When Tito Vilanova replaced Pep Guardiola as Barcelona’s first team manager, he was expected by most to merely pick up where Guardiola had left off. It was assumed that Barcelona would keep their very same identity, with little to no change in their principles and style of play. With the players in the squad and fabulous youth system, the manager made little difference at Barcelona, some said.
But Tito Vilanova’s first few months as a manager have completely disspelled this notion; while they may have been subtle, there have been changes and the personal mark of the new manager can be clearly seen in a lot of aspects. The squad is pretty much identical (with Alba and Song as the only new additions), as is the basic way of playing football – Barcelona’s famous tiki taka style. But by watching any of the matches Barcelona played this year, it is evident that this is not the exact same team that dominated football under Pep Guardiola for four seasons.
One of the changes some people have noticed is that Barcelona have been playing many more long balls under Tito Vilanova, especially Valdés and the defenders. While short intricate passing remains the club’s identity on the football pitch, long balls haven’t been frowned upon this season as much as under Pep Guardiola. But that’s a relatively minor change, and not that can be said to affect the team’s identity in a very significant way. The most important changes Tito has brough is revealed in the way Barcelona have grinded out some wins in the final minutes when all seemed lost (for instance against Granada and Sevilla).
Pep Guardiola was a fantastic manager, but also a very stubborn idealist. He had an idea of how to play football beautifully and efficiently and he always sticked to it even when it was seemingly not working during matches. Even while down/level with a few minutes to go, Pep simply refused to change anything, the key was to remain patience and persevere. That blind faith in the team’s default style brought great results, but it was also a downside in some important games, namely the two Champions League ties that Barcelona lost in 4 years under Pep – if the opponent managed to find an effective way to defend against the Catalans, Barcelona showed no variety in their game to overcome it. Tito has been showing far more willingless to change things up during matches, moving around players, taking out defenders, adding strikers – in short, take risks to overcome a negative situation even if it goes totally against the preconceived tactical approach. While Barcelona were known to have lost some matches many felt they should have during the Guardiola reign, the opposite has happened this season with Barcelona winning matches they seemingly had no business. Tito’s side could have easily lost at Osasuna and Sevilla and drawn against Granada, but they won each of these matches in the dying minutes.
The football on display doesn’t catpure the imagination as Pep Guardiola’s side this, it’s definitely not as magnificently flawless and beautiful. But Tito Vilanova’s version of Barcelona has shown a quality that Pep Guardiola’s somewhat lacked: the ability to win ugly, to grind out matches. In fact, the win at the Snachez Pijuan was the first time in the club’s history that Barcelona won a match after being down at the 88th minute. Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona doesn’t feel as peerless and untouchable as Guardiola, they don’t suffocate every opponent like they used to – this was especially evident in the three El Clásicos of this season – but they know what they need to do to win. It’s basically a less exuberant yet more experienced and ruthless Barcelona. The opponents don’t feel as suffocated as before, but they still usually end up on the losing side.
Tito Vilanova must take a lot of the credit here for his boldness during matches and the belief/fighting spirit he has instilled. He has fully abandoned the 3-4-3 often used by Guardiola as a primary tactic last season, but shown more willingless to change his default 4-3-3 during matches when the situation demands it – in clear contrast with Guardiola, whose changes happened mostly in the final 15 minutes and didn’t bring anything new tactically.
It is clear that the quality of the football has gone down a few notches, but the truth is that Barcelona seem poised to win yet another La Liga trophy and compete for the Champions League. This is not the magical Barcelona of Pep Guardiola, but the Tito Vilanova version of Barcelona is quite fearsome itself and promises to try and retain its domination over Spanish and European football.