FC Barcelona: 10 Areas for Tito Vilanova to Improve on Next Season
The Tito Vilanova era will begin soon enough at FC Barcelona. As Pep Guardiola’s right-hand man, Tito has seen this team grow for almost five years and will continue with Guardiola’s tactics and football philosophies.
That being said, Tito will also want to make this team his own as well.
After a disappointing season, Tito will look to make sufficient changes in the team while keeping a winning formula intact.
The tiki-taka style may not need changing, but there are other areas where FC Barcelona needs improvement if not a fine tuning.
So what will Tito Vilanova need to focus on improving when he takes over on July 1?
Here are 10 areas for Tito Vilanova to improve on for next season.
Clearly the first place Tito Vilanova will look to improve is the left-back position.
Barcelona has missed the presence of Eric Abidal essentially for two years since his health issues began. While players like Carles Puyol, Javier Mascherano and Adriano have filled in, none of those players have been able to match Abidal’s speed and on-the-pitch presence—not to mention those long strides he would make to catch up to an attacker.
The two players on the top of Barça president Sandro Rosell’s list at the position are Tottenham’s Gareth Bale and Valencia’s Jordi Alba.
Bale was last year’s Player of the Year by the Professional Footballers’ Association. Bale is considered a better left winger than Jordi Alba.
Bale’s speed, goal-scoring abilities, free-kick abilities and his strength are just some of the reasons fans would love to see Bale in blaugrana. Many fans would say getting Bale would work because he would be on the other side of the pitch to complement RW Dani Alves.
This would give the club two wing-backs that can score with the best of them, but it would also weaken the back line as Barça would be exposed with only two center-backs during counterattacks.
And as we saw this season and against Chelsea in the CL semis, defending the counterattack is one of Barcelona’s biggest weaknesses.
Let’s not forget Bale would cost a huge fee.
Bale would cost Barcelona most of the club’s reported €50 million they have to spend. For the same amount, Barcelona could get Jordi Alba and still have money left over for a much needed young CB.
Alba was let go from FC Barcelona in 2005. He moved to UE Cornela short after that and in 2007 he was shipped to Valencia. Alba has slowly grown into an outstanding attacking LB—at times midfielder—and has caught the attention of many clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and of course FC Barcelona.
Many Barça fans want to see Alba return to his boyhood club and be the future replacement of Eric Abidal.
Alba would give El Blaugrana two back-line threats in Alba and Dani Alves. Alba would not have a more difficult time adjusting to Barcelona’s playing style than Bale.
Jordi Alba would also come at a cheaper price than Bale.
While there are good benefits to Jordi Alba at the Camp Nou, there are also reasons why he would not be beneficial to bringing him in.
Unlike Gareth Bale, Alba lacks height (5’7”), is not very physically strong (which has hurt him at Valencia) and still needs to grow as a defender (Alba played more as a midfielder than LB for many years).
Overall, Jordi Alba’s chances of coming to Barcelona are better than most of the rumors out there.
Personally, I think Alba to Barcelona is one of the transfer rumors that have the best chance of coming true because his style of play fits with the team, not to mention the price tag is cheaper than Bale. Also, Barcelona director of football Andoni Zubizarreta prefers Alba over Bale.
Alba’s past with the club could become a factor he signs with Barcelona.
Some argue that the need for a young center-back is more pressing than left-back.
As some of you already know, I believe Carles Puyol is no longer an every-game CB. His age finally caught up to his game this year, and at 34, he can no longer keep up with speedy forwards like Cristiano Ronaldo and others.
Again, I’m not saying Puyol needs to be let go. I’m just saying Puyol needs to be replaced when opposing forwards who are particularly fast—which is most games.
Tito Vilanova will be looking to see if AC Milan is willing to negotiate for Thiago Silva. The Brazilian has been on Barcelona’s radar for a few seasons now.
Another name to look out for is Mats Hummels of Borussia Dortmund. Other names to look out for are Alberto Botia of Sporting Gijon (a former Masia product) as well as Alvaro Dominguez of Atletico Madrid.
