In the past four years, Barcelona have dominated world football and inspired children, coaches and fans to watch and learn their style of play.
Their manager Pep Guardiola inspired his players to entertain their fans, to show the world how football should and could be played. At times ideologies can be only just dreams, yet Guardiola took his vision and put it into reality. He took a good side to greatness, in terms of quality and success.
As Guardiola departs, a new era arrives at Camp Nou, and with that era, uncertainty prevails.
When Guardiola arrived, there were many doubters who questioned his credentials and suitability to the job. Barcelona had experienced a difficult 2007-08 season, and the board felt a change was needed both with the managers and players. Out went Rijkaard, and in came Guardiola, who felt that removing Ronaldinho and Deco was important for his new vision.
The board apparently wanted to replace Xavi also, yet Guardiola told it that Xavi was essential. The rest, they say, is history, and his decisions have been vindicated.
From the shadows enters Tito
Tito Vilanova was the man Guardiola sought out when he arrived at Barcelona, a man who has been credited along with Guardiola for the work done at Camp Nou. Sometimes the assistant can be as valuable as the head coach, and these two certainly were a double team.
Guardiola decided that he could not continue, however. A mixture of the pressure of the job, the media attention and a belief that managers and sides come in cycles meant that his time was up.
Yet, can Vilanova be the man to take this side further? It was going to be very difficult for any manager to come in after Guardiola. A period of such success will eventually lead to a period with less. It is just not possible to maintain this level of performance. Other sides will improve and the current squad will age and move on.
These aspects are concerns for Vilanova as he prepares to take over this group. Firstly, the top sides in Europe—Madrid, Bayern and even Man City—are catching up with the quality of Barcelona and, importantly, are developing styles and ways to prevent and beat Barcelona.
The decision to defend very deep and compact has nullified the Barcelona way and has seen sides like Madrid, Inter and Chelsea overcome them in recent seasons.
Yet, the fact that most sides defend like this against Barca and only a few come out successfully shows that the quality of Barca is still a worry to all sides. I do believe that there a few sides that are close to the quality of Barcelona, yet it is still a difficult task to overcome them. I believe the biggest issue affecting this club is their selves.
Barcelona have issues to consider, mainly, replacing some of its key, yet aging stars.
I believe that Barcelona need someone to replace what Carlos Puyol has given to the side. Gerard Pique has had a difficult season. His celebrity girlfriend and lifestyle affected his performances, and it resulted in him spending many minutes on the side.
Javier Mascherano’s development into a ball-playing centre-back has been impressive, yet Barcelona need a real quality centre defender. Though names like Mats Hummels and Thiago Silva were suggested, both these players will not be arriving at Camp Nou now.
I believe Javi Martinez could be a real possibility. His ability to move between defence and midfield impresses a side like Barcelona, who seek to be fluid and interchange positions. His affiliation with the Basque region will be a definite pulling point too.
While replacing Puyol will not be an easy task, he brings more to the side than just his playing ability. He is a leader and a role model to the players, plus he knows and lives the culture of Barcelona.
Puyol will be still be around, yet age has caught up with the Barca captain, and they need to act sooner than later to replace him. At left back, Abidal’s replacement is Jordi Alba, who possesses the skill and speed for which hr was developed at La Masia as a boy, so I have no doubts about how effective he can be next season.
Replacing the conductor
The biggest worry for me, and it seems like this for the past couple of years, has been the worry over Xavi Hernandez. For me, he is the world’s best midfielder in his position; no one reads the game, understands the game and sets the tempo as well as him.
I believe Xavi’s gradual decline will restrict the flow and movement of the side. It will take some time for team to adapt to his reduced role. I don’t believe a replacement is needed, as Iniesta, Thiago and Fabregas could all do that role, yet it will take years to master it like Xavi has.
As for Cesc Fabregas, his arrival created more problems than solutions in my opinion. Bringing back the lost son to reunite the family as such was seen as a gift from Guardiola, yet I would argue that Fabregas struggled this season to understand and adapt to Pep's strict tactical approach. His movement and roaming was a clear frustration to Guardiola, as he closed off spaces for others.
It is no surprise that Iniesta under performed this season when Cesc was playing. Sanchez was much more effective, especially in Villa’s absence, as he understood his role much more and was thus more effective.
