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Thursday, February 2

The Curious Case of Puyol the Right-Back

An awfully-titled look at Carles Puyol's continued deployment at right-back for Barcelona.

Even before the recent run of injuries featuring a hamstring knock for Andrés Iniesta and a training what-have-you for Pedro Rodríguez, Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola had been featuring the versatile Dani Alves as a right-winger.  It's a wise attacking move: Alves has assisted more of Lionel Messi's career goals than any other Barça player, and a more-forward position allows for easier link-up than if he were still at right-back.  Moreover, Alves' superior fitness allows him to still maintain a high defensive work-rate, an important consideration given Barça's new standard of playing only three in defense.  The two-way positive that is his advanced role was best on display against Real Madrid in December, nullifying Madrid's left-back Marcelo so much that his fellow countryman didn't see the pitch in the yet-to-come Copa del Rey Clásicos.

Barça's Winning Shape in the December Clásico

Back before the turn of the new year, Carles Puyol was the right-most of Barça's back-line, not a right-back, an important distinction to make.  In Barça's three-man back-line shapes, very little outside of support play is required of the defenders, a reasonable ask given the combined seven midfielders and forwards ahead of them.  While the outermost defenders are tasked with denying the opposition space on the flanks, they need not worry about supplying Barça's own width down the flanks when in possession.

When Barça plays a four-man back-line, however, much more is asked of its outermost defenders, defenders who certainly are full-backs:

RED: Defenders | BLUE: Midfielders | MINT: "Forwards"

In Barça's 2-1 defeat of Madrid in the away leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final meeting, José Mourinho's Madrid obsessed over disconcerting Barça in the centre.  At the half, Guardiola switched Barça's shape to something resembling a 4-2-4, recognizing the opportunity full-backs would have to exploit the space Madrid was affording down the flanks.  The tactical shift moved Alves back into defense to play opposite left-back Eric Abidal, whose winning goal was a direct result of Barça carving Madrid through the real estate left untended.

For Alves, it was the same role he had played the overwhelming majority of his time under Guardiola: marauding runs forward, tirelessly following play up and down the touch-line, contributing equally in all phases of the game.

Barça's First XI and Preferred 4-3-3 from the Last Campaign 

And, ever since the eighty-minute mark against Madrid in the home leg of their Copa clash, it's been Puyol's, with the centre-back-by-trade playing there over the weekend against Villarreal as well as against Valencia in Wednesday's Copa del Rey semi-final against Valencia.

 Valencia - Barça: The Starting XIs

And, in those last 190 minutes with Puyol at right-back, Barça haven't scored a goal in open play.

In physics, five-sigma is the level of certainty sought for and demanded before declaring a new discovery just so.  Each "sigma" is one standard deviation away from the mean, with a higher sigma meaning a higher probability that an experiment's result isn't just statistical noise.  An event with a three-sigma certainty has roughly a 1-in-300 chance of being noise rather than significance, where the desired five-sigma threshold has for it a 1-in-1.7 million chance.

Puyol's deployment to right-back being the cause of Barça's goalless run in open play isn't five-sigma certain.  Nor is it four or three-sigma certain.  It's not even a two-sigma certainty: after all, Alexis Sánchez had a de-facto penalty saved by Valencia keeper Diego Alves, and Barça's own Alves beat Valencia's in the second half only for his strike to come back off the wordwork.  It can even be argued Barça's execution over their last two games has been more of a hindrance to their goal-scoring ways than Guardiola's playing of Puyol at right-back.

But what can be said, and can be said almost certainly, is this: Puyol at right-back, in a 4-3-3, makes things more difficult than they have to be.  Puyol is a lot of things, and a lot of good things: a superior marker, an instinctually-gifted defender, a stop-trouble-before-it-begins defuser, to say nothing of his leadership ability or his having not lost a game in his last fifty-some-odd starts for Barça.  He is as much of a rock in defense at centre-back as there is playing in today's game.

Puyol is a lot of really good elite things, but an attacking right-back is not one of them, and relying upon him to play any sort of meaningful attacking role in open play is a nonstarter.  Yes, he did back-to-back spin moves.  No, he can't consistently flash such skill, which is what made his double pelopina so awe-inspiring, laughter-inducing and jaw-dropping: how in the world did Carles Fucking Puyol do that?  There aren't many opportunities in sport to see an event with a 1-in-1.7 probability of happening, but Puyol provided just such a wonderful outlier.

The reintroduction of the 4-3-3 into Barça's world would be peculiar enough on its own given the success of their 3-4-3-ish shapes, but Puyol as the apparent right-back of choice for Guardiola is just an otherworldly sort of odd.  If the issue for Guardiola is finding more playing time for Javier Mascherano, why not keep the three-man defense with Puyol, Abidal and Gerard Piqué and move Mascherano to his natural holding role, with Busquets more advanced in midfield, an evolution for Busquets which Guardiola believes he can achieve?  Or, when in possession, instead of having Busquets drop back to form a back-three with the centre-backs, why not have Abidal continue surging forward to leave the remaining defense free to shift left?  Or, with Puyol's injury concerns being as they are, why not give him a breather during a rough run of games, allowing Adriano more time or Martín Montoya the opportunity to cameo?

Perhaps the answer to Guardiola's reasoning lies at the origin of Puyol's move to right-back: balancing the fear of being overrun at the back with still wanting to play attractive football.   At that eighty-minute mark in the second leg of the Copa semi-final against Madrid, with Madrid already having pulled two goals back in the tie, Guardiola opted not to play five in defense against Madrid's four forwards but to play his best four defenders against Madrid's four forwards in an attempt to survive Madrid's first true moments of inspired, positive play against them in this season's main campaigns.  This solution meant that Puyol went to right-back to accommodate Mascherano as a centre-back.

With Valencia playing a 4-5-1/4-2-3-1-ish system and with both the talented Pablo Piatti and Jonas in the line behind the still-in-form Roberto Soldado, all while having the very viable dual-threat down their left flank in Jordi Alba and Jeremy Mathieu, it stands to reason Guardiola may have had a fear that Valencia employing a hypermodern approach would pay off the same for their attack as Madrid's did for theirs.  If true, this is an indication Guardiola believes that approach to be one not just able to be pulled off with players of Madrid's caliber but one which exposes a severe structural weakness in the foundation of Barça's various formations, as Guardiola also played the same way against Villarreal.

The last half hour of the second leg of the Copa del Rey quarter-final against Real Madrid featured the most difficult stretch of play of late for Barcelona, potentially even the most difficult stretch for Barça under Pep Guardiola.  It's not in Guardiola's nature to be reactive, and the team is growing shorter by the day of first-team players, but the employing of Carles Puyol as a right-back is shrinking Barça's margin of error.  And, now down seven points in La Liga, that margin is already but a sliver.

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