FC Barcelona: What to Expect from Tiki-Taka Masters Under Tito Vilanova

Terry CarrollContributor IIIAugust 2, 2012

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 25: Head coach Pep Guardiola (R) of Barcelona looks on beside his assistant Tito Vilanova during the Copa del Rey Final match between Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona at Vicente Calderon Stadium on May 25, 2012 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)
Angel Martinez/Getty Images

Johan Cruyff was the father of tiki-taka football. He was also Barcelona's most successful coach ever, with 11 trophies, until his pupil Josep Guardiola surpassed that.

Cruyff was the father of the "Dutch influence," and for some it was a surprise that Frank De Boer did not return as successor to Guardiola.

If you're not going down that route, why not pick from the Barcelona talent production line; in this case, Tito Vilanova, previously Pep's No. 2?

This is a big ask in some ways. Many years ago, Wilf McGuinness was asked to succeed the great Sir Matt Busby as manager, having been a senior coach at Manchester United.

His tenure was a disaster; lasting six months; Busby had to take over as interim coach. and it took United almost 20 years and well into Sir Alex Ferguson's reign to recover.

That will surely not happen with Barcelona, but it's a big call for an untried coach to take over as No.1 of the team that many consider to be the best of all time.

What makes it harder is that Real Madrid saw off Barca in last year's La Liga; and Chelsea did the same in the Champions League.

In some respects, this is helpful, because it gives Vilanova targets to aim for; but on the contrary, there is more than just pride on the line, with the financial stakes having never been higher.

There are other pros and cons to the deputy stepping up: on the one hand, he knows and has the trust of the players; on the other, he will have had a different relationship with them. From being close, he now has to assume more of an aloof authority. That can be difficult, and is one reason why appointments are usually made from outside in the business community.

Who is Tito Vilanova?

Tito came up through the youth ranks at Barcelona, debuting for the B Team at 18. After 52 games, he was unable to break through into the senior ranks, so he left to plough his furrow elsewhere.

After retiring at 32, he eventually returned to the club in 2007, when Guardiola appointed him as his assistant in running Barcelona B, then in the fourth division. The pair gained promotion and were immediately asked to succeed the Dutch pair Frank Rijkaard and Johan Neeskens in running the first team.

Their first season together was the most successful in the club's history, winning six trophies.

We all know what has happened since, with unparalleled success until 2011/12. Clearly there was a strong bond of trust between the two, and one assumes Tito was Pep's personal recommendation to succeed him.


There clearly is neither the same scope nor need for major transfer activity at Barcelona that there is at the top English Premier League clubs. And as they say, "if it aint broke, don't fix it."

As well as drooling over the football the former Spanish champions play, many football afficionados and professional coaches have envied the production line of talent they have. Every one of them has been schooled in the art of tiki-taka.

When Barca bought Cesc Fabregas and previously Gerard Pique, they were getting back former pupils who could fit straight into the established system. Irrespective of injuries, David Villa has not been quite the same success. However, with a similar style played by the Spanish national side, we can assume that Jordi Alba will take to it like a duck to water.

He may be their only signing this summer, after last year they exceeded their apparent budget with the buys of Fabregas and Sanchez. Financial prudence matters as much to Barcelona as anyone, with the debt they have and Financial Fair Play beginning to bite.

Why do they need new players anyhow, with the burgeoning young talent waiting to make their mark? Alba was a pragmatic signing after Eric Abidal's health challenges. Seydou Keita, Keirrisson and Henrique have been released on free transfers.

Anyhow, the squad is chock-full of Spanish internationals, plus Alves, Alexis Sanchez, Messi and Mascherano.

They also need to keep their powder dry for Neymar's arrival next summer...

Prospects for 2012/13

It's too early to look for many pointers from preseason. It was business as usual four days ago for Lionel Messi, scoring a hat-trick in an 8-0 romp against Raja Casablanca.

Not surprisingly, the players looked weary towards the end, but there was a chance to see juniors, such as Sergi Roberto and Gerard Deulofeu. 

Messi missed the first preseason friendly against Hamburg where the most significant thing to emerge from a routine 2-1 win was the continuing absence of David Villa.

Vilanova is still not offering hope of an early return for the 30-year-old Spanish striker, who has had a serious leg break. This may yet have a significant effect on the coach's tactical options this season, and Alexis Sanchez may have to fill in again.

