Vilanova tinkers with style as he looks to continue Guardiola’s work
Published: 31.10.12 / Written by: David Gold
When Jose Mourinho was involved in that unseemly spat at the start of last season and Real Madrid’s Copa del Rey final defeat to Barcelona, he claimed not to have heard of Tito Vilanova.
Vilanova, of course, had just been poked in the eye by Mourinho in an incident which took the focus away from his team, who had engaged in an ugly melee as they left the field.
The substance of Vilanova’s Barcelona is not particularly different from Guardiola’s, nor would anyone expect it to be. Barcelona played a highly successful system under Guardiola, and Vilanova as his assistant, was the continuity appointment, made as it was on the same day that Guardiola’s departure was announced.
He has so far played the 4-3-3 that is Barcelona’s default system, with none of the variations on a back three which Pep Guardiola used. Guardiola altered his team a lot, often playing with an effective back three with Dani Alves operating in midfield for the most part, and either Sergio Busquets or Eric Abidal joining the centre backs.
Under Vilanova, Barcelona have Jordi Alba back too after the La Masia graduate re joined from Valencia. Along with Alves, he has been pushing high up the pitch, overlapping the forwards to create width.
One of the few changes under Vilanova has been more use of longer balls. This is designed to stretch the opposition. With Leo Messi operating centrally and occupying the thoughts of opponents, he drags players further infield with him, and when that happens, the opportunity arises to send a high ball over for a fast attacker to latch onto. This is a ploy Argentina have also used with Sergio Aguero the beneficiary.
Longer, diagonal balls hardly dominate, but they are being used more often to ensure Barcelona keep the pressure on the opposition when they lose the ball. It throws that added element of confusion into the opponents’ thoughts, as expecting Barcelona to tiki-taka them to death, they now have to pay more attention to the individual runs of players like Alves or Alba.
The results are certainly already in evidence. Barcelona were the only team in Europe’s major leagues to win all ten of their opening games of the season in both the league and Europe combined. The 2-2 draw with Real Madrid ended that run, but was a useful measure of Vilanova’s team. They are, after all, not the champions – Real are – and the match illustrated that there was not much between the teams. In the league however, Real are eight points behind, as they have lost points to other teams, while Barcelona have steamrollered their opposition. This is almost exactly the opposite of last season, when Barcelona seemed lethargic and complacent against other sides, and gave up easy points earlier in the season which gave Real an advantage they never relinquished.
So far then, Vilanova is continuing with the path laid out before him by Guardiola so successfully, with just minor tweaks. With just a small part of the season gone there are many more conclusions to draw, but the signs are that the era of Barcelona’s dominance may not have just gone with that of Guardiola himself.