Barcelona: 6 Things We've Learned About Tito Vilanova's Team over the Summer

Michael CernaCorrespondent IAugust 12, 2012

Barcelona: 6 Things We've Learned About Tito Vilanova's Team over the Summer

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    Barcelona have now finished their summer preseason tour and now begin preparations for their 2012-2013 La Liga season opener against Real Sociedad.

    La Blaugrana won every match this summer, including an 8-0 demolition and two penalty shootouts.

    We saw many stars return from injury and lots of La Masia players shine in their time with the club.

    In the end, these were all just exhibition matches so everything we saw and learned has to be kept in that context.

    The results and form of the players could be a sign of things to come just as easily as they could be completely irrelevant.

    But there were certain things we saw, certain worrying signs that are worth mentioning, especially since they were all too familiar from last season's campaign.

    Keeping in mind that these were just friendlies that could mean nothing at all, here are 6 things we learned about Barcelona this summer.

Messi Is Ready

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    By the end of last season, it became clear that the historic seasons of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo had taken a toll on the world's two best players.

    Unlike his rival, Messi did not have to play in the European Championships this summer—nor did he play in the Olympics, or any other tournament for that matter.

    That allowed the Argentinian to get some much-needed rest and focus solely on next season.

    Current Form

    This preseason has shown that Messi is as dangerous as ever.

    Messi scored a hat trick and played the full ninety minutes against Raja Casablanca. He also scored a goal against both PSG and Dinamo Bucharest.

    The health of his fellow forwards should take some pressure off the European record holder for goals in a single season and this will only make him that much more dangerous.

    His goal tally will probably decline a bit, but he could help Barcelona's trophy count increase.

    Not winning major silverware has seemingly made Messi hungry for success and a motivated Lionel Messi should frighten the life out any opponent.

Defense Is Still a Problem

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    Starting Defenders

    In my preview of Barcelona's opener against Real Sociedad, I briefly explained how Barcelona will not start the season with its strongest possible back four.

    It is likely that Javier Mascherano will partner Gerard Pique at the back instead of Carles Puyol—who is still recovering from knee surgery.

    While Mascherano is a solid defender, he is far from the ideal center back.

    His stature renders him all but useless on set pieces and crosses; his positioning is poor, as should be expected from a converted defensive midfielder; and his judgment is often lacking when the opposition is on a breakaway.

    Still, Mascherano is more than capable and is usually a dependable stand in.

    Depth

    The bigger issue is depth. There just aren't many reinforcements at the club.

    Behind Mascherano is Puyol when he is healthy, but after that there is no certainty.

    Marc Muniesa is out injured until possibly midseason. Andreu Fontas is not a great defender, and Marc Bartra is very green.

    The rumored transfer of Alex Song would add some quality depth to the position, but there are still no strong, true central defenders on the roster besides Puyol and Pique.

    This could be their downfall.

La Masia Could Play a Huge Role This Season

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    While Alex Song could be a target of the club due to his versatility, Barcelona fans know that the Arsenal man is not needed for midfield depth.

    Much has been made about Seydou Keita's exit from the club. Pep Guardiola's favorite player left a big hole on the bench and someone will need to replace him.

    Fortunately, that player is already at the club.

    Academy Options

    In a recent article looking at the youth academies of Barcelona and Real Madrid, I showed a glimpse of just how much talent there is in Catalunya.

    So far in the preseason, these youngsters have been good enough to prove that there is simply no need for the club to spend 15-30 euros on a rotation player, even one as good as Song.

    Not when guys like Sergi Roberto, Jonathan dos Santos, Rafinha, and even the highly touted Sergi Samper are just dying to get their chance at first-team action.

    It is not just in midfield where La Masia could play a huge role, though. On defense, Marc Bartra and Martin Montoya will be the first subs used.

    In attack, Isaac Cuenca and maybe Cristian Tello—if he is not sold—will be key players late in the season. Gerard Deulofeu could also see some time in cup and continental matches.

