Barcelona: Grading Tito Vilanova's Early Season Progress
Since taking over from Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona have engineered a perfect start to the La Liga season. Vilanova has seemingly adjusted to the position with ease, while also taking the team along his own path.
There’s really no easy way to grade a manager’s progress over the season. At some point prior to each game, it’s down to the players. The manager might make perfect tactical choices, make substitutions at the perfect time and give out the perfect instructions. However, if the game plan is executed poorly, the team loses.
Despite this, the short evaluation period of Vilanova’s reign means that we can look at each match and chart his early progress in charge of La Blaugrana.
August 19: Barcelona 5-1 Real Sociedad. Grade: A
The surprise before this match was that Andrés Iniesta was left on the bench, along with Gerard Piqué. This didn’t seem to matter, though, as Barca went ahead through captain Carlos Puyol’s header from the first corner of the game.
Sociedad equalised before 10 minutes were on the clock and it seemed that last season’s problems were doomed to repeat themselves. However, La Blaugrana shrugged it off and instead opened up a 4-1 lead by half time, via two poacher’s efforts from Lionel Messi and a back-post volley from Pedro.
There were a few pregame worries about the inclusion of Cristian Tello, but Vilanova’s first tactical decision paid dividends as Tello relentlessly worked over Daniel Estrada.
Gerard Piqué replaced Puyol five minutes after the restart, and Iniesta came on for Cesc Fabregas at around the 60-minute mark. Vilanova obviously had one eye on the Super Cup clash with Real Madrid and it was a sensible decision.
David Villa then replaced Pedro with 16 minutes remaining and needed exactly 10 minutes before adding the fifth goal with some nice interlink play with Iniesta.
Four goals before half time, followed by some substitutions that produced another goal. Nothing to criticise here.
August 23: Barcelona 3-2 Real Madrid. Grade: B
Jose Mourinho appeared to poke Vilanova in the eye during an ugly scene in this fixture last year, following Marcelo’s dismissal for a hack at Fabregas.
In his post-match interview, Mourinho was asked about the incident and remarked “I don’t know who Vilanova is” (via BBC.co.uk). Going into this game, the desire to remind him must have been strong for Vilanova.
Barcelona dominated possession from the outset but were unable to find the net. Instead it was Madrid who took the lead in the 55th minute via a Cristiano Ronaldo header.
Barca appeared to come to life after this and were back on level terms within two minutes. It was more of a route-one approach than we’ve come to expect, but Javier Mascherano’s long pass found Pedro, who had one touch before slotting home.
Iniesta was fouled in the box in the 69th minute, with Messi burying the resulting spot kick. Iniesta was involved again for Barcelona’s third, threading a pinpoint pass through the Real defence for Xavi to finish with total composure.
A late-game blunder was to cost them, however. It’s impossible to blame Vilanova for the error as it had nothing to do with his management of the game, but teams should play to the final whistle and take no risks in protecting their lead.
Victor Valdes dawdled on the ball as the game drew to a close and surrendered position to Angel Di Maria in the penalty area. Di Maria did not waste his opportunity, giving Madrid a crucial away goal in a tie that had previously looked out of reach.
August 26: Osasuna 1:2 Barcelona. Grade D+
They came away with the victory, but Barcelona made themselves work for it right up to the final whistle. Vilanova can definitely take some of the blame this time around.
Osasuna beat Barcelona last year, and must have thought they were destined to repeat the triumph when Joseba Llorente netted after 17 minutes.
La Blaugrana were second best throughout the game, looking frustrated and uninspired. Vilanova had rested Xavi and David Villa, with Tello and Alexis Sanchez starting instead.
In the 73rd minute, Vilanova vented his fury at the officials. He was promptly dismissed and forced to spend the rest of the game in the stands.
Barca only really came to life when Xavi replaced Fabregas with 20 minutes to go. Suddenly they played with purpose and created chances, but it was a controversial decision that would get them back into the game.
The referee was obstructing Osasuna captain Patxi Punal, but play continued. A cross into the box confused the Osasuna defence and Sanchez found Messi, who struck from six yards.
