Neymar might sign, but didn’t, but still might…Antoine Griezmann did sign…so did Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic…but Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez didn’t leave…while Ansu Fati has broken through from nowhere…but Ousmane Dembele is injured again…so is Lionel Messi…and Luis Suarez may or may not be over the hill.
On the evidence of the vast majority of media stories and public chatter about Barcelona and Real Madrid over the last few weeks, you might think that only forwards exist in football. Or, at least, that only forwards matter.
Goalscoring is, of course, the fun and sexy part of the game. When we are young, we want to shoot and score. And if we can’t do that, we want to be the guy who allows someone else to score, creating moments of defence-destroying magic with a devastating dribble, pass or cross.
Perhaps, though, we should all learn to pay a bit more attention to the other aspect of the game: defending. Because whether we like it or not, what happens when you don’t have the ball is just as important to winning a game than whatever magic you might be capable of creating in possession.
That lesson was evident from Spain’s big two this weekend. Firstly, on Saturday afternoon, Barcelona finally gained their first away win of the season by overcoming Getafe 2-0.
Did they do it with a glorious exhibition of incisive and creative attacking play? Well, no. In truth, they created very few clear chances and the two goals they did score were decidedly pedestrian: a long ball over the top from the goalkeeper converted by the onrushing centre forward, followed by a half-saved shot bundled home from close range.
There was nothing special about the goals scored by Luis Suarez and Junior Firpo at Getafe (although Suarez’s deft lob did show excellent technique), but they did the job. They got the goals they needed, and then…then Barca defended.
They defended in numbers, getting ten men behind the ball whenever Getafe gained possession; they defended with discipline, keeping their collective shape and denying the opposition space on the ball; they defended with focus, avoiding sloppy errors around their penalty area which could have given the home team a route back into the game.
The outcome: a 2-0 win, job done, points in the bag, thanks to a first clean sheet of the season.
Later in the evening, Real Madrid followed a similar template to claim a worthy point at local rivals Atletico with an equally solid and organised performance.
For the third successive game, in fact, Los Blancos were so good defensively they did not allow their goalkeeper to make a single save – the most decisive action taken by Thibaut Courtois came in the first half, when he dived to parry a dangerous cross from Kieran Trippier and prevented it from reaching Diego Costa in the middle.
3 - Real Madrid have kept three consecutive clean sheets in LaLiga for the first time under Zinédine Zidane. Calmness. pic.twitter.com/NOMZd3iudy— OptaJose (@OptaJose) September 28, 2019
It’s quite sobering to think that Real’s success in the last week, which has seen them claim seven points from three games against Sevilla, Osasuna and Atletico, has been rooted in defensive excellence.
Sure, there were nice goals from exciting young wingers Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo Goes in the win over Osasuna, but the most important statistic for Zinedine Zidane’s men has been this one: goals conceded, zero.
The same applies to Barca. Getting their first road victory over the season did not require a touch of magic from Messi after all – it simply required a strong defensive performance, borne of a determined collective effort and good organisation.
And that’s the way it has to be. “Collective effort” and “good organisation” might not be the most exciting phrases in football, but they are – always have been and always will be – the basis of a successful team. Without those qualities, you are ripe for picking by any top-class side, as Real discovered ten days ago at Paris Saint-Germain and Barca famously found out at Anfield.
So don’t entirely forget about Messi, Benzema, Suarez and Hazard. Of course they have a big role to play. But defending matters a lot, too – and perhaps it matters even more.
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