One alternative Vilanova could use is to make Javier Mascherano a full-time CB alongside Gerard Pique.
As much as this would save money and a roster spot, Mascherano is not a CB—even though he plays extremely well at the position—and Tito will look to sign a CB with speed and on-the-pitch presence to contain opposing forwards and especially counterattacks.
Victor Valdes—as much as fans and the media criticize him—is the No. 1 goalkeeper for the long haul. He’s shaky at times but Tito will not be looking to replace him.
But as shaky as Valdes is, someone who is even shakier at goalkeeper is Jose Manuel Pinto.
There is no middle ground with Pinto if you are a Barcelona fan—you either love him or hate him.
Pinto has always been terrible at taking the ball out of the penalty area. He makes bad decisions as far as covering the near post, and every time he gets the ball from a defender, it’s always an adventure.
For further reference, see his performance in the second leg of the Copa Del Rey quarterfinals against Real Madrid.
Tito Vilanova will look to improve the keeper position by calling up Oier Olazabal from the B squad to eventually replace Pinto as the backup. Pinto turns 37 in November and only has one year left on his contract.
Don’t be surprised to see Tito keep Pinto on the bench and start Olazabal for Copa Del Rey games next season. Olazabal is 22 and is ready to play full time with the first team.
Tito Vilanova will continue Pep Guardiola’s emphasis on midfield dominance. While Tito will have plenty of offensive midfielders like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Thiago, one thing Vilanova may look to try and find this offseason is another defensive midfielder to support Sergio Busquets when needed.
According to reports, AC Milan is close to signing Seydou Keita for next season. The Mali international has been at the Camp Nou since 2008 and has been the defensive midfielder that Pep Guardiola has needed for those grind-it-out games. Pep even mentioned a special thanks to Seydou in his recent press conference.
"Keita has been my ethical and moral barometer," Pep said. "I watched him to see if I was doing a good or bad job."
Now with Tito in charge and with no emotional attachment to Keita, the Mali international will be let go.
Some of the names you will be hearing rumored to be coming to the Camp Nou include Nigel de Jong, Miguel Veloso and even long-shot Javi Martinez.
While FC Barcelona may look for another defensive midfielder, it is not the first or second priority for Tito Vilanova. Besides, he has an ace up his sleeve.
And that ace is Javier Mascherano.
El jefecito has played excellent as a CB when called upon, but Mascherano’s true position is CDM and Tito will be reluctant to sign another defensive midfielder when he has Mascherano already on the team.
The only way Tito and Sandro Rosell sign a new CDM is if Tito decides to keep Mascherano as a full-time CB or if Javier is sold to gain funds for another signing.
This will be very interesting to see. Mascherano is a top defensive midfielder who already is a part of the team; however, he can bring a good amount of funds in return to Barcelona if he is sold. It is always possible that Mascherano could be let go in order to raise funds for another player like Neymar, Robin van Persie or Fernando Llorente.
I don’t trust Lionel Messi when he takes penalty kicks.
His approach is terrible. It’s a slow, somewhat arrogant approach and it’s just asking to get blocked. Some have said that Messi modeled his style after Diego Maradona’s style. This is not the case because Diego’s approach was much quicker and he never dragged his feet on the approach as Messi does.
With his slow approach, it forces Messi to either power up, decreasing the shot’s accuracy and increasing the chance of overpowering the shot, or hitting a weaker shot that increases the chance of the shot getting stopped by the goalkeeper.
It just seems like Messi’s style is not the best, to say the least.
All this being said, Messi will continue to be the penalty taker for FC Barcelona. That will not change although there are some that say it should.
So what does this have to do with Tito Vilanova and improving the team?
Tito should talk to Messi and have him work speeding up on his approach when taking penalties.
This may sound ridiculous to ask the best player on the planet to change something in his game, but Messi is not the best PK taker and his misses have cost Barcelona games in the past, not to mention perhaps a shot at the UEFA Champions League title this season.
