Marlon Santos: A Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s Young Defender

La Liga

For most of the footballing world, or those who don’t follow Barcelona B’s team, reading Marlon Santos’s name in a Barcelona starting lineup next to Samuel Umtiti might have seemed like an error. In fact, BeIn Sport didn’t even have a picture for Marlon.

So who exactly is Marlon? The young 21-year-old centre back is currently on loan at Barcelona from Fluminese. He enjoyed most of this season as a started in Gerard Lopez’s Barcelona B side. The team from ‘La Masia’ finished in first place in ‘Segunda B’, or Spain’s third division equivalent. Marlon has learned an immense amount about positional play since arriving last summer, and all of his attributes have improved since then.

He made his debut for the senior team back in November, when Barcelona defeated Celtic in the Champions League group stage by a score of 0-2. Although Barca fans got a glimpse of the Brazilian’s attributes, 18 minutes at Celtic Park were not enough to form proper conclusions about the young defender.

He had to wait until the last stage of the season to enjoy some first team minutes again, and he did as a starter in their two last matches in the league. Due to many reasons, Pique being in the hospital for a minor infection, and Mascherano and Mathieu’s poor form, Marlon Santos was given the opportunity to play from the starting whistle next to his idols.

In both games, Marlon impressed ‘cule’ supporters for his ability to pass the ball, his defensive talent, his athletic physical attributes, and his incredible positional awareness.

So is Marlon Santos ‘Barcelona worthy’, or is he just some other young player who will have little impact on the team? Recent performances show that Marlon can be a valuable rotation asset for the new manager. He can perform the functions required for a Barcelona CB, and can serve as a very interesting back up to their starting defenders.

Barcelona use their centre-backs for many reasons beyond the naked eye. These must know not only how to defend, but to have midfielder-like passing skills. They are often joint most for passes in Barca’s games. The reason for this is because FCB’s possession game greatly involves their centre-backs, a job that Gerard Pique performs to perfection. Marlon’s defensive and passing skills make him a solid backup option for the Catalan defender.

Defensive Skills

Marlon possesses great physical attributes that are really beneficial in the quick modern game, especially in Barcelona’s case. They defend very far from their goal, and the teams current CB’s (aside from Umtiti), lack pace and anticipation. Marlon’s athleticism allows him to combine power and pace into his defending abilities, while also possessing great spatial awareness for a defender, an element that is key for CB’s in Spain.

Here is a video showing the young Brazilian’s defensive talent:

 

In the first clip, Marlon uses his body to protect the ball, then lays off to Ivan Rakitic for him to restart the team’s possession. The second clip shows Marlon using his strength to bully the opposition off the ball, resulting in a counter attack for FCB. The last clip is just a glimpse of Marlon’s ability to accelerate, catch up to his defender, and tackle at such a high speed.

Marlon’s pace and good positional play allow him to pressure aggressively at the opposition, an action that Pique and Mathieu are not the best at. Mascherano’s ability to pressure forward is questionable since his age doesn’t allow him to be as quick as he used to be. The young Brazilian was successful at doing this most of the times he attempted to, however, he was caught off guard against Las Palmas for doing so. Here is an example of his anticipated pressure, resulting in both good and bad outcomes:

 

In the first clip, Marlon recognizes a pass between the lines from Las Palmas defenders to their midfield, so he quickly reacts to put pressure on the ball, resulting in a loss of possession by Las Palmas. He then starts running back to provide a passing option for Ter Stegen, an opportunity the Brazilian never fails to give. In the second clip, Marlon decided to pressure the forward close to him, locating himself high up the pitch compared to his normal positioning. He was easily beaten, and Ter Stegen was left one-on-one against an attacker. This was the only time in the two games played that Marlon’s anticipated pressure was ineffective.

Marlon is also very good at reading crosses. He always knows where to position himself to intercept potential crosses, or to clear dangerous ones. Here are a few examples of this positive feature Marlon has shown:

 

An area that Marlon could improve on is his heading abilities. Although he is very good at positioning himself to clear crosses, he sometimes failed to win aerial duels versus physical rivals. This aspect is the only visible weakness that Marlon has when defending, however at just 21, and just 2 complete games for the team at the first level, he has a lot of time to improve, and a lot of potential under his belt.

