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The Under-Appreciated Defensive Brilliance of Barcelona

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For a team that has accomplished so much over the past three seasons, you'd think more people would be lauding the efforts of Pep Guardiola loud and clear for all the world to hear. Instead you get a great deal of comments that try to claim that the talent Guardiola has at his disposal makes his job easy or simple. Just put out 11 players, sit back and watch the show.

Lost in all the possession, passing and goals is a deceptively brilliant defensive performance this season that helped Barcelona not only survive, but excel, during a season that was littered with numerous obstacles that threatened to derail the campaign before it really ever got started.

It's the little things that have made the 2010/11 edition of FC Barcelona even more impressive than the flashy highlight reel moments. It's the oft-criticized defense that's actually much better than you might expect and the quiet, unassuming manager who kept the whole thing together.

What Guardiola has accomplished with a talented, but surprisingly thin, roster that entered the season with many tired players fresh off the World Cup in South Africa is stunning. No matter how good the likes of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta - just to name three - are, we've seen plenty of star filled rosters fail to live up to the expectations placed upon them. Basically, there were plenty of reason why Barcelona should have fallen short this season, instead they've gone right about their business and captured a third straight La Liga title and made the Champions League final.

Despite having to play midfielders in central defense, having their influential captain Carles Puyol out for an extended stretch of the season, losing Eric Abidal for nearly two months to a tumor on his liver, having a player the calibre of David Villa struggle to adapt and effect games like he's show in the past he is capable of...need I continue?

Yet for many, it's still not good enough which is stupidly perplexing. Critics would rather harp on the team's less than attractive tactics at times in Europe or call their possession based system boring. While I'm personally no fan of the diving, it is what it is and Barca are hardly the only team guilty of the transgressions. While I can certainly agree that unsporting behavior could unravel my thesis, the borderline insane backlash sent towards Barca, especially after the Champions League semifinal first leg, was quite frankly hypocritical in the sense that plenty of those fans and journalist have glossed over similar behavior for clubs they support or report on. It certainly doesn't absolve the players of blame for choosing to go down that path, but it also doesn't diminish the overall product.

Consider this. How many soccer teams do you know that don't change their tactical style for anyone? Every team wants to exert their style on a match, but plenty adjust either to a more attacking or defensive style to fit a situation. Barcelona plays one style of game, at home or away, against all comers, a simple style that defends through possession and relies on the skill of their attacking players to slice through the often ridiculously defensive alignments opponents throw out against them. It's not always beautiful, but it's incredibly effective. It also leads to moments when some might question why Barca were only able to generate one goal against a team the average observer believes they should decimate.

No matter how talented the roster, breaking down a team intent on doing nothing but preventing you from having space in the final third is difficult. The fact that Barcelona still find a way through the clogged maze of humanity and get their goals makes it all the more amazing and illicit spectacular reactions because it's often just that, spectacular. Watching Messi make 40-yard runs as he cuts around defenders like he's being controlled by a caffeine buzzed kid playing Pac-Man never gets old and it never fails to remind me that a big part of the reason I watch soccer is to be amazed.

My amazement isn't isolated to the offensive exploits. Another unique aspect of Barcelona's style is the way they use possession to defend. Instead of winning the ball, hoofing it down field and absorbing the opponents attack - wash hands and repeat - Barca's proactive approach simply says, "we're not going to let you have the ball". Don't let your eyes convince your brain that what might look boring on the surface isn't a display of tactical brilliance that no other team on the planet can even begin to replicate.

I think people tend to overlook the fact that Barcelona, with only two matches left, have only allowed 20 goals this season in La Liga. For some perspective here are some goals allowed total from other top clubs in Europe: Manchester United (34), Internazionale (40), Chelsea (30). Only AC Milan (23) and Borussia Dortmund (21) are close. The difference, is that Barcelona are looked at as an attacking side with exploitable defensive flaws. Yet only once in league play this season has a team scored more than one goal against Barcelona in a single match (Hércules - 9/11/10). Just once.

For those reasons and many others, what Barcelona have accomplished this season is truly remarkable. Sure you can pick apart some details and there are certainly some moments deserving of criticism, but from a big picture perspective, it's one of the great seasons in football history...and they still have a chance to add a European Cup.