umtiti.
If you have a center-back pairing where both defenders are charging forward to tackle, then they might be caught really high up the pitch and leave space behind. While on the other hand, if you have a center-back pairing where both defenders want to sit back and allow oppositions to attack, then there might be enough space for the opponent attackers to drop deep into midfield (in front of the defense), receive the ball and initiate attacks. This is why it is of utmost importance to the center-backs to strike a balance between the two approaches- stopping and covering.
As far as this balance is concerned, there is no doubt that Pique-Umtiti have struck the sweet-spot and the two have hardly put a foot wrong in any of the games in which they featured together. To further reiterate the change in the role played by Pique, let’s take a look at his numbers from previous seasons:
The table shows Pique’s statistics over the years from La Liga & UEFA Champions League games alone. The interesting fact that we can notice from the table is that it is a rarity that Pique tackles or intercepts less than twice a game. Both tackles and interceptions per game have almost always been close to 2 while he is currently at 0.9 tackles and interceptions per game.
It is generally a perception that when a defender tackles less then he isn’t doing his job well enough. In reality, as far as the defender is able to execute his designated duties and keep the team away from trouble, then it doesn’t matter how much he tackles or intercepts per game. The same is the case with Pique as he is playing the role of covering the stopper center-back Umtiti, who is in charge of trying to stop attacks and winning back possession.
Here is a video of Umtiti’s performance against Sevilla and you would clearly understand how the two function together. (Try to watch what happens at 0:04, 0:50, 1:24, 2:39, 3:26, 4:28).
Brings out the best of the two:
This move has especially worked out for Barcelona owing to one vital reason, the stopper-cover relationship is able to utilise both the center-backs strengths to the fullest. If you take the case of Umtiti, he is strong, pacey, a threat in the air and goes into tackles with vigour. This is exactly what you’d want from a stopper as these abilities are a pre-requisite to win the ball back effectively. Even if he loses a 50-50 challenge, then he has the pace and acceleration to track-back quickly into position.
If you look at Pique, he isn’t the quickest of the defenders to be able to come back if caught high up the field nor is he the rough tackler who would put in 200% into the tackles in order to outmuscle the opponent. The Catalan is a lot classier than the average center-back as his forte is more to do with anticipation, timing, offside traps and reading the game. This is what makes it completely apt for him to be the cover for an animal-like defender alongside him.
Performance in bigger stages:
What is noteworthy about the two is how they have managed an excellent defensive record against some of the top teams in Europe:
Another highlight is that the two have never conceded more than 1 goal in a single game when they paired up together. Celta de Vigo are the only team to score 2 against Barcelona when the two started together but even then the 2nd goal by Celta was scored when Umtiti pulled his hamstring and stepped out of the pitch. Of course there needs to be due credit given to Valverde’s system on the whole but it wouldn’t have been possible to grind out such a defensive record but for the center-back duo’s performances.
As it stands, Barcelona are the team that have conceded the least amount of goals among Europe’s major leagues with merely 13 in the league and 2 in the UEFA Champions League. We are also on our way to achieve the record for most number of clean-sheets ever in a single season and it is fair to say that our defensive performances suggest that it only looks likelier that we would get there soon.
Let’s salute our defence!
With names like Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta, Ousmane Dembele or Philippe Coutinho in the same team, it is almost impossible to grab the headlines or get due credit for players in the defensive half. However, it is high time we realize that we are no more a one-man team and understand the worth of the unsung heroes like Pique and Umtiti. We can keep adding more and more quality up front but if our defense isn’t going to show up when it matters, all the attacking firepower is going to be in vain. So let’s take a minute and salute the two for the run of extremely impressive performances so far this season and hope for much more in the months ahead.