Is Tito Vilanova to Blame for Barcelona’s Defensive Issues this Season?

Tito VilanovaWe’ve gone from one extreme to another; the most successful start to a season in the club’s history to one of the most humiliating endings to a Champions League campaign for many years. It’s fair to say that this season has been full of the most extraordinary highs and lows and, but we’re now La Liga champions so that incredible beginning to the season has finally got its rewards.

And deservedly so. With just two defeats in La Liga this season there’s no doubt that despite some questionable performances at times and an almost non-existent defense, that Barcelona were the best team in the league. But it hasn’t come without great difficulty. Barcelona won the league despite not winning a Clasico this season and that has to be a sore point for Cules everywhere. No one likes losing a Clasico, and after Barca had been so dominant in the fixture for the last few years, dealing with defeat to Jose Mourinho and his men is just not acceptable to some people.

So is it Tito’s fault that we lost the Clasicos? We didn’t lose the first one, on October 7, despite our defense having been at its most fragile in months. We managed a 2-2 draw with a rampant Cristiano Ronaldo scoring two, but the ever-reliable Lionel Messi making sure the scores were even by the end. The 2-1 defeat to Real at the Bernabeu in the second league Clasico was much more difficult to comprehend; Real had a few of their star players benched, including Ronaldo, so defeat to them when the odds appeared to be in our favor was tough to swallow.

I don’t think anyone needs reminding of the Copa Del Rey games either. At the time of the back to back defeats to Real (in the Copa Del Rey at the Camp Nou and then the second league match), Tito was in the middle of intense cancer treatment and was in New York. Despite many people suggesting it was Tito making the decisions from America and not Jordi Roura, it’s extremely difficult to understand exactly how much control Tito would have had. The point of him being in New York was to receive specialist treatment to save his life, not for him to instruct the team, so I doubt he would have had quite as much control as some people suggest.

However, even if he did, it was extremely tough for him to have any say in what to do once the games started. It would have been left almost entirely up to Roura to decide the substitutions, which tactical decisions needed to be made, and this was a problem in itself. Roura has had no experience of coaching a team before this season and, whilst I don’t believe that it was all his fault, it was down to management problems that we have struggled this season; both with mistakes made regarding coaching decisions and the choices we made during last season’s transfer window.

BarcelonaWhen it comes to our defense there really is no easy solution to explain quite how appalling it has become. Certainly the defense has suffered from its fair share of injuries but it can’t be the only excuse. At times, the players simply haven’t played well enough. Gerard Pique has shown brief signs of brilliance but overall has had yet another incredibly disappointing season. Pique has been rated among the best in Europe for the last few years, but I’m beginning to think that he no longer deserves to be considered.

That, however, is up to debate and should be the subject of a separate article. Even other players who deserve much more credit for their efforts, Javier Mascherano for example, have had turbulent seasons. Mascherano has scored the most own goals this season, and also missed some important games through injury. Add to that the constant injury concerns surrounding club captain Puyol and it’s not surprising whatsoever that Barcelona have struggled so much defensively.

How much of this is down to Tito? Obviously Tito can’t be blamed for players having injuries, but there have been some questionable decisions in defense. Barcelona have frequently chosen the likes of Alex Song, Mascherano, and Adriano to play in the center back role, but there is a serious problem with this: none of them are center backs. Adriano is a winger, not a center back, and despite putting in as much effort as possible whenever he’s called upon, his defending is a weakness.

Song is very slow and unused to the center back role (although better prepared for it than Busquets for example), and the question has to be why did Barcelona spend so much money on buying a midfielder to play in the center back position and spend most of his time benched than a genuine center back? It’s an odd question considering the price Alex Song was bought for was the same price as that of Mats Hummels, the Borussia Dortmund center back Barcelona have been linked with on several occasions. Are we getting value for money?

The defense remains the most complex problem facing Tito, and some would say that he has done nothing to solve it. It has been reported that it was Tito’s decision not to buy a center back last summer, and if that was the case, then it was a very foolish decision to make in my honest opinion. Some excuses can be made for him, it was his first season as coach, but not filling an enormous hole in the defense is ultimately what has cost us the most this season. What Tito can do is learn from his mistakes and make sure that he doesn’t do the same thing again.

BarcelonaIf Barcelona fail to buy a genuine center back this summer, then Tito can be seen as the culprit with all responsibility. How can you expect to win anything when you’re allowing a weakened spot to stay weakened whilst other teams strengthen in attack? The fact that Deportivo, who were in the relegation spots at the time, were able to put 4 goals past us is a sign of just how bad things got.

It doesn’t even take a particularly strong offence, with no disrespect meant to Deportivo, to really hurt Barcelona and it’s something that has to be stopped. If Barca want to stay at the top (and with the emergence of Bayern Munich and the recent change in Clasico results that seems unlikely) then something has to be done about it. If not now then when? Wait until we have a completely trophyless season for them to do something? Wait until we lose a Clasico 5-0? As soon as a problem presents itself it’s there to be fixed as and when it happened, not waiting for it to get worse, and for me that was the biggest mistake Tito made all season.

But what did Tito get right? No doubt that some of his decisions later on in the season were dubious at best and even some of the earlier ones, despite such a tremendous start, were baffling. None more so than his decision to delegate David Villa a regular spot on the bench. As Spain’s number one top goalscorer and a reputation as one of the best strikers in Europe, Tito’s decision to lose Villa far less frequently than his talent deserves not only raised important questions about what Tito was up to at the time, particularly when the team struggled for goals, but also increased the dependency we have on Lionel Messi.

The Messi dependency, despite us being fortunate enough to have a player capable of scoring an enormous amount of goals, is dangerous. What happens if Messi gets a major injury and is sidelined for several months? Every team has a player they rely upon more than most, but Barcelona can’t afford the level of dependency they’ve had on Messi. As cruel as this may seem, it’s about FC Barcelona, not FC Messi, and it’s time we started looking for other options and sharing the spotlight a little bit more.

Lionel MessiOf course that’s probably not entirely Tito’s fault. David aside, no one could have guessed that both Pedro and Alexis would choose the exact same season to go completely off form. Pedro has been out of form since almost the beginning of the season and this one is more than a little forgettable for the star. Alexis, on the other hand, despite some real blunders in front of goal, has recently improved enough for me to think that perhaps his season wasn’t a washout and there is still something we can gain from keeping Alexis. Even when he wasn’t able to score, his ability to drag defenders wide, create distractions for other players to sneak in and score and then use his pace to get back and help out the defense was remarkable at times. Alexis is, in my honest opinion, one of the most underrated yet most hardworking players at Barcelona and deserves a lot more credit than he gets.

But apart from the players being off form, could Tito be blamed for the lack of time he dedicated to the youngsters? Yes! Tito barely gave any time at all to the likes of Martin Montoya, Marc Bartra, and Cristian Tello. Was this a mistake? Clearly it was. Dani Alves was badly off form and injury-prone at the beginning of the season, and ever since, hasn’t been brilliant at times and Montoya has impressed when called upon.

In smaller games (or even the bigger ones as he shone during the Clasicos) Montoya should have been given the chance so Alves could get some rest and Montoya could show the skills that will one day lead to him becoming our first-choice right back. When Montoya has been called upon in some games it has usually been in the place of left back Jordi Alba which shows just how versatile a player he is. Montoya is a valuable asset and will one day become Spain’s number one right back. It’s time to help him gain more experience, more trust and develop before he decides that.

Written by Liberty AliHasan Al