Luis Suarez adds bite but Barca hopes hinge on defence
Barcelona: Barcelona have added Luis Suarez to their star-studded forward line but it could be their defensive reinforcements that make the difference as they look to win back the La Liga title.
The club’s first trophyless season in six years has sparked an overhaul with new coach Luis Enrique bringing in fresh faces for many positions ahead of the La Liga campaign that kicks off on Saturday.
All eyes will be on Suarez, signed from Liverpool for a fee reported to be 81 million euros ($107.90 million), when he finally makes his competitive bow for Barca at the end of October, after he was handed a four-month ban for biting at the World Cup.
The prospect of him lining up with Neymar and Lionel Messi in attack is mouthwatering, yet the club`s title hopes are likely to depend on them shoring up a rearguard that looked vulnerable at key times last season.
The backline has been neglected in recent years with close-season recruits Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen the first centre backs to be signed since Dmytro Chygrynskiy in 2009.
The club had previously attempted to paper over the cracks by converting midfielders into centre backs, with the idea being that they would be comfortable in possession and bring the ball out of defence.
The combative Argentine Javier Mascherano has done relatively well in this role, despite his lack of height, but Sergio Busquets and Alex Song have also been tried out in the position with little success.
Barca have now added strength and depth to their defence but there are still question marks over the signings of Mathieu and Vermaelen ahead of the Catalans` curtain-raiser against Elche on Sunday.
The club paid 20 million euros ($26.64 million) for the 30-year old Mathieu while Vermaelen arrives at the Nou Camp with a poor injury record, having fallen down the pecking order at former club Arsenal.
Goalkeepers Claudio Bravo and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, signed to replace Victor Valdes, would appear to be sound investments.
Barca struggled to adapt last season to the new tactical ideas introduced by coach Gerardo Martino, who resigned after one campaign in charge.
They have gone back to basics with Luis Enrique whose teams play the club’s typical short passing football.
"We will play the attacking style that has caught the imagination of millions of people around the world but we also need to defend,” Luis Enrique told a news conference in Barcelona.
“We have an incredibly talented squad. My work and that of my staff is to find a system that fits. We will look at all possibilities and consider the qualities of the players.
“Basically, the three forwards will play centrally but at times they will vary this and a lot will depend on the approach of the opponent. We will do different things.
“The team is prepared physically but as regards the football I would have liked two months more as we have a new coach, seven or eight new signings and youth players coming in.”
Luis Enrique coached the Barca B (youth) team for three seasons until 2011 and is keen to give the young players a chance.
Eighteen-year-old forward Munir El Haddadi has shone during pre-season and is pushing for a chance in attack.
"It will depend on his performances if he is in the first team. I think he has done well and it is clear he has a lot of quality," said Luis Enrique.
"It is the same with the other youth players. I am always saying it is great to have young players like we have that have plenty of drive and ambition."