The 2012-13 season seems to be going great guns – perhaps to a certain extent. However, there’s always more to it than meets the eye. Vilanova has a squad of superstars, who surprisingly are extremely cohesive. His team is doing reasonably well and holds a 9-point advantage over their nearest rival. In the Champions League, they face AC Milan, certainly one of the powerhouses of European and World football, but currently lying seventh, 17 points adrift of reigning champions and league leaders Juventus.
The team primarily remains the same and so does the philosophy. But Vilanova has made a few amendments, and the team has now learnt to grind out results against oppositions like Getafe (last season they lost 1-0; this season they won 4-1) and Osasuna (last season they lost 3-2; this season they won 2-1). More importantly, they have somewhat learnt to convert draws into wins. With 7 draws and 3 losses last season, Barcelona dropped 23 points – and by the 17th round of the domestic league, they had already dropped 11 points (4 draws, 1 loss). This term they have dropped just 2 points, that too against a star-studded Real Madrid, at home – a gaffe which can be overlooked in the wake of their good form and the unavailability of defense (quite literally).
Vilanova’s Barca is perhaps an improvement over Guardiola’s, simply in terms of results. With 16 wins in 17 games, this is the best that any manager could have wished for. However, there are a few concerns, which Vilanova needs to address in order to forge an even stronger team in his quest for the ultimate glory in the realm of club football.
Defense – Should They Buy Mats Hummels?
This is no rocket science. FC Barcelona has a meek defense in the absence of Puyol. Pique is gradually getting back to his old self but he’s not there just yet. The entire defense hasn’t been upto the mark and it’d be unfair to point out to Pique in particular. He has been doing reasonably well this term and behind Jordi Alba and Mascherano with the most number of appearances for a defender, Pique is on course to cement his place in the Barca line-up for good. With Marc Bartra coming up from the academy and Martin Montoya poised to replace Dani Alves eventually, the future seems to be in safe hands, but the present needs to be forged. And this is where Barcelona needs to invest.
Alex Song has had a great season last term in midfield. He’s been equally appalling in defense this season. To have it straight, Song is not palatable as a defender and he is there to fill the void created by the departure of Keita and maybe a little more – but definitely not defense. The club has not been splurging of late and a reasonable amount of money should be invested in a defender of repute – perhaps Hummels or even Agger. Both can be long-term signings and would allow enough time to the promising youngsters to reach an age where they can establish themselves as dependable enough to take on the likes of Radamel Falcao, Edinson Cavani, et al.
Standing 6’4”, Mats Hummels is perhaps the best in the business. The former Bayern Munich youth player, after being rejected by the parent club, scaled heights which were unimaginable to his previous employers. So much so that Bayern even wanted to get back their product. However, Hummels refused and with Dortmund, he’s almost a legend. Extremely comfortable with the ball at his feet, the towering German is just the type of defender FC Barcelona need. His last two seasons with Dortmund and exceptional performance for the national team in the Euros bear testimony to his ability and potential. And at 24, he is not even close to his peak.
Dortmund seem to have a tendency to let go their stars at prices which look peanuts – Nuri Sahin joined Real Madrid for a paltry sum of €10 million and and Shinji Kagawa moved to Manchester in a move that saw the German club richer by £17 million upon fulfilment of a few conditions. And a bid in the region of £25 million should do the trick for Barcelona – a fair price for a defender of the calibre of Hummels.
Jordi Alba has fitted in well, however the return of Eric Abidal will only buoy the team spirit and Barcelona will have yet another option at the centre of defense. Abidal can ease Bartra’s transition into the first team. Despite that, Hummels should still be a target for the club in the near future in order to prevent any predicament. The second half of the season looks relatively better with the presence of key personnel, back from illness and injury – that said, the intensity and pressure too will only scale heights which did not seem like coming the club’s way in the first half.
Midfield is not a department which will bother Vilanova. With Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets playing in tandem and with the likes of Alcantara, Song, Cesc Fabregas as deputies, there is healthy competition and the presence of veterans like Xavi will only help youngsters like Roberto get into the team more effectively.
The Curious Case Of David And Alexis
Apparently, the Barcelona offense is devoid of any major issues and Pedro’s return to form with a brace against Espanyol further adds to Vilanova’s headache, which he will definitely not complain about. But this does not hide two decisive concerns – David Villa and Alexis Sanchez. The former is a proven star who is still coping with lack of football while recovering from a career-threatening injury and the latter, an upcoming talent, who is yet to find his footing at the Camp Nou.
David Villa, who succumbed to an excruciating injury at the Club World Cup in December 2011, made a comeback in August against Sociedad, but has not been able to cement a place in the starting line-up. His growing frustration at the lack of playing time has made suitors look to sign him and apparently Arsenal are leading the race. However, Villa isn’t leaving this winter. If at all he moves, the former Valencia striker is most likely to do so in summer. The Barcelona president too has quashed such rumours and has insisted that Villa has an integral role to play in Barcelona’s quest for all the trophies come the second half of the season. However, one thing is for sure – Villa will need to play more if fans are to see him at the Camp Nou, beyond the running season.
Alexis Sanchez has been anything but the player he’s expected to be. The high-profile signing from Udinese was expected to hit the ground running, but Alexis hasn’t quite done so. More importantly, he hasn’t featured on the score sheet for quite some time now. With only one goal this season, Alexis is far from the player fans expected him to be and rumours have it that Juventus are willing to take the beleaguered Chilean back to Italy. Although the fans are growing impatient with him, it is difficult to overlook Alexis’ contribution – he has helped open up defences, thereby enabling his teammates to operate with more freedom and less resistance. Alexis perhaps has a future at the Camp Nou, given the fact that he has started most of the important games so far. However, the young Chilean has to find the back of the net sooner rather than later to share the goal scoring burden with the rest of his teammates.
Isaac Cuenca, a promising lad from the famed youth facility of Barca, lost in obscurity after a serious injury. Although he’s back in training with the rest of the squad, Cristian Tello has taken great strides to be counted upon as the next La Masia gem to be inducted in the scheme of things for the first team. Life is unfair and Isaac Cuenca perhaps has been subjected to such a treatment. However, given the grit the youth team players usually have, it’s certainly not beyond him to make up for lost time and opportunity with great determination. Valencia are supposedly looking to acquire the youngster on-loan for the rest of the season. Although the style of football will be distinctly different at Valencia, Cuenca should accept the offer to get back to playing football and return as a match-fit player ready to be moulded, once again, in the Barcelona way.
Victor Valdes’ Heir…
Over the years, Barcelona transfer analysis hardly had a mention of a goalkeeper. This year, it’s different. Barcelona are reported to be looking for a young deputy for Victor Valdes, who has been error-prone at times. Apparently, the Catalans have been in the market for Valencia custodian Vicente Guaita, who is valued at around €12 million. However, the point to be noted here is that Victor Valdes is 30 and has the potential to be the first choice custodian for the Catalans for at least 4-5 more years. Guaita, who is 25 now will be 30 then – will it be a wise choice to invest on a player who may not be at the peak of his career when required? A far better choice would be Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea, currently on-loan to Atletico Madrid. At 20, and standing tall at 6’6” the Belgian is a great combination of age and physical attribute to be a top goalkeeper in future. Whether Barcelona make a formal offer for the youngster is yet to be known. But this transfer certainly has the potential to be a successful one given the age and experience of the player in the Spanish League.
As of now, FC Barcelona do not look too tempted to make any major changes to their squad during the winter transfer window.