El Pivote (or The Pivot) is a weekly totalBarça column by Anoop Jethwa about the trials and tribulations of FC Barcelona. From the positives to the negatives, this piece will dive deep into the living fabric that is blaugrana. We welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section.
This week’s El Pivote is dedicated to the man navigating the team through this season, unbeaten in the major two competitions and now finding himself breaking records already. We will look at his tactical tweaks and some telling tributes.
Under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona smashed record after record and the team was hailed as the best ever, especially after that famous Saturday night in London in 2011. This season the football has not hit the spectacular heights of the last era, full of flair and jaw dropping sharpness in all areas of the pitch, but the never-say-die-attitude, desire and togetherness have given Vilanova the best start to a season in the history of the club. All the more impressive is that it’s very difficult to say that the team is playing anywhere near its best, due to the rotation of tactics and players, of which plenty comes down to injuries. Therefore can it be said that Vilanova is actually improving our beloved team?
The man who, in essence, signed Lionel Messi for Barcelona, Carles Rexach, has been speaking this week about Vilanova. “The name of Tito Vilanova is already in the history books of FC Barcelona after having led the team to its best start in the history of the club. This is something that is special to me because I believe in Tito’s worth and also I get on very well with him and his assistant, Jordi Roura. But apart from this record, there is a lot more. In fact, what I would emphasise most about him is the ease in which he can read games and react when something is not quite right, and his mastery in managing the squad and his ability to do it without any controversy or drama.”
The weekend game against Celta Vigo was the perfect example of this. Tito has put his faith in tactically planning for the upcoming opponent and actually coaching his players specifically for each game – something which some other clubs neglect and simply splash the cash on players, wages, directors of football and the like, and hope that things will materialise on the field due to higher reputation personnel. Vilanova opted to go into the Celta game with a hybrid sweeper-stopper combination with two marking backs. Busquets was well versed in pushing back into the defensive line when needed, but also pushing forward into the midfield when an opportunity came to press higher up the pitch. Adriano scored from right back in the first half, and after his injury, Dani Alves came on and maintained the same style. However, those of us who really get an aching pain in our hearts when we remember last season all the space in behind for Ronaldo to run into and score and for Ramires to do the same thing several days later, were left short of breath, gasping for air once more as the pacey Celta strikers latched onto through balls into an ocean of space after several one touch passes in a build up completely took our four “defenders” out of the game.
Pep’s logic was that a player who could add to the defence, but also create an extra number in midfield would help dominate possession and therefore eliminate chances for the opposition. Tito seemed to give it one last chance, knowing that on the horizon the squad is ready for Pique’s return. Perhaps he was just making sure it’s not something that we should try anymore. Perhaps he was sending a message to his players. “The 3-4-3 earlier on was not just to attack but also to have players defending in the middle.” In the build up to the game, Tito even stressed how fast the Celta strikers were and that any space in behind would be cause for concern, but he still started the game with a Pep tactic. We all saw Sergio Busquets shake his head in that first half. He knew that this tactic was not working. But now it was confirmed, and most importantly, Tito Vilanova knew it.
The first switch was to place Sergio Busquets as a central defender in a more traditional back four. However, as we know from Tito’s tinkering in previous matches, he knows that pace is required in that position. The speculation leaked to the media before the last El Clasico about Gerard Pique’s return to fitness was a clear ploy to cover up the fact that Vilanova was going to employ Adriano, a fast not untried player, in that position. So with a pairing of Mascherano and Busquets against Celta, it was clear that something had to give and someone had to be sacrificed. But who?
El Pivote has already discussed Tito’s tactical options of a more possession based game plan using Xavi as the maestro, or a more direct, faster but risky game with the buck being passed to Cesc Fabregas to dictate the tempo. Those who wish to reject this ideology need only look at the games against Celtic and Rayo Vallecano. Against Celtic, we saw Xavi’s conducting matters and he saw the ball 186 times. Against Rayo Vallecano, Barcelona only had 52% of the possession in the first half because the emphasis was on Cesc to look forward at every opportunity, which resulted in goals and assists, but also only 66 touches of the ball for Xavi. If we win do we care? Barcelona never play to win at any cost, but both the Xavi and Cesc options are based on fluid attacking football, which we do care about. So, as long as we get results playing the right way, we shouldn’t care – unless you’ve been spoiled by Pep’s obsession for midfielders everywhere who can possess forever, in which case the relinquishing of the league and Champions League should be enough for you to think again.
It has certainly made Tito think again. And with the winning score line of 2-1 at half time against Celta, it was Cesc who he took off in order to convert to a more traditional back four with Busquets just in front. Bartra came on, the game was played at Xavi’s pace and we looked comfortable in the second half, playing as if to conserve energy for a trip to Scotland. Busquets said what amounted to the same thing, “We had planned to vary our tactics a little based on how they’ve been playing recently but they changed their formation and it didn’t work that well for us. I think we were stronger in the second half and adapted to the rhythm of the game better. We neutralised their counter attacks more effectively and it was a comfortable win for us in the end.”
Going back to Rexach’s comment of Vilanova being in complete command of the squad, how many forty million pound players would come off at half time without complaining? Cesc knows that he is the only outfield player that Tito has started in every league game so far and that he is sitting top of the assists chart due to his manager’s understanding of how he plays. “I was always confident that things would work out well. The manager has shown faith in me and given me the playing time I needed to make me feel important within the team. And that’s how things come together; working hard every morning in training, working hard in the games, and above all with the backing of the manager, which I really appreciate. That is how a footballer can really show what he can do.”
Last season, with the arrival of Cesc Fabregas, it was difficult to see how he was going to fit in. He scored plenty of goals in the first few months, but when teams shut off space in behind, he and his confidence faded meaning that he was not looking as good as his potential suggested. Guardiola had his philosophy and the players had to fit into that, regardless of position; Cesc included. Whilst I understand it’s not everybody’s best intention to harp on about Guardiola, the comparison must be made that Vilanova is putting the team’s needs ahead of his own tactical obsession. The key is now not to perfect exotic football, but to play winning football within the attacking confines set out by the club’s statues. Tito’s tinkering is about him gaining more understanding on the field about his own players. Even though he’s been on the bench for the past four years, his appetite to really know the ins and outs of every single squad member’s abilities should give us all confidence that we’re heading in the right direction. It’s true to say that he has made some tactical mistakes, but our position in both major competitions proves that he has had solutions for every problem posed thus far. I trust Tito with this team. Do you?
Until next time…Visca Barça. El Pivote.
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