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Watch The Throne: Barça’s New Guardi-an

May 3, 2012 1 comment

Disclaimer: I really don’t know what will happen next season. Tito Vilanova’s reign at Barcelona might end in utter disaster after a 5-0 defeat to Real Madrid in the first Clasico of the season and Sandro Rosell’s supposed dream might come true and “Big Phil” Scolari will take over on an interim basis until Muricy Ramalho becomes Barça coach in 2013, bringing in Neymar and Paulo Ganso as key signings, as Big Phil moves upstairs as Sporting Director. It might also end at the other end of the spectrum and Tito may become even more successful than Pep Guardiola ever was, if “bettering” his era is even remotely possible. This article is not a prophecy or prediction, but will try to objectively analyze why Tito Vilanova was appointed over candidates such as Ernesto Valverde or André Villas-Boas in a decision that no one, other than Pep, Andoni Zubizaretta and Rosell, knew about. 

FC Barcelona took an extraordinary decision this week to replace their most successful coach in history with Tito Vilanova, someone who hasn’t coached a top division club anywhere ever. The decision is further surprising because it was stated, in the Spanish press, that one of the reasons pushing Guardiola to resign at the end of the season was Vilanova’s health. Tito had a tumor removed from his mouth and therefore his health was always a lingering issue over the season. As an example, he couldn’t join the team on their trip to Japan for the Club World Cup. However, looking towards the challenges ahead, which Barcelona face in replacing Pep Guardiola whilst maintaining their winning and convincing* form of the previous years, this decision makes more sense.

There are 3 pillars to Barcelona’s success over the short and long term future:

1) Make sure Lionel Messi stays happy

After the Champions League Final in 2011, Guardiola was asked about how Barcelona can continue their success and maintain Messi’s excellence. His answer was short and precise, “make sure he is happy”. Messi might be a genius, arguably the best player over the past 20 years, one of the all time greats and deserving of all the plaudits you read every week. However, Messi is also a “difficult” character. The difficulty comes from him being a very introverted person, who does not speak too much and his silence, not from his motivation for football or anything specific in particular. If Messi doesn’t feel well mentally, or he is not happy, or is frustrated as evident once in a while on the pitch, he won’t perform. There have been actions taken by the club in order to make Messi happy. Signing Javier Mascherano and the contract extension given to Gaby Milito are two clear examples, but the signings of his old friends Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas might have also been motivated by keeping Messi happy. Whoever was going to replace Guardiola would have needed to understand Messi and make sure he can get the maximum out of him. There might just be no one better to do this than the guy who knows him longest, the guy who coached him(as well as Cesc and Pique) when he was 14 years old and the person who was first to know about Messi’s goalscoring abilities. Maybe both Valverde and Villas-Boas would have been able to get along with Messi as well, but there’s almost a guarantee that Messi won’t have problems with Tito Vilanova.

Messi, Cesc and Pique, during their time under Tito Vilanova, as youngsters

2) Make sure success-ion and the La Masia philosophy continues

A lot of key players at Barça are coming into the twilight of their career, notably Puyol and Xavi. A couple of players are entering the best years of their career, Fabregas and Pique being the examples. There’s also a great generation of Masia “products” coming through the ranks or already there, notably Thiago Alcantara, Marc Muniesa, Marc Bartra and Sergi Roberto. The idea of succession, bringing up players through the ranks, as well as the idea that the current playing philosophy the team upholds continue are key to the future success of the brand/sect/club called FC Barcelona. It’s arguable whether this is good or bad. Some might have the idea that football needs new influences and not altering your formula and relying too much on similar players is a mistake. However, this would ignore the fact that all of the players coming through from La Masia are different in one way or another. Sergi Roberto, for instance, is not the next Xavi or Fabregas, as he plays much more direct, is more a threat from the second line and prefers to move with the ball at his feet more than in any other way. If we take the recent examples of wingers coming through the ranks, Tello is not Cuenca and neither of them is Pedro, but they are all different players with different characteristics. The key to a successful La Masia policy is to know the players coming through, their characteristics as well as the needs of the first team squad in terms of which type of player should be integrated in order to add something new and different.

