FC Barcelona: Vilanova's Side Not Yet Living Up to Guardiola Team's Quality
To round out the year, a final thought on the first half of Barcelona's 2012-2013 campaign: despite the hype, this team is far from the best side we saw under Guardiola.
Some say this team are on the brink of true greatness. As I argued here, the record-breaking numbers behind their start to the season are deceptive. Things aren't quite as peachy beneath the surface, and Vilanova will face his real tests in the spring. I still hope they will live up to the task, but I'm not as optimistic as I was a week ago.
Why? After watching the final La Liga round of the calendar year, I had the pleasure of seeing a replay of the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley. I had no trouble recalling the result (3-1 to the Blaugrana), but the tenor of the match took me completely by surprise.
The scoreline only tells a fraction of the story, as it was a completely one-sided affair, and United were lucky to get even the single goal. There were long portions of the match in which they couldn't string three passes together.
Barcelona, on the other hand, kept the ball with ease and looked a serious threat on just about every possession. The overall impression was unmistakable: Barcelona looked much better, against higher quality opponents, than they have this season.
What was the difference? The players on the pitch haven't changed much. Jordi Alba has taken over for Abidal at left fullback, but the Frenchman, though perhaps a more solid defender, isn't a more dangerous attacking option.
Much more significantly, 2010-2011 was David Villa's finest season in the Barca team, and he had an excellent match playing on the right side of the attack, capped off with a fabulous strike in the second half.
But there was a bigger difference between that team and this one. Forgive my heresy, but that difference was in the form and the tactical approach of Lionel Messi.
In those days, Messi played farther behind the other attackers, and was on the ball constantly in midfield. He combined relentlessly in short passes with both Xavi and Iniesta to devastating effect, wearing down the likes of Park and Carrick. His role was much more creative, as he looked to make chances for his teammates.
These days, he plays higher up the pitch, more often looking to get on the end of chances rather than create them with combinations through midfield.
I wouldn't want to judge the entire season from one match, and Barcelona have certainly played some scintillating football this year as well.
But other memories from that season point to the same conclusion. The previous fall saw Guardiola's team crush Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou in a game where Messi failed to score but was nevertheless a towering presence.
For me and for many others, that was the best single performance by any team, ever. Can you imagine them doing the same this year against such a quality side?
Sure, you say. It's not that Barcelona have failed to improve. Other teams have caught up with them. And that's true to an extent. But recall that that same Madrid team was enjoying its own record start to La Liga.
Compared to this year's Madrid side, the 2010 team were in outstanding form before the Clasico. And yet this year's Camp Nou fixture against los Blancos ended in an unsatisfying 2-2 draw.
Messi's goalscoring for Barcelona this year has been incredible. But it hasn't come without a cost. For me, other parts of his game have suffered as Barcelona have become ever more reliant on his goals.
They may still be great. They may still win the treble. But before you claim that this team are Barcelona's best ever, watch a match from 2010-2011. You won't be disappointed.
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