With the Spanish season starting on the same weekend as the EPL, we should begin to look for pointers when the meaty "friendlies" start against PSG on Saturday, Manchester United the following Wednesday, and Dinamo Bucharest on August 11.

Messi has benefited from no international participation this summer. While the Spanish seniors will have returned elated after their success in Euro 2012, their season was almost 11 months long by the time they won Euro 2012.

Spain may have suffered a devastating disappointment in the Olympics, but only Jordi Alba, Cristian Tello and Martin Montoya were involved anyhow. Maybe that's why Spain crashed out...

Losing La Liga to Real Madrid by nine points and at the Camp Nou will have stung badly. Sadly, there was to be no consolation in the Champions League either.

We will of course get an early indicator from the Spanish Super Cup on August 23 and 29. No doubt its significance will be played down if Barcelona don't prevail, but if they aren't convincing either, the questions will start about Vilanova's tenure.

Mourinho vs. Vilanova

And if Real Madrid do prevail, no doubt the mind games will start from Mourinho, either before the matches or even ahead of the season itself.

In fact, of course, they started a year ago at the Super Cup when Mourinho poked Vilanova in the eye.

This raises the question of how he will deal with the media. The smart thing is not to be drawn into confrontation in the first place, but Jose will try every trick in the book.

To add to his challenges, he had surgery last season to remove a life-threatening tumour, and what message can he take from only being given a two-year contract? That Pep is coming back; that the Board aren't certain of his success?

Puts him potentially in the same category as Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea really...

Can the Blaugrana rediscover the magic?

Well, of course, they never lost it. But starting with Inter Milan and carrying on at Real Madrid, Mourinho has worked out a way to counter. Some Chelsea fans will claim the same, but in truth, Barcelona failed more than Chelsea succeeded.

There were also signs at Euro 2012 that coaches were working tiki-taka out and ways to tackle it. Yes, the Spanish were convincing winners in the final, but how much of that was down to Prandelli getting his tactics wrong?

When they are on-song and everyone is playing for each other, Barcelona are a well-oiled machine. But they depend on Messi to a very high degree. What would happen if he was injured?

If Ronaldo was injured at Real Madrid, they have several strikers and attacking midfielders; Mourinho would simply change the shape and emphasis. Without Messi, would Vilanova have to use a proper No. 9? Are Fabregas or Sanchez good enough to fill the goal scoring gap?

Tiki-taka has probably changed football forever. There will be some coaches who slavishly try and copy it; others who adapt and modify to their local league circumstances.

Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez are the leading coaches moving towards the Barcelona way in the EPL.

But in the same way that Bilbao and Wigan worked out Manchester United—and Chelsea and Inter Milan worked out Barcelona —the game moves on.

Vilanova's big weapon is not just the style but the uncanny understanding between a group of players who have grown up together playing the same way.

A bigger challenge may come as his senior players age. Iniesta is still only 28 but Xavi is 32 and Puyol 34.

No wonder Vilanova has been reported as wanting a central defender.

We shall get some important indicators in the upcoming friendlies, but we won't really know until the real season gets under way. There is no reason to doubt that the Blaugrana will be right at the top of the tree in both La Liga and the ECL.

If they are hesitant at the start of the season and especially if Real Madrid prevail in the Spanish Super Cup, the questions will start. How long will the fans' patience remain, whether towards Vilanova or the Board, if it looks like the bubble has burst?

Whatever the reasons for his "retirement" and sabbatical, Pep has left both a rich legacy of success and football of the highest quality; and a very hard act to follow.

He and the Board are clearly confident that Tito can carry the baton. Obviously its the biggest challenge of his career, and it is unclear where he would go if he was perceived to fail.

Chelsea took a big gamble with a young coach who had already achieved League and European success in Andre-Villas Boas. Liverpool, on the other hand, turned to the tried and tested in Kenny Dalglish. Both failed.

Football is big business; Barcelona are the greatest team on the planet, and Pep and Tito gave them their richest vein of success in history.

Has enough rubbed off on the promoted No. 2? Does he have the strength of personality to take the reins and manage all the other challenges that go with it if the wheels start to come off?

If he doesn't, how soon do his masters change strategy and how much damage could it do to Barcelona's season and the momentum that Guardiola created?


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