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The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: Season Preview 2013/14

August 16, 2013 1 comment

Higuain

As another pre-season draws to a close, Europe’s major leagues are on the brink of relaunching again. France and Germany have kicked off already. England, Italy and Spain will do so shortly. The summer saw inflated transfer-fees and arguably as little value for money in the transfer market as one can remember. A number of major players changed leagues too. Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, and Gonzalo Higuain led the La Liga exodus. The Spanish league was arguably the biggest loser when it came to talent. It also lost Jose Mourinho and Marcelo Pellegrini to the Premier League. The Premier League saw an influx of talent from all over Europe. They included some of the above names as well as Fernandinho, Bony, Guy Medel, and Andre Schurrle. Looking at Europe’s top leagues, what can one expect from the season ahead?

Premier League

Arsene Wenger ponders what has gone wrong at Arsenal this summer

Arsene Wenger ponders what has gone wrong at Arsenal this summer

Summary

The Premier League is the big winner of the summer transfer window on many levels. Its gained a couple of household names in the managerial merry-go-around. Its also seen an influx of talent from abroad. The biggest loss will be that of Sir Alex Ferguson. However, Manchester United’s loss could be the Premier League’s gain (in a competition way). Its thrown the title race wide open. The margins between the top sides are as close as ever. Three sides go into the season with little between them (Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United). Tottenham will have title aspirations if they keep hold of Gareth Bale. Arsenal, well the less said about their summer activity the better. Its hard to see how they can strengthen the side now although buying Julio Cesar would be a start even with his high wages. Arsenal has missed out on many players that would have improved their side. The list is endless and could include Medel who joined Cardiff City recently. This illustrates that Arsene Wenger has not only lost players to rivals but to sides that are below Arsenal in the reputation table. Liverpool will be aiming to break into the top four and keeping Luis Suarez away from Arsenal makes sense on many levels as that would be the side they would be challenging for that spot.

Champion – Chelsea
Rest of Top 4 – Manchester City, Manchester United, Spurs
Bottom 3 – Stoke, Hull, Crystal Palace
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Swansea to finish in top 6 / Southampton to finish in top 8
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Bony

La Liga

La Liga has witnessed a summer exodus and no club has been hit more than Sevilla

La Liga has witnessed a summer exodus and no club has been hit more than Sevilla

Summary

If one had to sum up what has gone on in Spain this summer, then it would be simple. The top 2 arguably got stronger whilst the rest of the pack fell further away. Valencia, Real Sociedad, Malaga, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid each lost some of their best players and in some cases more than one. Did they replace them adequately? Not likely. What this means is that you can expect Barcelona and Real Madrid to be approximately 30 points away from the rest of the pack but it also means that one should keep an eye on the battle for the rest of the Champions League and Europa League spots. The summer’s biggest saga involves Barcelona’s pursuit of a center back. As the transfer window draws to a close it remains to be seen who they draft into the squad in a position that has hampered them over the past 2 seasons.

Champion – Real Madrid
Rest of the Top 4 – Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Athletic
Bottom 3 – Elche, Almeria, Valladolid
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Sevilla in bottom 6
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Morata

Bundesliga

Jurgen Klopp & Dortmund look ready to get back the title they lost to Bayern last season

Jurgen Klopp & Dortmund look ready to get back the title they lost to Bayern last season

Summary

The biggest action was off-the-field this summer in Germany. Bayern Munich replaced treble-winning manager Jupp Heynckes with former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola. When it was announced some critics argued that the Spaniard took the easy way out by choosing a side that’s already on top, making it “easier” to add trophies to his already impressive haul. However, as the season started, signs suggested that it would not be as clear sailing as they had thought. Firstly, Guardiola has tried to stamp his authority on the team’s tactics as one would have expected. He has experimented with Lahm in midfield and going with a 4-1-4-1 which has seen Muller play as the main striker more than Croat Mandzukic. At the same time some question marks have been raised about his preference of Thiago in the hole which means that main-stay Schweinsteiger may not be an automatic choice. Whilst its still early days, there are sure to be some fireworks around the side that worked hard to lose the label of FC Hollywood in recent years. Meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp has arguably strengthened his side far more than one could have imagined. Having lost Mario Gotze, Dortmund fought tooth and nail to resist the sale of Pole Lewandowski, instead choosing to lose him on a free transfer next summer. They brought in Sokratis to add cover in defence with Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang in the more advanced roles. The latter scored a hat-trick on his debut and adds immense pace to the Dortmund attack. Mkhitaryan is not only a goal threat but is considered one of Europe’s most exciting up and coming players.

