Barcelona: Why Vilanova's Version Can Surpass Guardiola's Vision

Rob TrainFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2013

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 25: Head coach Pep Guardiola (R) of Barcelona looks on beside his assistant Tito Vilanova during the Copa del Rey Final match between Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona at Vicente Calderon Stadium on May 25, 2012 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)
Angel Martinez/Getty Images

It's fair to say that the transition at Barcelona has gone pretty smoothly. Eyebrows were raised when Pep Guardiola announced his retirement from Camp Nou last April. Those eyebrows arched even higher when Sandro Rosell said at the same press conference that his replacement would be Tito Vilanova.

Had it not been for Jose Mourinho poking his finger into Vilanova's eye during the curtain-raising Supercup, the collective "¿Que?" would have been "¿Quien?"

Vilanova is a quiet type, who has gone about his work at Barcelona without making any waves or major changes.

"The philosophy and method of working is basically pretty similar, but we have a new coach, a new form of doing things and we are very happy about him being with us," Andres Iniesta said in September.

That comment preceded the first Clasico of the season, which remains the only league game where Barcelona has failed to take three points. Since that 2-2 tie on Oct. 7, Barcelona has won 12 on the trot—a Liga record—and amassed 55 points from a possible 57, another Liga record.

The only team in the top flight within even touching distance of such imperiousness is Rayo, which has won four on the bounce.

This Barcelona team has no peer domestically. Wednesday night it will replay Malaga in the King's Cup after sweeping one of the division's better sides off the field on Sunday. One passage of play (at 1:40) highlighted just how good this team is and how telepathic its patented passing game has become.

So far this season, Barça averages a shade under 70 percent possession per game and a pass completion rate of 90 percent. The team averages 14 shots a game and has scored 81 percent of its goals from open play. 

What Vilanova inherited was a very, very good side. What he has produced this season is even better, although the argument that this is simply an extraordinary group of players the likes of which will not coincide again for several generations is not without merit.

It's worth remembering that it was Vilanova who handed a 13-year-old Messi a starting role in the cadet ranks.

A common argument in football revolves around trophies. Who won what and how many times. Until Vilanova adds a few trinkets to the Camp Nou cabinet, the "No. 2" tag will be hard to shift.

But trophies are not won by a coach alone.

The support staff at any club plays a large part in success, and Vilanova was with Guardiola and this crop of players throughout their concurrent rise through the ranks. Vilanova's name from Barça B. is on the haul of Guardiola era trophies as much as anyone else's.

That's why Manchester City is trying to poach Barcelona wholesale.

There is evidence in statistics that this Barcelona has exceeded even itself. But on the field is where the true proof unfolds each matchday. The passes are pinged about with a zest missing in the final days of the Guardiola era. Barça plays a little higher up the pitch, giving opposing sides even less space in which to chase their shadows. It is a perfectly balanced side, attacking equally often on the left, right and through the center. Few would bet against a debut season treble for Vilanova.

It will be a lifetime before a team like this emerges again. The debate about whether it is the best of all time will rage for just as long. But at the end of this season at least, Vilanova's name will be side-by-side with Guardiola's in the history of an exceptional side. If not just a little bit above that of his predecessor.