Messi is probably not even the best penalty taker on his own team. David Villa and Xavi are quality PK takers as well.
Would Tito ever change his PK taker? Probably not but asking Messi to speed up his approach wouldn’t hurt.
One of the things Tito will need to improve on is the rotation for the midfielders. Tito will have Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Thiago, Busquets, Ibrahim Afellay, as well as possibly Mascherano, Jonathan dos Santos and Sergi Roberto to shuffle into lineups next season.
If Afellay or Mascherano are sold, the job becomes easier for Tito. Jonathan dos Santos may be loaned out and Sergi Roberto will more than likely continue to be on the B squad.
One of the biggest things Tito will have to work on is rotating the big three offensive mids: Xavi, Iniesta, and Fabregas. With David Villa coming back to play LW, Fabregas will be out of the starting lineup as he has played LW on various occasions this season.
The most logical rotation for the ideal starting XI would be to start Xavi and Iniesta alongside Busquets and bringing in Fabregas to substitute the older Xavi.
While it seems like Cesc is being benched, let’s remember that Barcelona play more games than most teams in La Liga (Copa Del Rey, Liga, Champions League) and a deep roster is always needed.
Cesc will start plenty of games as well as Thiago. Mascherano would start in place of Busquets when Busi needs rest, and Afellay would come in when the team needs even more speed in the middle. Let’s not forget Ibrahim can also play winger as well.
The midfield is crowded with talent, but I doubt Tito sees this as a bad thing.
The team's corner kicks will need to be worked on this offseason. Barcelona’s usual “Xavi takes the kick, Puyol stands at the top of the box and charges to try and head it in” has become too predictable and is not working out anymore, especially with an aging Puyol not playing in as many games due to injury.
Personally, I’d like to see more plays developed for Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets. They are not as physically strong as Puyol, but they’re tall and that’s the most important thing.
Keeping the corner short is perhaps the best route given the overall lack of height of this team.
David Villa was missed terribly this season.
Add on a terrible season by Pedro and an injury plagued Alexis Sanchez, the need for Villa’s natural ability to find the back of the net has been missed. Villa also took a tremendous amount of pressure off of Lionel Messi’s shoulders to create goals. Villa and Messi were a great combination that has been sorely missed.
Though Villa typically doesn’t play striker with Barcelona (as he is at LW), a striker like Villa is always needed on any team. Villa will be ready to go for next season; however, Tito Vilanova may look to bring in a backup striker to come off the bench when needed.
Barcelona is filled with wingers and only one true striker, Villa. It was also evident that a true striker is needed to take pressure off Leo Messi and find the back of the net (see Champions League semifinals against Chelsea).
There have been rumors for months that Barcelona will look to sign Arsenal’s Robin van Persie this summer. The latest rumor to come out of Barcelona is that El Blaugrana will look to sign Athletic Bilbao big man Fernando Llorente.
I don’t see Tito not signing a new striker as David Villa is the best fit for the tiki-taka style he will run. However, expect Vilanova to look at the B squad and eventually call up 21-year-old striker Rodri to perhaps become the team’s backup striker.
Then again, if Sandro Rosell decides it is time to bring in a big-name striker, Tito Vilanova may just have to accept what Rosell does.
I’ll talk more about the striker issue a bit later.
Defending the Counterattack
I don’t need to remind you how terrible the defense was against the counterattack.
OK, I’ll remind you. It was unbearable to watch and it cost the team many games.
The counterattack has been the key to victory for many teams against FC Barcelona. The best example of this was with Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League semifinal. Barcelona dominated the ball possession but that didn’t matter as Chelsea cashed in on their few counterattack opportunities and eliminated Barcelona.
As much as I have criticized some of the defenders, I understand that injuries played a part in the defense being weak all year.
With Eric Abidal being out and Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique missing time with injuries as well, the back line was always being shuffled around. Let’s not forget that the team’s young CB, Andreu Fontas, was lost for the season with a torn ACL in January.
