Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ruthless Barca

We might not get the same romantic Barcelona, but we will get a more ruthless one. Those were my sentiments at the beginning of the season and that’s what we are seeing now. 55 points at the halfway stage is a La Liga record and in all probability the championship will be wrapped up in record time.

As things stand, Barca are 10 points ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid and 18 better off than reigning champions and eternal rivals Real Madrid.

So have Barcelona improved under Tito Vilanova? Statistics would certainly seem to support this point of view.
Leading the way...
Lionel Messi
On the whole, the core philosophy remains the same; possession is king. This season Barca have averaged 69% possession in the league, similar numbers to the three previous seasons under Pep Guardiola (69.7 last season, 72.1 in 2010/11 and 68.1 in 2009/10). Opponents are starved of the ball, passed into submission and then ruthlessly disposed of.

It is in the side’s essence where subtle differences are noticeable – a change in mentality.

Under Guardiola Barcelona were the romantic’s dream. Guardiola’s religious advocating of pass-and-move football became both a wonder and a reference.

Vilanova’s Barca is not the same. It’s not the dreamy Barca we’ve seen in the past, but rather a more machine-like outfit, one primarily driven to win.

It’s probably a reflection of Barcelona’s frame of mind since June – a need to prove themselves. Given their success in recent years, it may sound ludicrous to suggest Barca had any need to prove themselves. However, after Real Madrid’s rise and accolades last season, beating Barca at the Nou Camp and breaking records along the way, there were whispers of a changing reality, perhaps a new-world order.

When Guardiola left there was uncertainty, with some even going as far as to question Barcelona’s might.

Vilanova, therefore, has had has plenty to prove since taking over from Guardiola, wanting to show he’s a top-class coach in his own right. The players too are hungry after a relatively disappointing season (by Barca’s recent standards) in which they only won the Copa del Rey, and back-alley questions over their longevity and productivity.

The upshot has been Barca making the best start ever to a La Liga season.

One thing Vilanova has done well is not to tinker with the team. He has found his best line-up, something that wasn’t always clear with Guardiola during his final season.

In his final season Guardiola was perhaps guilty of experimenting a bit too much, regularly varying his systems, including a gung-ho 3-4-3 formation. This season there’s a more settled feel. There’s a clear formation and a preferred first eleven: Victor Valdes in goals; Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba in defence; Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas in midfield; and Andres Iniesta, Pedro and Lionel Messi upfront.

That’s the line-up Vilanova will pick more often than not. As a result the Barcelona team is more settled and that’s what makes them stronger as a unit.

Vilanova, of course, has the luxury of having the finest player of his generation at his disposal. The star of Messi has shone through – 28 goals in 19 games is an insane number. Messi has, again, been by far and away the finest player in the world this season.

However, it is the form of other players that has Barca cruising to a fourth title in five years. The contributions of Adriano and Alba to the goals tally, for example, have given the Catalans a new outlet.

It has also given them options. By regularly playing such players as Adriano, thus giving them confidence, Vilanova has given himself viable alternatives. Adriano is more than adequate cover on either flank and, on current form, may be Barca’s best option at right-back. Martin Montoya has also done well when called upon, a young player who’s excellent defensively and offensively.
All for one, one for all...
Barcelona celebrate another goal
Fabregas, in his second season, has finally become an important member of the team and his contribution has given Barca a new dimension. Whereas Fabregas was used sparingly and in various positions last season, he’s playing regularly in his preferred attacking midfield role. Barcelona’s increased team speed and “direct” approach favours his style and enables Fabregas to provide a genuine box-to-box threat.

This increased depth is maybe the major improvement from last season under Guardiola.

Other areas also point to a greater ruthlessness. Only 9.7% of passes have been in Barcelona’s own defensive third this season, compared to 13% last season. Barca have also scored 12 goals from long range this season, doubling their effectiveness from 7.1% accuracy under Guardiola to 12.5% under Vilanova. Their efficiency record of 24.7% in front of goal, the best in Europe’s top five leagues, is also another pointer to their cutting edge.

At the moment Barcelona show no signs of letting up. There’s a hunger best transmitted by Vilanova himself: “We’re coming off of four successful years and it’s a good thing that (the players) know the concepts of the system. Besides, the players are eager to continue winning. We are not invincible. Everything we’ve achieved up until now is thanks to the effort we’ve put in and our eagerness to win. The day we don’t play at a high level is the day we lose.”

Barcelona’s improvement is not good news for rivals. That hallowed treble is a very real possibility.

Written before Barcelona’s 3-2 loss to Real Sociedad


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