Tito Vilanova’s FC Barcelona vs. Deportiva La Coruña: Back to the drawing board

Enough is enough. FC Barcelona’s performance against Deportivo La Coruña showcased two personalities, if you will. For the first half an hour FC Barcelona were ruthless and efficient, leading 3-0 by the 18th minute, courtesy of Jordi Alba (3’), Cristian Tello (8’) and Lionel Messi (18’). Normally one would assume any team with a three-goal cushion to conclude the match in convincing fashion, especially FC Barcelona. Then it all fell apart as Mr. Hyde began to show his nasty side. The match between Deportivo La Coruña and FC Barcelona ended in a 4:5 victory for the guests, with Lionel Messi once more producing moments of magic and dragging his team to yet another triumph.

Still, let’s put one illusion to rest, this is not the FC Barcelona side fans grew fond of over the last few years. This is the worst team since the Frank Rijkaard era. Ever since Frank Rijkaards’ side were force to form a guard of honor for 2007/08 La Liga champions-elect, Real Madrid, and humiliated at the Santiago Bernabeu, FC Barcelona went back to the drawing board, installed Pep Guardiola as manager and became one of the finest teams in history. To all fans of that particular side, that era is gone. It’s a rather surprising development since FC Barcelona president, Sandro Rosell, particularly appointed Pep Guardiola’s assistant manager, Tito Vilanova, to provide continuity for a project that was started under the previous board. Twelve games (in all competitions) into the new season and FC Barcelona have only managed to keep a clean sheet on three separate occasions: in Lisbon against Benfica (0:2); at home against Valencia (1:0) and Granada (2:0). Ignoring the Champions League matches, that’s just two clean sheets in La Liga.

The record thus far after eight rounds of La Liga: FC Barcelona have scored 24 goals and conceded 11. To provide context and put it into perspective, in 2008/09 the record stood at 105:35, in 2009/10 at 98:24, 2010/11 at 95:21, and finally in 2011/12 at 114:29. At present FC Barcelona concede 1,37 goals per game. In comparison, at their defensive worst, in 2008/09, Pep Guardiola’s side ‘just’ conceded 0,92 goals per game, while at their very best only allowed 0,55 goals per game (in 2010/11).

In fact, FC Barcelona has at least conceded two (2) goals in four of their last five La Liga fixtures, managing a clean sheet just once against lowly Granada CF. The absence of first-choice centre-back pairing of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique cannot be used to excuse these abysmal displays. Without trying to sound like a broken record – Carles Puyol’s injury woes were well-document and not entirely surprising while Alex Song is a defensive midfielder for crying out loud. To add insult to injury, FC Barcelona just recently loaned out Andreu Fontas, a natural centre-back, to La Liga rivals, RCD Mallorca. The reasoning behind the belated loan deal: Andreu Fontas is in dire need of match practice. Right. That’s the most logical and reasonable course of action – to loan out a natural centre-back and put all hopes in a defensive midfielder, Alex Song, who provides next to no stability at central defense. Genius.

Tito Vilanova has once again missed the opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong and lay rest to the suggestion that FC Barcelona are overly reliant on Lionel Messi. The truth is, FC Barcelona are as dependent on Lionel Messi as any side in club football. Without Messi’s assists or goals, FC Barcelona would have only won three (3) matches in all competitions. The games were FC Barcelona did not rely on Lionel Messi’s genius to achieve victories were: FC Barcelona vs. Real Sociedad 5:1, discounting for La Pulga’s goals the final score would’ve read 3:1; FC Barcelona vs. Granada 2:0; Getafe vs. FC Barcelona (1:4) or (1:2) if Lionel Messi’s goals are discounted.

It is kind of worrisome when Sandro Rosell’s biggest concern is to extend Lionel Messi’s contract, which, funnily enough, doesn’t expire for another four (!) years when the real problem is closer to the 16 yard box. Two years ago, in the summer of 2010, Sandro Rosell arrived to much fanfare, even more promises, and implications that the previous board mismanaged the club. Hmm, mismanaging suggests that one does not properly take care of affairs that need to be taken care of. On one hand there’s one of the best paid athletes in football, if not all of sports, who still has an ongoing contract which doesn’t run out before the summer of 2016, and a hole as big as the Grand Canyon at the heart of FC Barcelona’s defense on the other. Apparently, extending Lionel Messi’s contract until the end of days has priority over signing a half-decent centre-back. How this is not falling under the banner of mismanagement is anyone’s guess.

Signing a proven centre-back must, and should be, the first thing on Tito Vilanova’s to-do list. While his decision not to buy a centre-back has not backfired yet, it nevertheless weakened a defense that already needed an overhaul when he inherited the squad from Pep Guardiola. FC Barcelona are not the all-conquering juggernaut of seasons past. And with the mantle of invincibility gone, so is the fear factor. During the Pep Guardiola-era a 3:0 was enough to break the oppositions’ spirit to mount another fight, let alone comeback. These days a 3:0 lead is not even a sufficient lead to ease the nerves of fans. Of course, sooner or later, both, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique will be available for selection again. But, the aura of superiority has vanished due to the negligence to buy a specialist defender. As the likes of Real Sociedad, Osasuna, Getafe and Deportivo La Coruña have proven – any team can score against FC Barcelona. In the past only very few teams managed to score one goal against the Blaugrana, this campaign four (five if the Champions League is included) sides have already scored at least a brace against FC Barcelona.

Tito Vilanova’s FC Barcelona is less the continuity of the Pep era than the marker of a rebuilding phase. And as it’s always the case with buildings, one starts with the fundament first. Judging by the looks of it, FC Barcelona’s fundament looks anything but rock solid.

¡Visca el Barça!”

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