The La Masia policy wouldn’t work and make sense if Barcelona would allow players without the necessary quality to play just because they are from the youth ranks. It would put the whole policy in jeopardy. Instead, the key is to know which players have the necessary quality and which positions need to be filled from outside. That will only work with a coach who works for the long-term even, over the short-term period (as all coaching periods are these days), and who knows the youth teams well. While AVB seemed to know the Barcelona youth teams too, as his signing of Oriol Romeu suggests, he might have given up long-term interest over the short-term future of the club and went for the easy way, especially given the fact that he was burned once by following the alternative during his experience at Chelsea.

Young Tito and Young Pep in their early La Masia days

Finally, in Cesc and Pique, there are two players who are the natural successors of Puyol and Xavi both on and off the pitch, despite having different characteristics, again both on and off the field. With Cesc and Pique, the key will be to involve them more in the squad and simply load more responsibility onto them. Pique might be seen as some kind of rich celebrity party boy, but his passion for the club, his position as a team leader and his competitiveness are also beyond any doubt. Again, maybe the best idea would be to make sure the guy who knows La Masia and La Masia graduates best do the job.

3) Keep Guardiola at the club

How do you keep Pep at the club without him actually being at the club? You could replace him with his footballing twin brother. Guardiola and Vilanova share the same footballing ideas and philosophy, with the main difference being Vilanova seems more calm and relaxed. Guardiola is the Barcelona player who has been sent off more than any other other but not because of tackles but rather largely for arguing with referees and getting sent off for dissent. Vilanova, as his interviews, behavior and body language suggest, is much calmer than Pep, except maybe when he faces Jose Mourinho’s finger. This might have been a problem if Barcelona players needed motivation or a strong hand to accept the leadership of the coach, but remember that they have already been convinced and converted to the “Barcelona belief” by Pep. Tito doesn’t need to do anything in that respect, but what he needs to do is to guide the ship and keep the footballing ideas of Pep alive. In theory, he should have very little of the usual problems assistant managers have when they need to replace the first team coach with regards to respect and authority. So again, Vilanova, more than anyone else, makes sense in terms of an appointment. Furthermore, since he appears to be a much more calm and collected person, maybe that’s exactly the Guardiola version the team now needs. Maybe the players would do well with a manager who keeps the tactical and ideological approach but is a bit less tense, which Guardiola was, especially over the 2011/12 season.

Tito and Pep preside over their success in their treble-winning season (Picture by Miguel Ruiz for FCB)

With all that said, success for Vilanova is far from guaranteed, failure might lead to an implosion and Barcelona returning to their turn of the century self or even worse, to the eighties era. One should be aware that Barça is a snakes-pit with lots of vested interests by different groups and while battling a Madrid empire with all their media power is already difficult and tiresome, Barcelona has its fair share of internal strife and enemies through different political groups, such as Group Godo, a powerful media group in Catalonia, who have their own interests to follow and want their share of the power. Guardiola not only had to fight Madrid and the Madrid press, who he called “Central Lechera”, but he also had enough internal enemies in Catalonia, people who, during his time as a player, came up with rumors about his sexuality and ran stories about him being HIV positive. Tito Vilanova has a huge task coming up and it’s far from easy. However, he can be sure of the support of his Sporting Director and the whole squad. He is assured the moral support of Pep and he knows himself that he doesn’t have to change too much from the current squad and that no one expects radical changes as a tool to cement his own legacy, something Villas-Boas tried to do and failed at. After all, Tito is Pep’s twin brother and no one expects him to be anyone else.

*As they say in Spain, it’s not only about winning(vencer) but convincing(convencer) people of your superiority and style. For Barcelona, the second has always been as important as the first, as there is no winning without convincing. This might also have been the explanation as to why the Madrid press and Real Madrid are particularly hostile over recent years towards Barcelona and run ridiculous amounts of conspiracy theories.

