It says everything about Pep Guardiola’s transformation of Barcelona that his fourth season in charge was his least successful, ending as it did with just the four trophies.
The problem was of course that neither the League nor the Champions League were amongst that haul of silverware and Barca must now move forward without Guardiola, as his assistant Tito Vilanova gets to taste management for the very first time at senior level.
For most big clubs, that kind of gamble would seem unthinkable, but it was a very Barcelona appointment, promoting from within and believing that what they produce from their own system is as good as anything that can be imported.
That has also been the attitude to the transfer market this summer as their only signing, Jordi Alba, spent his formative years at La Masia before being released and finding his way to the top via Cornella and Valencia.
However, it is continuity that threatens to make Barca as strong as ever this season. Alba’s arrival covers the one major area of weakness from last season in Eric Abidal’s absence through illness, whilst the European Championships seemed to confirm that Gerard Pique is over his dip in form and fitness.
Midfield will always be an area of strength given the depth of quality on offer to Vilanova but it is in the forward areas that significant improvements from last season can be made. Lionel Messi’s staggering goalscoring achievements helped to mask the fact that his contribution was so telling simply because it had to be. In 2010-11 Pedro and David Villa combined for 45 goals, but last year injury-affected seasons meant they only managed 13 and nine respectively. Both are now back but will have to hit the ground running with Alexis Sanchez, Cristian Tello and Isaac Cuenca also fighting for places in the wide areas.
It is a dilemma that any tactician would want but with such resources comes a great responsibility, especially given Vilanova has stepped up to whet his managerial appetite with the most colossal of poisoned chalices in following Guardiola. A second year without one of the big two titles may well make even a second season under the 42-year-old untenable.
The difference maker – Lionel Messi
It’s supposed to be difficult to improve on perfection but Messi seems to take it in his stride. Repeating his return of 73 goals and 29 assists from last season seems preposterous, but then so did bettering his 53 goals and 24 assists from the previous season.
Moreover, as Javier Mascherano pointed out recently, the World Player of the Year will undoubtedly be fresher having had a summer off for the first time in three years. The most remarkable part of Messi breaking Gerd Muller’s goalscoring record in a European season earlier this year was that it came on the back of starting his season with an international tournament in the Copa America. Indeed including international commitments, the 24-year-old actually scored 82 goals in 69 games from July 1, 2011 to June 6, 2012. Now he has had two months off it is frightening to think what he might achieve.
Best signing – Jordi Alba
It wasn’t hard to pick a candidate for this category but Barca’s sole summer acquisition to date does promise to be an excellent one. Any lingering doubts over whether the 23-year-old had the defensive capabilities to go with his undoubted pace, drive and vision going forward were dispelled at the Euros and his goal in the final when he raced onto a pass through the eye of a needle from Xavi Hernandez is just a small sample of what is to come.
His time? Thiago Alcantara
Whilst Xavi remains Barca’s metronome there is a realisation that his ability to play 60 games a season may have gone due to his battle with a chronic Achilles problem. There is no shortage of pretenders to the great man’s throne but the one most suited to stepping into the role is Thiago. His range of passing and crucially the speed with which he moves the ball on is reminiscent of Xavi and he is also more akin to playing a slightly deeper role than the likes of Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas.
Coach – Tito Vilanova
It is hard to give a summary of Vilanova’s tactical preferences as we have yet to see how he will differ, if at all, from Guardiola’s systems. The latter was always keen on evolution, even when logic dictated otherwise, so obsessed was he that the world would finally work out how to play Barca. That experimentation though does leave Vilanova with options as the squad is now far more accustomed to playing in systems beyond the traditional 4-3-3 Barcelona model. A back three probably won’t be used as frequently as last season as Alba replacing Abidal takes away that fluidity but it will still make an appearance against certain opponents to allow the Catalans even more dominance of the ball in midfield.
The big question…
With such a settled and successful squad it is the change on the touchline that remains the question mark. Vilanova has undoubtedly been a big part of Barcelona’s success under Guardiola but he doesn’t have the presence or the credit in the bank of having been a world class player that instantly demands respect from players, fans and the media alike. With three El Clasicos to come in the first two months of the season should Vilanova suffer a bad start it won’t take long for murmurs that a more experienced personality was needed for the job to set in.
Probable line-up: Valdes; Alves, Mascherano, Pique, ALBA; Busquets, Xavi; Iniesta; Sanchez, Messi, Villa
IN: Alba (d, Valencia)
OUT: Keita (m, Dalian Aerbin)