Today Barcelona have confirmed the 15 million pound purchase of Arsenal midfielder Alex Song, and while it proves that Tito is heading in the right direction in regards of how to improve the Barca team, it was a misguided purchase. Over the years of Guardiola’s highly successful reign, the one issue that has been painstakingly clear is the lack of depth on the Barcelona team, especially in the defensive end. Both Champion’s League finals featured a Barca defense that used defensive midfielders as unorthodox centerbacks; in 2009 it was Yaya Toure in central defense and in 2011 it was Mascherano. Although later Mascherano would prove to be a more than capable centerback, at the time his best position was as a defensive midfielder and playing at the back was somewhat new to him.
Guardiola’s critics will contend that he has failed spectacularly in the transfer signings, with many of them going to waste. This can be evidenced with the 15 million euro signing of Alexander Hleb, the 16.5 million euro signing of martin Caceres, 8 million euros for Henrique, the absurd buy of Dmytro Chygrynskiy for 25 million euros and of course the 69 million euros paid for Inter Milan star Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Guardiola’s only success and major spending came in the offensive side of the ball as he was able to purchase Cesc Fabregas, David Villa, and Alexis Sanchez and all to devastating effect. But other than the successful purchases of Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano; Pep has neglected the defensive side of the Barcelona team which has always come to haunt them down as the season progresses despite their success.
Tito Vilanova has wasted no time in remedying the issues left by his predeccessor as his first two purchases as head coach of Barcelona were defensive players; Jordi Alba and Alex Song, from Valencia and Arsenal respectively. While the Alba purchase may prove to be the signing of the year in La Liga, the same cannot be said for Alex Song. The truth is that Song is not an excellent anchorman by any means, and while he has provided cover in defense for Arsenal in the past, he has not been the best solution in the back. In truth, this year was his first year playing well for Arsenal and this was mostly exemplified by his assist tally of 14. But make no mistake, he is a defensive midfielder first and it is here that he has often flattered to deceive.
One only needs to look at the numbers in order to see how weak Arsenal has been on the defensive side of the ball. Since Gilberto Silva left Arsenal has allowed more than 170 goals in the league, and while the Arsenal defense was not the greatest, blame has to be laid at Alex Song for not protecting them as well as he should. He is more eager to help on offense, and has even had issues in the past regarding laziness and a perceived lack of motivation at times. This simply will not do at Barcelona as one of the main aspects of their gameplan is an unrelenting pressing of the opposing team in order to get the ball back into their possession.
If this is so, was Song the right purchase for Barcelona? He certainly was a cheaper option than the other one that was mooted; Atheltic Bilbao’s Javi Martinez. Martinez’s buyout clause is valued at about 40 million euros and Atheltic’s board has been adamant that he will not be sold for less than that amount. Bayern Munich, after initially claiming they would not ‘pay over odds’ for the player, gave in and has had their offer accepted as they try to finalize the deal in the coming days. Barcelona’s financial woes are well known, but the positives that came with Javi Martinez are sure to justify the heft price tag, even if it meant dipping into next year’s transfer funds.
Javi Martinez is equally adept at playing both centerback and as a defensive midfielder. He is an excellent ball winner and recycles possession well while also tirelessly pressuring the opposing players into losing possession. If that does not highlight his worth, the fact that he was on the winning World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 squads means that he has spent time playing and practicing with the Barcelona players themselves and in their system as well. His meager amount of playing time should be serve as a testament to the depth of quality of the Spanish squad rather than his personal abilities. In fact, Fabregas was hardly able to get into the first-team until Vicente Del Bosque started utilizing the ‘false-nine’ system in Euro 2012. The fact that Del Bosque has still seen fit to keep calling up Martinez shows that he has belief that he will eventually fill in a role in the future with the squad. Martinez has also spent time in the league as well, and knows the opponents and teams very well.
Tito’s inheritance of Guardiola’s squad has come with incredible pressure to match the immense achievements of his predecessor, who won 14 out of a possible 19 titles. Already we can see that Vilanova has earmarked where he can improve the squad in order to cope with the heavy burden on his shoulders and while investing in defense was the right direction to go, Song has all the signs of a player who may not have the major impact that many people believe.
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Written by Mahmoud Ghellai