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Further reading:

In general, Marti Perarnau is not only one of the best Spanish journalists, but also the best source anywhere with regards to information about Barcelona. His article on Cesc and why his signing was done can be found here(although only in Spanish). It’s highly recommended to visit his blog, also only in Spanish.

A good article by Simon Kuper on some tactical aspects of Barcelona

An old article by Pep Guardiola in El Pais from 2007 that was only about a cup game in a lousy season but that explains the importance of “feeling” and knowing the history and what to play for

Jonathan Wilson on why great teams come to an end for the Guardian

La Liga: What’s Changed in the Title Race this Season?

March 19, 2012 31 comments

As we draw towards the tail end of the Spanish Primera División, Real Madrid continue to set the pace with what could be a record-breaking season. Leading their bitter rivals, Barcelona, by 8 points, they are on course to win their first title since 2007/8, and go on to record the most points ever made in a single La Liga season, as well as most away wins and overall goals. Looking at those stats, it is all the most impressive considering that Jose Mourinho’s Los Merengues are trailblazing at a time when experts are debating whether the current Barcelona side, under Pep Guardiola, is worthy of being considered the greatest club side ever on the back of their recent achievements.

If anyone claims to have the definitive answer as to why Barcelona trail Real Madrid by such a significant gap, they’re lying. With the smallest of margins deciding who wins what, it would be useful to look at a number of the “small marginal changes” that have occurred this season, in order to draw certain factual conclusions, without leaving room to speculation.

Possession and Tiki-Taka

That’s the name of the game for Barcelona. Its been a cornerstone of their success under Guardiola. They averaged just over 72% of the ball last season, but are currently averaging “only” 70% this time around. Yes, you read that right, only 70%! Whilst it may not seem like much, at the summit of the game the difference between great and perfect is slim, especially if it’s a backwards step. They’re currently averaging 68% possession away from home, which is 3.5% less than last season. In terms of pass success ratio, they’ve slightly dropped off to 89% from an incredible 90% success ratio.

Real Madrid, on the other hand, have increased their possession of the ball by 5% to 61%. Their pass accuracy has also increased to 85% from 83%. Whilst Barcelona’s slight drop-off may not seem significant, as they are having a “relatively” successful season in the league by most standards other than their own, in a league where “draws are the new defeats” the margins are tight. Real Madrid’s improvement is a sure sign towards becoming more dominant and ruthless.

Score Goals When They Matter

Last season, La Liga ended with Real Madrid losing the race by 4 points. They scored more goals than Barcelona to no avail. They even drew one less match than Barcelona had. However, the key statistic that cost Mourinho’s side was their failure to score goals in key moments. Simply put, Real Madrid failed to score in 6 out of their 38 matches. They drew 3 of those games and lost the other 3. In the tightest of leagues, the slightest margin counts big and despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s record-breaking 40 goals as well as the side scoring an amazing 102 goals, it proved costly. Barcelona only failed to score twice.

This season has seen Real Madrid become more ruthless in front of goal. After 26 rounds of games, they have only failed to score twice. In theory, they may fail to score in a number of games till the end of the season and that could very well cost them a title. Barcelona have failed to score in 3 matches, effectively 1 more time in 11 less matches. So it may not be as much about Barcelona’s failings as much as it is about Real Madrid rectifying one of their few “failings”.

A Game of Two Halves, or at least the Second Half

Barcelona are notoriously strong starters to matches. Turn on the TV 15 minutes late and its likely you have missed a goal or two. Last season, they were 8-0 (goals scored-goals conceded) during the first 15 minutes of matches, and they are just as dominant again this season with a 14-4 record in the early stages of games. In fact, Barcelona usually have matches sewn up by the end of the first half. They had a 42-8 record last season. This season, they have an identical first half record even though there are still 11 matches to go. That’s quite significantly different to Real Madrid who have been poor starters to matches, especially this season. They have an 8-6 record in the opening 15 minutes of games, even though, strikingly, they get stronger as the half goes on. Away from home, they’ve only conceded two goals in the first half of games all season long.

