Barcelona: Can Tito Vilanova Be Better Than Pep Guardiola for Barca?
Though die-hard Barcelona fans may claim otherwise, it safe to say that Tito Vilanova has surpassed expectations to this point.
Even the most optimistic Barcelona fans expected there to be at least a couple of bumps in the road as Barcelona adjusted to life after the exit of the most successful coach in their history. Pep Guardiola.
Yet, remarkably, Barcelona haven't lost a step. Sure, there was the shock loss to Celtic in the Champions League, and the aggregate loss to Real Madrid on away goals in the Spanish Supercup, but overall Barcelona have been as dominant as they were under Guardiola, if not more so.
You only need to look at their league record to see this.
With 14 wins, one draw, and no losses, Barcelona have blown away their competition in La Liga and raced 11 points ahead of Real Madrid.
They've shown no sign of letting go of that lead, and if they continue on current form, they'll have put together arguably the most dominant La Liga campaign in history.
Barca and Vilanova's success this season have inevitably led some people to compare the current Barca manager with his predecessor, with some already calling Vilanova the better manager.
Such a conclusion drawn on so few games is completely misguided.
First, Vilanova has not managed Barcelona for enough games for his managerial skills to be compared vis-a-vis any great manager, be it Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola or whomever.
A team is never remembered in history for how it does over a particular stretch of the season. What it is remembered for is how it finishes that season and how it performs in the big games.
Think back, for those of you who watch the English Premier League, to Arsenal in 2010-11. Between mid-December to end of February, the team seemed practically unbeatable.
They recorded seven wins, three draws and zero losses in the league, powered their way to the final of the League Cup, and continued to advance far into the FA Cup. Most remarkably, they recorded a highly impressive 2-1 win over Barcelona in the round of 16 of the Champions League.
Were Arsene Wenger and Arsenal evaluated for this stretch alone that season, they would've been viewed as wildly successful.
But over the next few weeks, every single one of Arsenal's campaigns would slowly unravel before their very eyes, and now that season is remembered primarily for its disappointments by Arsenal and non-Arsenal fans alike.
As of yet, Tito Vilanova has not been truly challenged as manager of Barcelona.
The Clasicos he's played in so far have all been low-stakes games, compared to the stakes usually involved with El Clasico, and despite their struggles with Celtic, Barcelona were never at risk of not qualifying from their Champions League group.
His real challenges will come later, when Barcelona is forced to come up against a side like Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus or another European powerhouse in the latter stages of the Champions League knockout rounds.
In the league, the same applies. Teams make hot starts all the time, though it cannot be denied that Barcelona's is one of the hottest in history.
Nevertheless, once Barcelona slip up and pick up a loss or a couple of bad results, then we'll see if Vilanova has the ability to pick his team back up and get them to finish the season strong.
In short, the pressure has not been turned on for Vilanova yet. Only when he's had to deal with high-pressure, high-stakes games in the Champions League, and La Liga if Real Madrid ever catch up, can he be compared to the modern football coaching greats.
Second, speaking more directly to the comparison between Guardiola and Vilanova, it must be noted that both started their reigns in very different circumstances, and that Guardiola has essentially laid the ground work for everything Vilanova is doing today.
When Guardiola took over at Barcelona, Barca were coming off a disastrous season by their own high standards. They finished trophyless and third in La Liga, behind Villarreal who now reside in Spain's Segunda Division.
Guardiola made some very ballsy moves from the start that would change the trajectory of the club from 2008 to the present, and probably for many years to come. He dumped club legends Ronaldinho and Deco, both of which were woefully out of form in 2007-08, and made Lionel Messi a more regular starter for the club.
Two years later, he would make Messi Barcelona's "false nine," turning him into the beast we know him to be today.
Beyond the personnel changes and the struggles of the club when he took over, Guardiola imprinted a "winning culture" upon Barcelona, the likes of which they'd never experienced before.
Franck Rijkaard did some great things for Barcelona while he was manager, but even at the height of Barcelona's powers under him, they never achieved the aura of invincibility that Guardiola built for Barcelona in his four years at the club.
To the contrary: After the near-misses of 2006-07, the club struggled mightily in 2007-08, a shadow of themselves just two years earlier. Contrast that with Guardiola's three La Liga titles, two Copa del Reys, two Champions League titles, plus seven other pieces of lesser silverware, and it's clear which manager had a greater effect on the club.
The point is not to detract from Rijkaard's achievements, which were undoubtedly great, but rather to emphasize how incredible Guardiola's were, for those who've already forgotten about Pep and moved on to Tito.
Guardiola established the tiki-taka system and perfected it for four years with many of the same Barca players playing for the club today. He unlocked the potential of Lionel Messi, and allowed several other youth players—Sergio Busquets, Pedro, Gerard Pique, etc.—to shine for the club as well.
To use an analogy, he took an old, used car, repaired and upgraded it beyond its original state, and after perfecting all of its new features and eliminating the ones that didn't work, he took the keys and passed them on to Tito.
Again, as with Rijkaard, the point here isn't to undermine Tito's work; rather, it is emphasize how much simpler his job has been made because of the work Guardiola put in.
They say a man is shaped by the struggles he faces. Tito simply hasn't been on the job long enough to face enough of those struggles. Can he be better than Guardiola? Of course, there's nothing as of yet to say he can't be.
But considering all Guardiola's has done for the club, all the trophies he's won and all the struggles he's overcome, Vilanova won't be surpassing his mentor for a long, long while.
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