Barcelona extended their advantage at the top of LaLiga to nine points on matchday 24, courtesy of a win via their new favourite scoreline. 1-0 successes and defensive excellence may not have been exactly what Barça fans had in mind when Xavi was appointed in 2021. However for now at least, the majority may be willing to stomach a bit less style as the club legend lays the defensive foundations that look set to deliver a first league title in four years.
Barcelona are not just in pursuit of a potential domestic treble, having already won the Supercopa and taken a big step towards the Copa del Rey Final after winning the 1st Leg of their Semi against Real Madrid, by that now familiar 1-0 scoreline. They are also currently on course to set a new record for the best defensive record in LaLiga history.
That record is jointly held by Atlético Madrid (2015/16) and Deportivo La Coruña (1993/94). Both let in just 18 goals in 38 games (0.47 per game on average), although curiously neither of those sides actually managed to win the title. Barcelona have let in just 8 in 24 games so far this season (0.33 per game) and would set a new record if they concede 9 or fewer goals across their final 14 fixtures.
1-0 to the Barça
For a club defined by their ability to both succeed and entertain, Barcelona’s results across the 2022/23 season make for surprising reading. While there have still been a few higher scoring matches, most have come against more attack-minded sides in Europe with their league outings often seeing Xavi’s side keep things tight defensively whilst eventually wearing opponents down.
It didn’t start off like that. Barcelona won 5 of their opening 6 league games by at least a 3 goal margin as opponents were swept away with Robert Lewandowski enjoying a real purple patch to kick off his career in Catalunya. Things started to change with the trip to Mallorca on matchday 7, the first of ten 1-0 wins for Barcelona in all competitions this season.
Barcelona’s 1-0 wins so far in the 2022/23 season
|October||Celta Vigo (H)||LaLiga|
|January||Atletico Madrid (A)||LaLiga|
|January||Real Sociedad (H)||Copa del Rey|
|March||Real Madrid (A)||Copa del Rey|
After 24 games, exactly a third of Barça’s league games have resulted in them claiming 1-0 wins. 10 of their last 30 matches in all competitions have finished that way. While Xavi will be delighted with his side’s defensive efforts this season, this path to success is not necessarily the one he would have envisaged either and there are clearly frustrations with his team’s inability to make things more comfortable for themselves.
“We suffered too much” he said after the weekend 1-0 triumph against Valencia, sealed only after a nervy final half hour played with 10 men following Ronald Araujo’s dismissal.
“We had many chances to score the second, but it happened to us many times and it’s something we have to correct.”
Defensive Foundations for Today & Tomorrow
There are still question-marks about this Barcelona side, particularly when it comes to the depth of the squad, not to mention the reality that they’ve been knocked out of four European competitions since Xavi took over only 16 months ago.
However the defensive transformation this season has been dramatic when you consider that Barcelona ended the 2021/22 league campaign with 38 goals conceded, only the 6th best record in the Spanish top flight.
Dani Alves, Clement Lenglet, Gerard Pique and Oscar Mingueza were all starters in defence for Barcelona in the final weeks of last season. None of those players are currently part of the first team squad, with Lenglet, currently on loan at Tottenham, the only one Barcelona still own. Meanwhile Eric Garcia, another regular starter in defence last season, has been relegated to more of a fringe role.
Upgrades have been found across the back with Alejandro Balde, Ronald Araujo, Andreas Christensen and Jules Kounde now seemingly Xavi’s established, first choice back four. All are of an age that could see them form a formidable Barcelona defence for many years to come, although Kounde’s preference to play in a central role is something the Barça coach may need to manage. The Frenchman has looked more than competent at right-back, something of a problem position for Barcelona over a number of years, but hasn’t been coy about his preferred position.
The Ter Stegen Factor
There is of course one other factor which goes a long way to explaining why Barcelona are currently on course to break the all-time LaLiga record for fewest goals conceded. Marc-André ter Stegen is enjoying a stunning season in goal and has produced a number of vital saves, taking him to 18 clean sheets, twice as many as any other LaLiga goalkeeper.
According to FBREF, Barcelona have an xGA (Expected Goals Against) tally in LaLiga this season of 19.6. That’s the best in the division but it’s only marginally better than the likes of Real Madrid, Real Sociedad and Athletic Club who are all between 20 and 21 xGA. In other words, despite boasting by far the best defensive record, they are not light years ahead of the rest when it comes to denying opposing teams goalscoring opportunities.
It’s an indicator of just how important Ter Stegen has been and also hints at perhaps a bit of good fortune when it comes to opposing teams missing chances. Barcelona have themselves underperformed their xG though, particularly in recent months, with both factors suggesting their current penchant for a 1-0 win may not necessarily become a long-term trend.