It’s in the second half of games where Barcelona have found trouble and Real Madrid have found extra gears. Barcelona have a relatively poor first 15 minutes of the second half with a 12-5 record, already conceding more goals during that period compared to the whole of last season. However, it’s the final 15 minutes of the game, away from home, when Barcelona are at their most vulnerable. They have an 11-8 record during that period. It may still be a “winning” record, but as stated numerous times before, in a league of fine margins the smallest elements can sway a title race. Last season, for instance, the champions had a 21-5 record away from home during the last 15 minutes. Real Madrid, on the other hand, perform even better in second halves of games. They have scored an amazing 53 goals in the second half, conceding only 13. Last season, they “only” scored 56 goals, whilst conceding 26. Even more impressive is the way Mourinho’s side close out matches. They have a 17-3 record in the last 15 minutes of matches, as opposed to the 21-9 accumulated through the whole of the previous campaign. Conceding so late against Malaga at home cost Real Madrid 2 valuable points, and the side will rue giving away a free-kick in a dangerous position in stoppage time.

Much credit must go to the mental strength that Mourinho has instilled into his players to keep on pushing until the final whistle. The levels of concentration they’ve kept has minimized individual errors late in games too. The hunger is also there to want more goals even when the game is won, a criticism which is sometimes, possibly unjustly, aimed at Barcelona.

Resilience

Speaking about mental strength and concentration, Mourinho has instilled a “never say die” attitude in his players giving them the belief that they can come back from any deficit. Guardiola’s side have been relatively lax at times this season. They have twice lost half-time leads to end up drawing. Real Madrid almost always win when leading at half time, with Malaga being the only side in 2 years to avoid defeat at full time, after trailing at half time. Going back to last season, Barcelona, drew once and lost once after leading at half time, winning the other 21 occasions. Real Madrid, once again in resilience in the image of their manager, converted all 21 half-time leads to victories.

Mourinho has instilled a never-say-die attitude in his players

Even more surprisingly is how a team reacts to going a goal down. In Barcelona’s case, not too well. They have only won twice after conceding the first goal, drawing two and losing a further two. Real Madrid, on the other hand, lost only once after conceding the first goal as they recovered to win 7 times. They have also won by a one-goal margin on 6 occasions this season. Winning by one-goal is their most common type of victory. This is not say that they Real Madrid do not go on to romp opponents too. They have won by a margin of 3 goals or more in 13 matches, virtually half of their current La Liga games.

The Players

Every Barcelona and Real Madrid comparison has a Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo comparison at some point. Its pointless. There is nothing to add to what has already been said. Both players post incredible numbers and performances match after match. When everything is so tight between the two clubs, it may come down to one or two other players standing out more or less than they have before. But when we’re talking about almost 30 international players, consistency is usually a key constant. But not always.

Last season, Karim Benzema was on the verge of being let go of. He was even compared to a cat by his manager. Mourinho said he was overweight. He said he didn’t work hard enough. Nevertheless, he did end up scoring 15 goals, but at a key point of the season, Mourinho preferred to not play with Benzema even in an injury crisis. Gonzalo Higuain had an injury hit season too. It was largely hit and miss, but he ended up scoring 10 league goals. Between them, they started 36 matches in La Liga, and scored “only” 25 goals. Its a goal scoring record good enough at almost every club but not at Real Madrid and not when the margins are so close.

This season, Benzema, having shed a few pounds, and Higuain have had a healthy competition. What is more striking is that Mourinho has gotten both of them motivated and willing to rotate, largely irrespective of performance, as they’ve both been in fine form. They have started 29 league games between each other and have scored more than a goal a game, with a total of 31, a record, had it been owned by only one of them, on par with Messrs Messi and Ronaldo. Whenever one has tailed off the other has been ready to come on and make an impact.