    There is a chance that la Masia could field an entire starting XI for large parts of this season and still have half a team on the bench.

    The many years of Barcelona's investing in the youth academy are paying off.

Tito Vilanova Is a Lucky Manager

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    David Villa and Cesc Fabregas could walk onto almost any team in football and be in the starting 11 without even taking part in a single practice.

    At Barcelona, there is a chance that at least two of these stars will begin the season on the bench, as we have seen in the preseason.

    Villa has recovered from his season-ending broken leg, so keeping him on the bench is understandable for now.

    But what about when he is healthy? How will Vilanova line up offensively?

    With Villa, Alexis Sanchez, Pedro, Cuenca and even Fabregas all fighting for two places, can he give every player time on the pitch while giving fielding the strongest possible front three every match?

    Fabregas will benefit from his versatility, but he still may not be the clear starter at any position after a month.

    Barring an injury to Xavi or Iniesta, Cesc will not start league or major matches in midfield.

    If Pedro can get near his top form, he will be the better option up front. Throw a healthy Villa into the mix and Fabregas looks even less like a starter.

    Most managers can only dream of having this dilemma, but that will not make the tactical 'concerns' any easier for Tito Vilanova.

The Attack Still Needs Work

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    I know what some of you are thinking.

    'How can Barcelona's attack possibly need work?'

    This is a Barcelona team that scored eight goals against Raja Casablanca, that scored 14 goals in all preseason games and won all five matches.

    Well, we have to go beyond the scorelines.

    Same Old Problem

    As impressive as some of these wins were, the starting forwards have left something to be desired.

    Aside from Messi, Alexis Sanchez is the only forward on the senior side who netted in preseason, and that was in the 8-0 route.

    Last season Sanchez and Messi were the only forwards to score at least 10 goals and that proved a major problem in the end.

    Yes, last season's shortage was down to injuries, but let's not forget that David Villa and Pedro were in bad form even before getting injured. Neither player has looked great so far this summer either.

    At times, the team has struggled to break defenses down this preseason even when their best forwards were on the pitch—including Messi.

    In their last two preseason matches, Barcelona have gone close to 90 minutes without netting a single goal.

    These were just exhibition matches so we can't read too much into it, but if the other forwards look out of form in the first half of the season, Barcelona could suffer the same fate as last season.

This Could Be the Last Elite Season for Two Legends

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    Barcelona fans are always worried about how good their rivals Real Madrid are playing and improving.

    But if anything causes Cules to stay up at night, it's the thought of a Barcelona team without both Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez.

    These two Catalans legends are arguably the two best of their generation at their respective positions—at least the most successful.

    While the thought of these two greats declining worries fans, we may see that starting to happen this season.

    Puyol

    It is fair to say that Puyol has started his slow decline already. He has missed large portions of the last two seasons due to injury—failing to reach 25 league appearances both times.

    Now, at 34 and recovering from knee surgery, his impact will be comparatively even when he is fit to start.

    Xavi

    Xavi, however, has not started his decline before this season. Last season he had a career high in goals scored and was as instrumental as ever despite some saying he lost a step.

    This summer his passing has still been world class and the best in football, but there have been instances where the accuracy was less than perfect and he tired more quickly than in the past.

    Since the start of the 2008-2009 season, Xavi has progressively made fewer appearances each season. This season may finally see him dip below 25 appearances for the club.

    Xavi plays a position where he can still be elite for another couple of seasons despite slowing down, but this season we may be watching the start of a very slow decline of one of football's all-time greats.

Conclusion

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    Now I turn it over to you readers to start the discussion.

    What have you learned from Barcelona's preseason?

    Have the offensive concerns been fixed by getting everyone healthy again? Is the defense strong enough to regain the league and Champions League trophies again?

    How about Xavi, can he maintain his place as the standard of the modern midfielder for another season?

    Please leave your comments below.

     

    Also check out my latest columns:

    Barcelona vs. Real Sociedad: Predicting Barcelona's Starting XI

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    Real Madrid: Complete Guide to the 2012-2013 La Liga Season