On Wednesday, Barcelona’s dominance of soccer came to a screeching halt as Real Madrid celebrated winning the Spanish title. Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho said it was the most difficult victory he has ever achieved. This was an understatement.
The current Barcelona squad has been described by many as being the best in history. Few can remember a team that dominated the game so thoroughly. Barcelona dominates even in defeat. Some have managed to hunker down in defense and steal a goal on a counterattack, but emerging from the pitch as the better side is impossible.
Today, Barcelona recruits most of the players in its small squad from La Masia youth academy. Children from numerous backgrounds grow up in Barcelona and are trained from an early age to play on the professional team. They are taught to think and act in a way that would tactically be useful for Barcelona to win.
So for most of their lives, Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, and other stars together learned the Barcelona way. They were taught tiki-taka, to pass and go. Or, as Iniesta explains it, “receive, pass, offer, receive, pass, offer.” For four years, the Barcelona institution has dominated with its home-grown success.
Now, all of a sudden, the dominance is gone. Barcelona was kicked out of the Champions League by Chelsea. The long-awaited comeback in the league never happened. Looking forward to a cup victory against Athletic Bilbao almost seems like an insult after all that the squad has accomplished.
Unsurprisingly, coach Pep Guardiola opted not to renew his contract, and exit now so that his unquestioned greatness remains unquestioned. Unsurprisingly, Barcelona appointed former youth team player and current Guardiola assistant Tito Vilanova to the top job.
The 42-year-old Vilanova has never coached a team, big or small, in his life. Yet, after having known so much success by sticking to its roots, Barcelona’s management hardly seemed likely to settle on someone foreign to the team.
It’s likely that Guardiola can look forward to coaching the Spanish national team after this summer’s European Championships. But what does the future hold for Barcelona?
Vilanova will start his job under difficult circumstances. When Guardiola was appointed to the post nearly four years ago, there was tremendous criticism. After all, he was only the reserve team coach as opposed to a famous foreigner who had won numerous titles.
However, Guardiola, unlike Vilanova, could at least point to substantial success as reserve team coach. If Vilanova slips, critics will immediately claim that he was not in any way responsible for the success enjoyed under his predecessor.
Vilanova will need to ask more from his players, and end the failed strategy of squad rotation that resulted in the vast majority of defeats this season. High-cost substitutes such as Seydou Keita and Javier Mascherano must be dumped in favor of younger players who are looking forward to a first-team career.
This summer, Barcelona needs new signings in key areas. This season and the last one, Barcelona struggled against teams that maintained a deep defensive line to keep Barcelona at bay.
Many squads were happy to let Barcelona maintain possession and control the game. They did not need to score, and were glad to watch their opponents play with the ball as long as their penalty area was not penetrated. A bigger, more physical forward or playmaker may solve this problem.
In addition, the defense is far too thin. Fortunately, the academy currently has a bumper crop of talented young defenders.
Marc Muniesa is already set to join the first team, while Marc Bartra, Sergi Gomez, and Martin Montoya could follow. Also, the return of striker David Villa and left-back Eric Abidal from injury and sickness should help improve results.
And results must be up to standard. Unfortunately, Guardiola’s standard was high, and possibly unattainable. Vilanova is faced with a daunting task. Barcelona’s pressure-cooker atmosphere will be more than happy to consume any ordinary victory.
Should Vilnova fail, the momentum from the past four years will forever be lost. But if he succeeds, Barcelona will emerge stronger from recent setbacks. Vilanova’s performance will determine if Barcelona’s dynasty has in fact ended, or merely been stewarded by Guardiola’s logical successor. With stakes higher than ever, Barcelona has placed a hefty bet.