Champion – Dortmund
Rest of the Top 4 – Bayern Munich, Schalke, Leverkusen
Bottom 3 – Braunschweig, Augsburg, Frankfurt
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Hamburg to break into top 6 finally
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Max Kruse & Son

Serie A

Summary

Juventus finally brought in the striker they had been aiming for the past couple of seasons. In fact, they purchased two this summer. Fernando Llorente and Carlos Teves. On paper they have all the credentials to form a lethal partnership but the team has not gelled as quickly as one would have expected in pre-season. Question marks already hang over Llorente’s long-term future at the club. As a new season begins, a lot of pundits are tying Juve’s chances with Andrea Pirlo’s form and ability at the winter stage of his career. That is also what Milan fans are being driven by. They expect Pirlo to wane sooner rather than later and allow their side to close the gap. The most interesting project seems to be the one at Napoli. Rafa Benitez has a winning track record however tactically it will be a lot of work to get things smoothed out quickly as Napoli aim to successfully convert a back 3 to a back 4. Question marks exist over Maggio and Zuniga’s ability to slot into full back positions. However, the most exciting signing of the summer is at the other end for Napoli. Gonzalo Higuain is Europe’s most lethal finisher and he will help the Naples faithful forget the name of Edinson Cavani sooner rather than later. If Benitez is successful expect Napoli to push Juventus as close as they have been pushed in recent years. Inter Milan continue their rebuilding phase under Walter Mazzarri. It remains to be seen whether they can get back into the Champions League positions this summer, as the top 3 are likely to remain the same top 3 of the past season.

Champion – Milan
Rest of the Top 3 – Juventus, Napoli
Bottom 3 – Sassuolo, Verona, Chievo
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Fiorentina
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Martens

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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

Don’t Write Off Captain Caveman

December 11, 2011 1 comment

As the dust settles on the first league Clasico of the season, one would urge caution before suggesting that Barcelona had dealt a knockout blow to Real Madrid’s title challenge. Nevertheless, Pep Guardiola tactically out-maneuvered the grim-faced Jose Mourinho, who lamented the lack of luck at key points of the match-up last night. Yes, at 1-0, Cristiano Ronaldo had time & space to slot home a shot, when he instead miscued a shot well wide & over the bar. Early in the second half, Ronaldo headed wide from a poor Barcelona attempt at an off-side trap off a cross. We’ve seen Ronaldo finish those opportunities with eyes closed, when the opposition isnt Barcelona. But it would be a dis-service to the Liga champions to suggest that Real Madrid’s misses handed Barcelona the victory.

Whilst Mourinho was brave to select Ozil to play in the 4-2-3-1 that he set up (when Karanka had suggested that RM would definitely play with a 4-3-3), the selection backfired. Ozil was rarely in the game, and could not get the better of Busquets who played an integral role both as a forward-moving center back, having started off in his usual anchor role. Even when Busquets dropped into CB, Ozil failed to take advantage. How much of a difference would Khedira have made from the start? That leads us to the second factor that helped Barcelona and that was the movement of Lionel Messi. He was not picked up by Real Madrid players & had no man-marker. When Barcelona were still finding their feet in the first half, Messi dropped deeper & deeper began to carry the ball forward & that helped his side settle. One of those mazy runs saw him slip through Alexis Sanchez who scored with what was a much more difficult finish than you would think.

Another interesting decision was the selection of Coentrao at right back. The idea was a left-sided player going up against a Barcelona attacker turning in-field. Initially it looked to be paying off, but Coentrao’s lack of familiarity with the role may have meant he played Alexis Sanchez onside for Barcelona’s first goal. Even though he had the better of Iniesta in the first half that was a crucial mistake. As the game wore on, Iniesta took on & beat Coentrao at will & was arguably Barcelona’s most impressive offensive player.

