Besides now having a coach with hair, it might seem like not much has changed at FC Barcelona. The Catalan giants are still winning, having yet to lose a point this season, and Tito appears to be following in the footsteps of Josep Guardiola. But is he really doing so? Sure, Tito has exactly the same football philosophy as Pep, which was one of the main reasons he got the job, and Tito was also a big part of everything Pep did as a coach. Tito is as calm and humble during press conferences as Pep was, he dresses nearly the same way for the important games, he trusts the youth players, his ideas are more or less the same. In so many ways Tito is like Pep. There are differences, however, and I believe that Tito’s team is quite different when compared to Pep’s team. It’s the same, but at the same time it’s different.
An in between season
One of the main reasons I believe Tito’s team is different is because of necessity. I’d like to consider this as an in between season. It’s a season that should not be about winning, but more about creating a winning team. This is a season of change. The change won’t be in how things are run or how the game should be played, but it is a season of change in terms of players. Two of the team’s most important players of the last decade are Carles Puyol and Xavi Hérnandez, two players who are still among the best in the world, but whose bodies say it’s time to take it down a notch. Neither Puyol nor Xavi will be able to play 60+ games this season like they’ve been doing for pretty much the last 5 years, and they won’t be able to play that number of games in future seasons either. Those are two enormous holes that Tito has to fill and it is during this season that he has to do so. It’s time for a generational shift at FC Barcelona, which is why this season should be seen as an in between season, a season between two epochs. That’s also one reason why some things will be different at the Camp Nou this season, and there will be line-ups we’ve never seen before.
Those who follow me on twitter might have wondered this past week why I was so harsh on Madrid after they came away with a 3-2 win over Manchester City at home in the Champions League, while I stated that Barça had a “great game” with the same scoreline at home against Moscow. The reason is simple, Madrid has or should have an almost complete team. This should be their season, looking at the players they have and the previous season. For the first time in five years, I fear Madrid this season. With Barça, as I mentioned above, I expect this to be a transitional season, one to primarily grow and prepare the next generation. For Madrid, this was supposed to be the season for them to win it all. That’s why I think Mourinho should be disappointed with his squad for the season’s opening games, while Tito has every right to be proud of his boys.
If we also look at Barça’s first few games of the season, we can see some of the change I’ve been talking about. There has already been a lot of trust shown in the youth players. This is a crucial piece for Tito to build on, and another reason he got the job in the first place. If Pep was eager to use youth players, it seems Tito is determined to do so. So far this season, we’ve seen Cristian Tello, who on paper is still with the B team, starting 4 of 5 league matches as well as the Champions League game this past week. Martin Montoya played 90 minutes in the 4-1 win over Getafe last weekend. Now with both Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué out injured, it would be no surprise if young Marc Bartra earns a permanent place in the defense.
Another important piece of Tito’s Barça is a lot of rotation, which is normal with the generation shift that is going on. Four rounds into the season, 19 players have been used by Tito in La Liga. He has yet to use the same line-up twice. Against Moscow, we also saw a whole new defense after Piqué exited injured, in the form of Adriano, Song, Mascherano and Alvés. This later switched to a three man defense as Dani Alvés was taken off for Alexis. Up front we’ve mostly seen an attack consisting of Tello, Leo and Pedro, and in the middle Cesc has been a regular. Many of these changes are due to injuries, but still there are a lot of new and interesting formations coming from Tito. Another element involving the usage of players that I’ve noticed is that Tito likes to make his substitutions earlier than Pep did, with all three of them often taking place between the 50th and 75th minutes. This gives the player coming on more than 20 minutes to make a difference. Pep, in contrast, insisted on always making late substitutions, giving the fresh player 5-10 minutes to make an impact.
One of the biggest differences between Pep and Tito that I have observed is one of demeanor. Even though Pep was generally calm, he somehow gave the impression of being all over the place. You saw him and knew something would happen. Tito is more laid back, you notice him but often he stands in the shadows, not drawing attention. In that stillness a master plan just might well be created. I have the feeling that even though Tito seems more calm on the surface, he will take bigger risks than Pep ever did.
It’s impossible after only four league games and one Champions League game to say how this season will end or how good of a head coach Tito really is. But for me at least, this is not a season to win everything (although I won’t complain if we do), but more a season to create the next masterpiece. This is the season to make players like Thiago, Bartra, Montoya, Alba, Tello, etc. ready for the responsibility that’s been on the shoulders of players like Xavi and Puyol. This is the season when we will see which players are here for the long run and which won’t make it. This is the season for change, but at the same time, no change at all. A lot will be the same, but still a bit different.
Follow Alexandra on Twitter: @AlexandraJonson