Passing Ability

Marlon possesses a quality that is absolutely necessary to triumph in Barcelona: he can pass the ball. And he can pass the ball pretty well. In fact, he was the player with the most passes in both games he played with the first team. Here are his two passing maps for his games against Las Palmas and Eibar:


His passing accuracy was a total of 96%, and with a total of 178 passes in 2 games, he is quite able to pass as much as Barcelona’s CB’s are required to do so.

Barcelona benefit greatly from his passing in many ways. He is a very good passer, and is not afraid to pass the ball in his initial third under pressure. Here is a video of Marlon’s ability to pass in his field, close to the GK, without feeling any pressure:

 

In the first clip, he creates numerous triangles with Sergi Roberto, Ter Stegen, and Busquets, to keep possession under pressure. They then play out of the back with no problem. The second clip shows how patient Barcelona are when playing in their initial third. Their diamond formed by Ter Stegen, Marlon, Umtiti, and Busquets allows Barcelona to knock the ball around until they can advance up the field. In all of these plays, Marlon is pressured, and does not panic to keep passing the ball to his stellar performances.

A video that sums up Marlon pretty well is this one:

As he wins a ball with strength against Sergi Enrich, a very strong and physical forward, he is then faced with the decision to either clear the ball, or play the German GK. Most centre-backs would clear the ball, Marlon played his keeper instead.

Another trait that Marlon possesses that Pique does as well, is the ability to help his team maintain possession, by forming triangles with the midfield whenever the team cannot progress.

In the first clip Messi recognizes that he cannot advance, so the team decides to play back to their CB’s. As soon as that happens, all 3 midfielder’s join to triangulate the ball with Marlon. This causes the opposition to chase the ball, dragging bodies out of position. At first its Iniesta with Busquets, then Andres steps out for the Croatian Ivan Rakitic to participate in the fun. The second clip illustrates Marlon receiving the ball after Iniesta played him back, and the same is done with the midfielders. Rakitic and Busquets recognize the opportunity to form triangles, so they quickly create numerical advantage. The last clip shows more of the same, after Neymar plays back to the CB’s because he could not progress.

Marlon’s passing ability makes him a very useful resource for Barca both in defense and in possession play. He has proven to pass the ball under pressure, play the ball out of the back, find his teammates between the lines, and is a good player to rely on to maintain possession, which Barcelona love to do.

Attacks Started

Barcelona greatly benefit from Marlon in many ways, one of them being the amount of attacks he started during his two games. These attacks were started for a variety of reasons, and they all ended in clear-cut chances. Here is a video of Marlon participating in the beginning of the team’s attacks:

In the first clip, he starts Barcelona’s counter attack by playing out of the back. The FCB players then do the rest, eventually leading to a beautiful goal. The second clip illustrates Marlon’s ability to play long balls out of the back, as he does so to Jordi Alba, who then finds Luis Suarez. The third clip shows Marlon finding Messi, who is situated two lines of pressure away, who then combines with Neymar to score the opener. The last clip shows the young CB starting a counter attack after intercepting a pass. Quietly but effectively, he managed to participate in 3 goals in the 2 games he played in La Liga.

Situation

Marlon’s situation is yet to be officially decided. News reports from Sport and Mundo Deportivo, Catalan newspapers, say Marlon is likely to be bought from Fluminese. The question remains if he will be part of the B team, go out loaned, or contribute to the first team. Real Betis, who are likely to appoint ex-Las Palmas philosophical manager Quique Setien, have asked for a possible loan deal for the 2017/2018 season. On the other hand, Barcelona have been proven to choose some terrible destinations for their loanees, as shown when they loaned Munir (Valencia), Samper (Granada), and Halilovic (Hamburg-UDLP).

So should Marlon stay at Barcelona’s A team next season? Yes, Barcelona should take Real Madrid’s squad depth as an example. Marlon seems like a cheap and reliable option for the team to keep, and he would learn a lot training next to the best. His fate, however, will be decided by Barcelona’s future coach, who is likely to be Ernesto Valverde.

Conclusion

So after analyzing the way Marlon performed for their first team, and watching many of Barca B’s games this season, I believe he should stay at the club next season, and add to the first team’s qualities. He can add pace, strength, smart defending, and great passing abilities, which is everything Barcelona need at the moment. The new manager should give the young Brazilian a vote of confidence, and slowly involve him into first team action.