It highlights the state of the current transfer market that Barcelona were willing to shell out £15.8 million to Valencia for Jérémy Mathieu, a thirty-year old converted centre-back, who has only managed to amass two caps for France.
Barcelona have handed Mathieu a four-year deal, with the option of a fifth year, taking the experienced defender to the age of thirty-five. So the big question is, can Mathieu replace Carles Puyol, and become the long-awaited partner to Gerard Piqué, or is he just a quick fill, blocking the route to the first-team of academy graduate Marc Bartra?
Mathieu's ability to play at both left-back and centre-back is a major asset for Barça. Earlier in his career Mathieu was considered to be an out-and-out left-back, however in recent seasons he moved inside to centre-back, appearing forty-one times in the middle compared to once out wide last season, with encouraging results. At 6ft 2in he is a physical presence at the back, so Barça will no longer be as susceptible to aerial bombardment as they were when Javier Mascherano filled in at centre-back.
The Argentine played the most games in in defence for Barça last season, appearing twenty-seven times in La Liga, with Piqué one behind on twenty-six. Fellow centre-back Bartra was called upon seventeen times by Tata Martino, whilst injury meant Jordi Alba's season was curtailed, playing only fourteen times. Therefore, it is obvious that Barcelona urgently needed a centre-halve, with the added bonus of Mathieu's ability at left-back meaning he can cover for Alba in times of need. Mathieu's signing could raise questions about Adriano's future at Barcelona, although the versatile Brazilian's ability to play multiple positions effectively will endear him to Luís Enrique.
Ability on the ball
In order to play the Barça way, all defenders need to be comfortable in possession. Mathieu's time playing at left-back means he is genuinely efficient on the ball, whilst the left-foot/right-foot partnership with Piqué will give the Blaugrana's defence a balanced feel. At 83%, Mathieu's pass completion rate is lower than Mascherano's (89%), Piqué's (90%) and Bartra's (83%), but in fairness Los Ches played a completely different style of football than Barça last season.
Barcelona's midfield contains the likes of Sergio Busquets and Xavi, who drop deep and collect the ball from the defenders, so Mathieu won't be required to attempt as many long passes. Mathieu attempted 245 long passes last season, compared to Piqué's total of 197, so this is the main area where the disparity between pass completion can be attributed. The Frenchman will have to get used to being on the ball more often in the heart of defence, with Pique (61), Mascherano (54) and Bartra (51) all attempting more passes per game than Mathieu (46).
Better than Bartra?
For many Barcelonistas, the decision to sign Mathieu, rather than a younger, highly-rated centre-back is disappointing, given he is blocking academy graduate Marc Bartra's path to the first-team. The 23-year-old Spaniard is reaching a pivotal period in his career, and Mathieu's arrival may be the final move that leads him to exit the Camp Nou. Bartra impressed in Barça's run in last season, especially in the Copa Del Rey final, although Real Madrid supporters took delight in Gareth Bale searing past him for the winning goal.
When you compare Mathieu and Bartra, the first obvious difference is their physique. Mathieu is a burly 6ft 2in, whilst Bartra is around 5ft 10in. Despite this, Bartra boasted a higher amount of aerial duels won per game (2.2), than Mathieu (1.9). Bartra was also the more active defender of the two, with 2.8 tackles per game, and 2.9 interceptions compared to Mathieu's figures of 1.9 and 2.5. It is hard to find major areas of Mathieu's game where he is superior than Bartra, minus the obvious one, experience.
I would love to be proved wrong, but this deal has the feeling of a stop-gap replacement, until a defender in the ilk of Mats Hummels becomes available. There is still time in the transfer window for a deal to take place, so Mathieu could find his role in the squad diminished before the season even starts.
Nonetheless, it would be naive to write Mathieu off before he has had the chance to shine in a Barça shirt, and having worked hard at his game to earn moves from Sochaux to Toulouse, then to Valencia and finally to Barça, he has earned his shot at the big time.
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