El Pivote: Vilanova’s Honeymoon Period is Over

El Pivote: Vilanova’s Honeymoon Period is Over

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.

In this week’s edition of El Pivote we will consolidate what we have learned about Barcelona under Vilanova this season and consider how well set up we are, or not, for the rest of the campaign.

 Testing Complete

With Barcelona ensuring qualification to the knockout stages of the Champions League yesterday evening, thanks to a win away in Russia, Vilanova can now concentrate on building up momentum and making sure that Barcelona are in a position to fire on all cylinders by the time we get to March. Why March one may ask? In the first weekend in March, Barcelona will travel to the Santiago Bernabeu to play in the second El Clásico of La Liga, and potentially just three days later, could face a rather tricky home second leg tie in the Champions League. There is, of course, a chance that Vilanova may have an extra week, depending on the television schedule produced by UEFA, but nonetheless, March will be an important month. Finishing first in the group for the sixth consecutive time means that we could face Zlatan’s Paris, unbeaten Porto, Cesc’s old boys from London, Huntelaar’s Schalke, Bojan’s Milan, Martin Caceres’ Juventus, an improved Shakhtar outfit, finalists for two of the last three seasons – Bayern Munich. Whoever we play will make it difficult.

In previous El Pivote’s, we have talked about what Vilanova has changed and evolved in order to put his own stamp on the Barcelona team, with Cesc’s direct passing style being a feature of this season. We have also seen experimentation with the defence, albeit mainly due to injury. In terms of looking forward to the big games in March and beyond, at centre back can we rely on Adriano to give us pace, Javier Mascherano to recover his best form in that position and an inexperienced Marc Bartra? The management evidently decided no before the season started because they pursued a centre back who could also play in midfield – Alex Song. If we class Alex Song as an experiment, we now have the results that it will be very difficult to see Vilanova playing Song at the back again unless absolutely necessary. So all in all, the former Arsenal player could be seen to be an expensive replacement for Seydou Keita. Even though he had a decent, goal-scoring display against Zaragoza, did he do anything that Jonathan Dos Santos could not do?

Paco Ayestarán gives us his two pennies, “Against Zaragoza he showed confidence to start to build up the game from the back [of the midfield], but it’s not the same to be doing it as a midfielder [like against Zaragoza] because he knows that his back is covered by the central defenders rather than being the last man himself. From now on, I cannot see him as a central defender; I don’t think he has the right characteristics or the understanding of how Barcelona want him to play as a central defender.”

Author of the new Pep Guardiola biography, Guillem Balague, considers the approach in transfer market, “Perhaps this is the first failure of Tito Vilanova, in terms of signings. They had the opportunity of signing Javi Martinez for centre back and central midfielder, but decided not to go for him because he was too expensive. But Alex Song was bought as a centre back as well, and he has been given a chance, but he is one of the reasons why they have conceded 15 goals in 12 games. I’m not sure he’s going to be used in that position again, which means with the injury of Bartra for the next five games or so, they will again struggle to find a replacement for Puyol and Pique.”

Just in case you were wondering how important replacements for Pique and Puyol were for Barcelona, consider how many times they have started together over the last four years in all competitions. In Guardiola’s first season of 08/09, they started only 29 games out of a possible 62. In the next season of 09/10, 35 games out of 69. In 10/11, 20 out of 62 matches. Last season under Pep, 21 out of 64 games. So far this season, only three of the nineteen games. This clearly shows that it is as important as ever to have at least three world class centre backs, especially when one of them is not exactly a spring chicken and is injury prone. Now with not one, but two, full backs that love attacking, defensive stability is paramount and therefore a natural central defender must be back on the shopping list. Who knows, maybe Eric Abidal might be match fit again by March…

Messidependencia

In the league match against Zaragoza, David Villa and Pedro did not have a shot at goal between them. Lionel Messi scored two goals and the other one was created by the Argentine, and after the match the opposing coach said that Messi was the only difference between the two teams. Barcelona did not really get out of second gear in that match and arguably he may have a point. Next up versus Spartak Moscow, Barca put on an amazing first half display. Lionel Messi scored two goals and the other one was created by the Argentine – déjà vu?

With Messi being just five goals behind Gerd Müller, has the team effectively decided that getting Messi as many goals as possible is now of importance? Pedro can be accused of trying to look for Messi a little bit too much as of late. He even got a yellow card for a blatant dive in Russia – a penalty would have resulted in another Messi strike. We all know that David Villa would rather be a goal-scoring forward, rather than taking a back seat at finishing. Alexis Sanchez has certainly been shy in front of goal this season, and instead of being desperate to score against Mallorca when put through, he still decided to assist Messi.

However, if you have one of the best finishers in history on your team, why not try to set him up as much as possible? Pedro, Cesc and Iniesta all had chances to score against Spartak, but could not beat the keeper. David Villa blazed the majority of his chances over the bar at Celtic Park when we needed a trademark finish. Guardiola wanted to make everything go through Messi, and Vilanova seems to have followed the logic – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Pedro sacrificing himself for the team is nothing new. David Villa, on the other hand, is feeling extremely frustrated at never getting a full game, and seemingly not being trusted yet to deliver for us. Two questions remain. Can he ever produce like he used to? Does he have to accept playing a very second fiddle to Messi? The truth is that Villa’s form had taken a serious dip months before his leg break, so perhaps we could be expecting too much.

Graham Hunter has his say, “He was taken off after an hour [against Zaragoza] and he’s an extremely proud man. He and Messi have had angry gestures, angry words, but any professional footballer would say that’s part of the job of work. Where I think that there’s a problem is that Villa believes, on his current form, from what he brought to the club from Valencia, from Spain and from his first two seasons at Barcelona, that he deserves more game time. He’s been feeling that for a long time; the club have said it’s a medical thing and that they’re looking after him because he’s recovering from such a bad leg break. He now thinks that he’s earned two or three ninety minute displays. I think that’s fair, and tension is building to the extent that Manchester City have been alerted and they’ve just had a gentle word with agent saying ‘exactly how unsettled is he?’”

If indeed Vilanova decides that the best course of action is to play a more selfless, creative player on the left-hand side of the front three, Iniesta could find himself out there with Jordi Alba overlapping to the same devastating effective as in the Euro’s. Adriano’s versatility could see him providing width out there, almost interchanging with Jordi Alba like the Catalan did with Mathieu in his Valencia days. Sanchez and Tello seem content to simply give width and play the ball back into the central zone in order to keep possession in and around the box, which is where creativity is at its most dangerous. If Deulofeu keeps up his rapid improvements, his extra mobility and creativity could be used to great effect as well. Personally I am a huge fan of David Villa, but if selling him would enable us to spend more money on a natural central defender, is that something that should be looked at? My worry would be that if anything were to happen to Messi, we would be craving for a world class striker to stay up top and finish anything that was put in the box, especially with a more direct passing style from Fàbregas in the middle.

Tito has managed to gauge a deep understanding of his own squad, and has racked up an impressive points total without his first choice centre back pairing. Now that he has those two back, the pressure really is on for him to dramatically improve the defensive side of our game. They have had their break. They should no longer be tired. They should still be fresher than most come March; that is if they are fit to play then. And what about this goalscoring record? As Messi says, “Record? What is important is that we won.”

Until next time…Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate! El Pivote.

Source: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images Europe