No Manager Mo Problems: They Think It’s All Vilan-OverPosted: February 28, 2013
THE BARCELONA PROJECT IS FINISHED. DONE. LA MASIA? OVERRATED. THE TEAM RELIES ON MESSI AND HE’S BEEN FOUND OUT. FÀBREGAS IS DESTROYING BOTH HIS AN INIESTA’S CAREERS. FÀBREGAS IS BLOWING BARCELONA’S HOUSE OF CARDS OVER. XAVI AND PUYOL ARE TOO OLD. BURN IT ALL DOWN. BEST TEAM EVER? NOT EVEN THE BEST TEAM IN CATALONIA. THE EXPERIMENT IS FINISHED. I’M OFF TO FIND A NEW BANDWAGON. ALL HAIL BAYERN AND THEIR GLORIOUS MAGNIFICENCE.
That may seem somewhat overstated as a reaction to Barcelona’s current plight, but take away the capital letters and a worryingly little amount of sensationalism and you have a verdict very similar to those of a few of the actual journalists on my Twitter during the most recent episode of El Clásico. It was as hilarious as it was infuriating, and a few of the comments on Cesc Fàbregas and Andrés Iniesta’s respective performances went their way to showing up the actual watchers from the pseuds. Barcelona, for once, have been this week’s Arsenal Lite, for all the oh-so occasional viewers opportunistically looking to gain a few views by throwing their two cents at anyone they think may pick them up. And no, that isn’t what I’m doing here!
A few things worth noting at this point: Barcelona are 15 points clear at the top in La Liga before the end of February; they have lost a game in a cup competition that is not particularly well-regarded – although it was admittedly a full side and an emphatic loss – and are 2-0 down, with a home leg looming, against arguably the poorest (yet confidence-filled) AC Milan side in a generation which they are more than capable of overcoming. Quite the crisis for the crumbling empire. Are they still the best side in Europe? Undoubtedly, even if not on current form.
Before Tito Vilanova’s cancer relapse and subsequent absence from the sidelines (since mid-January), they had played 20 league games, winning 18 of them and drawing and losing just one: against Real Madrid and Real Sociedad, respectively. As well as this, they amassed four wins, one loss and a draw in a dead rubber against Benfica in the Champions League. They were more ruthless than previous forms of themselves – I wrote about their philosophical shift in this, focussing mainly on Fàbregas and Xavi Hernández – and on the evidence provided, potentially even more effective. Since Vilanova’s absense they dropped two points against Valencia, and despite winning the remaining five in the league, they fell to the two aforementioned cup losses against Milan and Real Madrid.
What the raw stats only capture in part is the difference in how strong they looked in the two periods. While the sample sizes are significantly smaller, their falling behind and points dropped at Mestalla and cup performances, with the uncharacteristically scrappy nature of the wins against Sevilla and Granada are demonstrative of this. There can be no disputing the fact that they have looked disjointed and tactically confused since his departure, and no two have epitomised this more than Fàbregas and Iniesta.
Without guidance from Vilanova, the team has become almost self-managing, reverting, with Xavi’s guidance, back to a style far closer to Pep Guardiola’s than the one adopted this season. But Jordi Roura, presumably operating under his boss’ instructions, is fielding the team built for Vilanova’s more direct method: namely with Fàbregas in the midfield next to Xavi, Iniesta out on the left and David Villa on the bench. So much of what made their style so effective was their strength in midfield, specifically the Xavi-Iniesta partnership, and how well- versed the two are at playing a lateral style, not to mention their near-telepathic relationship. Fàbregas, however, prefers the more direct route and does his best creative work high up the pitch.
The problem lies in that without Vilanova, they feel the need to bring Iniesta into play wherever and whenever possible, which sees him sit slightly deeper and further infield, which inhibits Fàbregas’ space and in turn leads to Fàbregas inhibiting Iniesta’s. The fact that the former Arsenal captain has scored just one of his 9 goals and not added to his 9 assists speaks to this, just as Iniesta contributing just 1 goal and 2 assists to his total of 5 and 13 does. And a further looks shows that the goal and one of the assists came in the 6-1 thrashing of Getafe and the second assist was when they were already 3-0 down to Real Madrid. The effectiveness of both has suffered considerably.
It is important to note their pre-Vilanova-absence stats to make clear that Iniesta has not been marginalised in Fàbregas’ name. Far from it; both had been more effective than they had been in some time. In fact, Iniesta has produced the same number of goals and four more assists than he did all of last season. And similarly, Fàbregas is already on the same number of goals and is one assist better off than the whole of last season. Of course, the stats never tell the full story, but their respective levels of productivity being higher this February than they were last May says a lot of what it needs to.
So what is the solution, until Vilanova is back? Without him they have no one to direct the way he wants them to play, so they are stuck between the two ways. Roura cannot change games as the pair preceding him could, nor set up in different ways to counter their opponents. His best hope is probably to drop the unfortunate Fàbregas and bring Villa on in his place, moving Iniesta inside, back to Guardiola’s preferred setup.
If nothing else, recent events should put to bed the myth that anyone can manage Barcelona and with it should increase the appreciation for the job Guardiola did and Vilanova was doing and will hopefully continue to do upon his return. They have another Clásico this evening and the Milan second leg in 10 days time, both of which are very difficult to call. But reports of Barcelona’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Some may think it’s all over, but in reality it is far, far from it.