Punal was enraged, protesting for an offside call on Sanchez, as well as the fact that play was allowed to continue. He followed Vilanova as the second player to be sent from the field.
Osasuna weren't allowed to regain their shape and adjust to playing with 10 men before Barcelona struck again. Once again it was Messi who came to the rescue, connecting with a cross from Jordi Alba to side foot home.
Vilanova's decision to rest key players almost backfired on him here, as well as his inability to control his emotions at key points in the game.
Being sent to the stands in only his third game in charge capped a day to forget. However, Vilanova's team got the points, which is ultimately all that matters.
August 29: Real Madrid 2-1 Barcelona. Grade: D-
La Blaugrana will perhaps consider themselves unlucky to lose the Super Cup—especially given the way the first leg went—but the truth is that they should have been out of the game within the first 20 minutes.
Mourinho's Madrid were simply rampant in the opening stages, although it was Mascherano who gifted them the first goal. A muffed clearance fell to Gonzalo Higuain, who took the gift gladly.
Ronaldo summoned some brilliance with a flick to take him past Pique and through on goal, where he beat Valdes with a strong finish.
Vilanova can't have been pleased with his team's defensive performance over the first half hour, but his misery was then complete when Adriano was shown a straight red for dragging Ronaldo to the ground when he was clean through.
This meant Martin Montoya came on in place of Sanchez, as Vilanova was forced to regroup on defence. Barcelona had plenty to do, but it was no surprise that Messi was the one to do it.
Xavi was brought down 30 yards from goal and Messi stood behind the ball as it was placed for the free kick. It was perfectly struck, curling round the wall and bringing his team back into the game.
Barcelona were allowed to control the possession in the second half, but failed to capitalise. Tiki-taka football looks great, but it's ultimately useless without the required sense of urgency needed when chasing a game.
Vilanova is a slave to the Barcelona system at times, and it was evident here.
September 2: Barcelona 1-0 Valencia. Grade: B
Vilanova had a bad day against Madrid, so he must have felt better after seeing off Valencia to continue his perfect start to La Liga.
Adriano was preferred to Jordi Alba in this game; the decision was justified after 23 minutes, when he smashed the ball past Diego Alves into the bottom corner.
Valencia had more possession in the second half of the game, but couldn't summon up a legitimate scoring chance. Vilanova was content to let Mascherano run the defence and Barcelona had further chances to double their lead through Fabregas.
Valencia were defending in numbers by the end of the game and Barcelona were forced to settle for a one-goal victory.
While Vilanova remained conservative from a tactical standpoint, the level of talent present in his side was more than enough to see him through on this occasion.
September 15: Getafe 1-4 Barcelona. Grade: A
The most impressive victory of Vilanova's managerial reign so far, it came despite Getafe seeming content to let Barcelona control the game.
Messi was rested following international duty, leaving Fabregas to fulfil the “False 9” role that Messi usually occupies.
This he did with admirable ease, forming the nucleus of a Barca passing game that assumed control from the outset and never let up.
On 32 minutes, Fabregas broke from midfield and took on two defenders. The ball eventually fell to Adriano and he broke the deadlock. However, it took Messi's emergence from the bench on the hour for his team to really break free.
Tello had wasted chances throughout the first half and Vilanova decided enough was enough, bringing the Argentinian on in his stead. Pedro won a penalty in the 74th minute and Messi duly converted from the spot. He then added a second four minutes later, before Mascherano was then credited with an own goal after deflecting a Pablo Serabia shot past Valdes.
Barcelona added a fourth when Villa came off the bench, but the game was already gone.
Final Grade: B
Ahead of tonight's Champions League encounter with Spartak Moscow, it's a useful time to analyse Vilanova's progress so far. He has steadfastly—sometimes too much—put his faith in the system inherited from Pep Guardiola, but the subtle tweaks made are all his own.
Unafraid to bench the star players in favour of young, up-and-coming talent, Vilanova will always take criticism from the press and fans.
However, he has the steel to succeed, and even though his outburst that sent him to the stands was unacceptable, it proved that he really cares about the football team.
In a city that breathes football, this might be the trait that ends up serving him best.