Tito Vilanova will look to get younger in the back line.
The LB position is going to be one of the first spots that will be filled with a new signing—perhaps Jordi Alba or Gareth Bale. Tito will look for a CB as well; however, if Tito cannot find a CB in the transfer market, he may decide to use Fontas or B squad player Marc Muniesa as Puyol’s successor.
For me, I’m hoping that Tito works on defending the counterattack with the team this offseason. Yes, practice is not the same as an actual game but practice will help the defenders work on who needs to be where on the back line and so on. This season there was too much confusion as far as who marks who.
Tito will need to decide whether Javier Mascherano stays or goes, and if he stays, whether to keep Javier as a CB or CDM.
Will Tito continue the Pep formula of a 3-4-3 at times, thus leaving the defense vulnerable? We'll see.
Not being able to defend the counterattack was a major reason Barcelona was not able to defend the Champions League and La Liga titles. Tito needs to make fixing the defense one of his top priorities.
All-out Attack vs. a Park-the-Bus Defense
The last thing Tito will need to improve significantly—some would say it’s the thing Barcelona needs to work on the most—is the offensive tactics when an opponent uses a park-the-bus/all-out defense.
In 2010, we say Jose Mourinho and his Inter Milan squad use an all-out defense against Barcelona in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinals. Barcelona was eliminated 3-2 on aggregate. This season saw Chelsea use a park-the-bus defense against Barcelona in the second leg—especially in the second half of the game—and Pep Guardiola’s men were unable to overcome the defense and were eliminated.
Both in 2010 against Inter and this year against Chelsea, Barcelona had a man advantage.
Both times they could not get the job done.
These are not the only times opponents have used this kind of defense as well. There have times where Liga opponents like Espanyol and Gefate have used an all-out, park-the-bus defense.
It’s going to be Tito’s job to create a different formation as well as position his players better when teams to park the bus.
Throughout the second half of the Chelsea game, Barcelona looked confused on where to begin to look for the goal. It was five or six passes until one player finally took a risk and tried to enter the penalty box and shoot it. Given that Chelsea was defending with nine players, Barcelona weren’t even able to get decent shots, not to mention create plays that freed up players to penetrate the Chelsea wall and have a shot at Petr Cech.
Barcelona became very predictable. I know it's easier said than done, but it felt like the team ran out of ideas. Credit goes to Chelsea as well.
This is where a striker is going to be needed for a “Plan B” as some have referred to it. Lionel Messi, up top, has too much pressure on him to create goals. He is surrounded by three or four defenders and is not able to move around to set up his teammates.
Moving Messi further back and adding a striker in front of him would help tremendously as Messi would be able to move around and set up the attack like a midfielder while still being close to the striker to give Barcelona two men attacking the middle of the field.
It will be interesting to see if Tito will change the way David Villa is positioned next season. I’m sure Tito will continue to put Villa at LW for most games when (not if) a team decides to park the bus; I’m hopeful Tito changes things up and puts Villa at his natural position of striker.
Tito needs to work on a Plan B because after the Chelsea semifinal, expect other teams to follow suit and use a park-the-bus defense against Barcelona—especially when the opposing team gains the lead.
If I had to rank the top three areas for improvement, here is my top three:
1. Younger defensively (combination of LB and CB improvement)
2. Defend the counterattack
3. Improving the offense against a park-the-bus defense
There will be many changes this offseason for FC Barcelona. While some players will come and go, the most important thing is that Tito Vilanova will continue the playing style installed by Pep Guardiola.
Congratulations to Tito Vilanova on becoming the new manager of FC Barcelona. You have the support of all Culés and we will be looking to you to lead the team to more wins and to more titles.
Xoel, The Voice of FC Barcelona on Bleacher Report!
Follow me on Twitter:@XoelCardenas
Don’t forget to check out my other columns:
Coming soon: FC Barcelona: Who is Tito Vilanova?