Why have one when you can have both? Benzema and Higuain key actors in Real Madrid's improvement this season

Similarly, Angel Di Maria, has had an excellent season, even though he has virtually missed half of it. Despite starting only 12 matches, he’s already matched his goal/assist record from last year. He’d scored 5 and laid off another 13 before his injury, compared to 6 goals and 11 assists in 29 starts last year. Once again, Mourinho has managed to get an extra something from a player who had been criticized for his diving, play-acting and inability to perform consistently. His injury has meant that Kaka has gotten an unexpected opportunity and even though he isn’t the same player he was at his peak, he’s looked very useful for Real Madrid. In fact, Mourinho has said he’s never seen Kaka work harder for any team. He’s pitched in with 5 goals and 6 assists in only 14 starts this season.

On the other side of the spectrum, Barcelona have suffered with numerous injuries this season. Long-term victims include David Villa, Ibrahim Afellay and now, most worryingly, Eric Abidal requires a liver transplant. Carles Puyol has not been fully fit either and that has pressured Guardiola into selectively picking him for games, a fact which has not helped the captain gain consistency or hit top form. Alexis Sanchez, one of the club’s big summer signings, has only started 13 times, pitching in with 8 goals and 3 assists. Had he been fit throughout the season, he would’ve made Villa’s injury feel less influential. Going back to Puyol’s injury problems, even though they are nothing new, the main difference compared to last season was that Gerard Pique had been largely playing at the top of his game.

Guardiola has faced an injury crisis this season

This season, though, Pique, has found himself at the center of huge criticism, due to his dip in form. A pre-season which was hampered by injury as well as questions about his concentration on the pitch have meant that Pique, more than anyone, has missed Puyol. Pique has started only 13 times this season (29 starts last season), less than half of all of Barcelona’s matches. Most of the time he has been out injured but on a few occasions, mostly recently, he has been kept out of the side, even when Puyol has not been available. His tackle, interception and clearance figures have all dropped compared to last season by 0.3, 0.7 and 1.2 per game respectively to stand at 1.4, 1.2 and 2.4 per game (WhoScored). Most strikingly he has made 24 less passes per game this season than last. Guardiola has been lucky to have Javier Mascherano step into central defence and perform so admirably. On performance, Mascherano is, arguably, in the La Liga Team of the Season. His figures, in contrast to Piques, stand at a 3.7 tackles (a league high for center backs), 3.7 interceptions and 2.2 clearances per game. Nevertheless, “losing” both Pique and Puyol this season has hurt Barcelona, and they have conceded more goals as a result. A further dip in form for Pedro has only been compensated by recent emergences of Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello, both ahead of schedule, as well as the goals which Cesc Fabregas has been scoring.

All in all, while Real Madrid have had players like Kaka and Callejon ready to step in for the likes of Di Maria without hampering the team’s performance, Barcelona have not been lucky through a series of injuries, as well as, what must be said, an over-rotation of some players by Guardiola for the first time. Burn-out after playing over 60 matches for 3 consecutive seasons may have finally caught up with them.

Concluding Remarks

It is difficult to pin-point exactly what has been the catalyst for the relative shift in the fortunes of both clubs domestically and one must be wary when drawing conclusions. Despite the so-called “crisis” for Guardiola’s side, they convincingly beat Real Madrid in La Liga, after going behind with an early goal, picked up the Supercopa de España over Real Madrid in August 2011, won the European Supercup, the World Club Cup and knocked Mourinho’s side out of the Copa del Rey, with what included another away win in Madrid. Whilst Real Madrid have looked “better” against Barcelona this season than previously, the end result has largely been the same. Other than a nervous final 15 minutes at Camp Nou in the return leg of the Copa del Rey, where Real Madrid looked the more likelier side to net a winner, Barcelona have enjoyed another season with the upper hand in head-to-head meetings. Nevertheless, the capital club have been the more consistent side in the league due to some of the reasons highlighted above.

We’ve looked at what has changed more than why it’s changed because that would require deeper analysis over a longer period of time, possibly in the post-Mourinho and post-Guardiola periods. Nevertheless, two of the key themes of this article have been words like “relative” and “margin”. In what is an historic period for La Liga, the smallest of margins can be the difference between success and failure as Real Madrid found out last season, whilst Barcelona are finding out, to their dismay, now.

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