By bringing in the high profile signings of Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suarez and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Barcelona looked to be once again papering over the cracks and ignoring what is arguably their biggest weakness: their defence.
One transfer which has slipped under the radar a little and probably has a few Barca fans scratching their heads is the £15.8m capture of Valencia centre back Jeremy Mathieu. At 30 the Frenchman isn’t getting any younger, he is relatively unproven in the Champions League and doesn’t seem to fit into the Barca style.
Last season Mathieu featured 32 times for Valencia in La Liga, playing predominantly at centre back but with the ability to also play on the left of the defence. If his signing is to add depth to a thinly stocked back line you have to think the price is too high. The transfer fee alone suggests he is to play as a regular in the first team, presumably as the replacement to Carlos Puyol, with Mascherano perhaps moving into his more natural midfield role.
His passing accuracy is one thing that immediately stands out, at just 83% in last year’s La Liga, considerably lower than any of the other defenders in the Barcelona squad. In a Barcelona side with more of the ball and playing more shorter passes, I think it’s reasonable that his pass accuracy can increase, perhaps not to the 90.2% level of Gerrard Pique, but to a become more in line with his teammates.
If that’s not the case and he ends up panicking on the ball you could see oppositions beginning to target him and trying to force mistakes. A lack of pace could be another weakness that teams look to expose, especially if teams employ quick counter attacks .
That said, Mathieu has a lot of experience, especially in La Liga, and that is something which Barca may have lacked at times since injuries began to plague Puyol’s career. Mathieu made 2.5 interceptions per game last season (more than Pique (2.0)), suggesting good positional awareness. For me, this is an advantage he holds over Mascherano, who is naturally a midfielder.
He is strong, both physically and in the air, winning 1.9 aerial duels per game, these are certainly characteristics that will stand him in good stead, especially considering how teams often opt for a more direct approach against Barca. Mathieu is also strong at attacking set pieces, scoring 3 goals last season.
It’ll be interesting to see how Mathieu adapts to life at Barcelona, given the price they paid for him his performances are likely to come under a lot of scrutiny, he’ll be hoping he can prove the doubters wrong.
Statistics courtesy of whoscored.com