Ideology affected Barcelona's quality, and Guardiola clearly was guilty of ideals clouding his judgement.
This past season was a period of experimentation for Barcelona; they attempted to implement a 3-4-3 formation, which at times was scintillating. The 5-0 drubbing of Villareal on the first game of the season showed how effective it could be.
After the 2011 Champions League final, I would argue that Barcelona were above any other side in the world, yet every side must come back to Earth, and this past season has seen them perhaps rely on Messi more than they should. Villa's injury played a part, but they cannot just rely on Messi if they wish to be successful, and it showed last season.
Interestingly, one of Barcelona’s best performances came in the Copa Del Rey final. They continue to amaze by providing their best time and time again in finals, when it really matters.
The use of the more orthodox 4-3-3, with a false nine and Pedro and Sanchez as inside forwards, was much better for the side's fluidity, speed and penetration. Was this perhaps a glimpse into Vilanova's tactical preference? If he does use this tactic more next season, Barcelona will be better than the use of a 3-4-3 and 4-6-0.
The insatiable desire for Guardiola to have a side full of midfielders appeared to lose the purpose of the game. Possession was not the end result, yet at times it seemed that's what had become the focus. For me, when the direct Sanchez, Pedro and Villa play, Barcelona have more options other than Messi, which makes them so much more dangerous.
It remains to be seen how far Vilanova is willing to perfect Cryuff’s vision. However, if he is more pragmatic, he will realise that the formation that served Barcelona so well in 2008-2011 is a much more effective tactic for this side.
Reconsider the Plan B?
There are two major issues however which concern me regarding the future of Barcelona. Firstly, do need Barcelona need the often spoken “Plan B”? Would the arrival of a Llorente type player give Barcelona what they have lacked, what they sought to bring in with Zlatan? Ultimately that was a failed experiment yet the issues remain, that as teams begin to understand and counter Barcelona’s style of play, Barcelona need to counter it too with the inclusion of a player who can offer more from another style.
Pique has been used as this weapon in the end of many games, his injury against Chelsea was a blow not just defensively but in attack too, yet do they need a powerful centre forward for when the games are closer and they are struggling to break the opposition down? If Vilanova is smart, he should seek this added arsenal to his impressive armoury and thus give Barcelona an all round threat, if need be.
The biggest worry: handling pressures
Perhaps most importantly, Vilanova is not Guardiola. As obvious as that statement is, it has potentially major repercussions for the club. Vilanova has earned the respect and trust of the players in his time at Camp Nou, and they all appear happy with his promotion. However, he has shown a lack of charisma in front of the media, which makes me worry.
Guardiola suffered from the constant attention Barcelona received and the pressures the job produced, and this was during a hugely successful period. How will Vilanova deal with the media’s incessant reporting and constant analysing of the new coach?
Will constant comparisons to Guardiola affect his thoughts and sanity? What a daunting task he faces to follow and replicate a period of such success from a man who became idolized the world over. Will these comparisons and potential negativity from the media affect this apparent shy and reserved coach?
What about the intense mind games of which Jose Mourinho plays? The man who stuck his finger in Vilanova’s eye last August will surely relish enticing and playing with Tito like a cat with a mouse. Can Tito withstand the pressures and the expectations that come from one of the biggest jobs in world football?
I have my doubts that he will not enjoy what awaits, and the only redeeming factor that will save him is success. The question is, can they achieve it and keep the wolves from the door?
If Barcelona play the way they can, then they are still the world’s best side, yet they are much closer to the rest now. They have been brought back to Earth, and without the inspirational leadership of Guardiola, can they ever achieve what they have in the past four years?
A new beginning
In 2008, Pep Guardiola was made the coach of Barcelona. It was seen as a shock to many, with no real experience except with the “B” side. Many questioned whether he was good enough for the task. He answered his critics and then some. Guardiola was a hero at Barcelona as a player, and he had the respect of Xavi and Co. immediately.
Tito Vilanova has spent his time at Barcelona in the shadows. He has now being placed in the middle of the grandest stage in world football. Can he deal with the pressures and expectations that the world will expect of him? Can he charm the media and duel with Jose?
Only time will tell, yet what is certain is that it will be a fascinating season ahead to see if the reserved Tito can overcome the vultures and can bring success back to Camp Nou.
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