Real Madrid had set up to play a high intensity pressing game & that was evident from the first minute. Despite being a factor in their first goal, Barcelona remained patient at the back & continued to play what looked like risky passes to mere human viewers. They stuck to their philosophy when our inner voice was shouting out “hoof it, hoof it”. Victor Valdes got a lot of praise from Guardiola for showing “balls” & continuing to play short passes even after his mistakes in the first half. Despite giving up possession a few times due to the pressure, the Barcelona defence settled just as Real Madrid conceded the first goal, which came right at the time when Barcelona was turning the tide. Real Madrid began to reduce the intensity of their pressing, seemingly as part of their tactical plan for the match. Who could keep that pace up for 90 minutes without tiring? But one tactical reshuffle aided in getting Barcelona’s foot back into the game & alleviating a little bit of pressure on the Catalan side’s defence. Guardiola switched what looked like a back-4 to a back-3 plus Busquets who would drop into the center back role, pushing Pique to the right-sided center back, & returning captain Puyol to right back. This meant Dani Alves moved ahead into a right-wing position. The consequences of this were multi-fold.

Close but not Close Enough

Firstly, Puyol would face Ronaldo in one-on-one positions and he would get the better of him on every single occassion, stifling Ronaldo & frustrating him into a disillusioned figure. With Dani Alves moving forward, it forced the Real Madrid “attack” to think more about defending & dropping a little back. It was largely in the second half that the value of this tactical change provided an offensive result & that was when spaces opened up & Alves began sending delicious crosses towards the far post, one of which resulted in a Barcelona goal. Secondly, Busquets would drop into the center back role & have more time/space to spray the ball around. Initially, the move had defensive fruits as he was more disciplined & restricted in his movement but as Barcelona got their equalizer, Busquets began to position himself a little higher too. In the second half, he was virtually back to his original position as Barcelona almost exclusively looked like they had been playing with a back-3. Finally, the move allowed Fabregas to actually get into the game by dropping in as more of an orthodox central midfielder next to Xavi. Consequently, Xavi found himself moving forward, providing more of the forward runs which we are more accustomed to from Iniesta.

So what have we learnt from El Clasico?

  1. Mourinho probably second-guessed himself once again & this was evident in the tactics he set up
  2. Real Madrid cannot integrate the high-intensity pressing game for as long as they need to
  3. One step ahead, two steps back…Did Real Madrid look “closer” to Barcelona during the early season Super Cup? It’s quite likely that they looked more dangerous & could have easily won that title, but then again that was a Barcelona team that was physically about 2 weeks behind the RM preparations
  4. Pep Guardiola loves to change things on the go. The amount of times Barcelona’s movement & shaped changed during the game, whilst RM remained rigid & disciplined defines both the respective coaches approaches & styles. Pique said after the game that Barcelona were supposed to play with 3 at the back but RM’s pressure meant they werent able to until the 10th minute of the match
  5. Cristiano Ronaldo does not perform in big games as much as he should for someone of his stature. Messi brings much more than goals to this Barcelona team. Once again he played a crucial role just as he did last season during the Clasico series
  6. Puyol is a rock at the back of the defence & Barcelona never lose with him in the side. Well, almost never. He produced a defensive masterclass reminiscent of Fabio Cannavaro, the 2006 WC version & not the Real Madrid one. He stifled Ronaldo in every 1 on 1 situation, cleared crosses into the box, cleared the ball with his head, organized & disciplined Pique when he had to, & didnt give a foul away in the process & all this with lingering doubts over his fitness & future. What is clear is that Barcelona is a different side with him at the back. Had he not been playing last night, despite all the tactical talk above, it would not be far fetched to say Barcelona would not have won. A 10/10 performance for the captain

Mourinho Pondering What's Next

What happens next?

Well if you are Barcelona, you head to Japan to win the World Club Cup. But if you are Jose Mourinho, you have to pick up a dejected-looking set of players & re-inject self belief into them. But that will be easier said than done. RM were driven by the belief that they were as close to Barcelona as they had ever been & privately may have thought that they were, on form, the better side going into the Santiago Bernebau. But being walked off the park at home, especially in the second half, how do you tell those players that they are not inferior to their Barcelona counterparts? Whilst the defeat cost RM 3 points (arguably 4 with the head to head rules & away win for Barcelona), the real decisive factors in determining the champions will be who slips up in “other” games. Luckily for RM, they only have 1 league game before the winter break. Unfortunately, its at Sevilla, one of the harder grounds to go to. Failure to win that game & the sucker punch from last night could be turned into something much bigger.