This has been a rather traumatic few days for FC Barcelona and its fans. The loss of the league to bitter rivals Real Madrid, quickly followed by KO from the Champions League. Then to cap it all Pep Guardiola announces he will leave the club at the end of the season. Though the two defeats are hard to take, this has still been a very good season for Barça. Trophies have been won, the two Supercups plus the World Club Championship, and there is still the prospect of yet another trophy – the Copa del Rey, if they can overcome Athletic Bilbao in the final later this month.
Everyone, friend and foe alike, is now wondering what will happen now to Barcelona and if this season is to mark the end of a cycle. At least one uncertainty has already been removed with the swift and completely unexpected announcement that Tito Vilanova, the esrtwhile assistant to Guardiola is to take over as head coach for next season. A decision which has been warmly welcomed in the press and by the players by all accounts. It should also ensure that Barça will continue to play in more or less the same way as now.
Which I sincerely hope is the case. Barcelona are a delight to watch and the reason they didn’t win even more trophies has nothing to do with the way they play. Simply put the team failed to score enough goals in crucial matches. The Champions League match in London away to Chelsea was a case in point. Barça dominated the match and created five very good chances, yet failed to convert any, though two of them hit the woodwork. It was a similar story earlier in the league, when the team went through a difficult period, losing two matches and drawing many more. This was when the league was effectively lost. In each case though Barça had enough chances to win all these matches, but failed to do so. The reason for this I would contend is the series of injuries to the team’s strikers. With the arrival of Alexis Sanchez, Barça affronted the season with five experienced attackers – Messi, Pedro, Villa, Alexis and Affellay. Alas, only one, Messi, managed to get through the season without injury. Wonderful player that he is, even Messi cannot score goals every time he plays, though he nearly does! Affellay has missed almost the whole season, while Villa has missed over half the season and has still not reappeared. Both Alexis and Pedro have had a stop-start kind of season with niggling minor injuries hampering their progress. Pedro has suffered the most from this. These injuries have meant that youngsters such as Cuenca and Tello have had to step up to fill the breech. Though they have played well and shown exciting promise, the team has greatly missed its main strikers, above all Villa who can be expected to score 20 or more goals per season. With all these injuries in attack it is in remarkable that the team has achieved as much as it has. To have pushed Real Madrid to the brink and to reach a fifth successive Champions League semi-final are no mean achievements with an attack robbed of its main players.
This season has confirmed my view that Barcelona depend more than anything on the success of their goalscorers. Injuries elsewhere, particularly in defence can be overcome, but the loss of key strikers is virtually impossible to overcome. All that possession of the ball is meaningless if it does not result in goals – the more the better. So the key decisions for new coach Tito Vilanova will be what, if anything, needs to be done about the attack. A central defender and a right back will be other priorities, but sorting out the attack has to be priority numero uno. Not that anything necessarily needs to be done. The key will be to what extent are the coaching staff confident that Pedro and Villa in particular will have made a full and lasting recovery from their injuries. If they have, then they may well decide to stick with what they have. They may want to sell on a player, simply to freshen up the squad, but that is a different matter.
The other issue which has emerged in recent weeks in the Barcelona press is whether the teams needs to have plan B for attack. This would mean signing a tall, traditional type centre forward. The Athletic Bilbao striker, Fernando Llorente has seen his name catapulted to the front of possible new signings. The problem for Barça is that it will be very difficult to find the right player at the right price for this position. They have after all gone down this route before, with the signing of Ibrahimović, one of the best traditional type centre forwards in the world. This was not a great success and Ibrahimović was sold on after only one season. So, unless Barcelona decide to change their way of playing, which seems most unlikely – the whole point of promoting Vilanova is presumably to ensure the continuity of the current system, then they have a problem. If they are to sign a traditional type centre forward then he needs to a) be good enough to play successfully with Barcelona, and b) be willing to accept a secondary role in the team – essentially that of a substitute. Clearly the best of such centre forwards are unlikely to want to just be a squad player, while the others may not be good enough to make a real difference to the play of the team. Not an easy dilemma to solve. They did manage it once before, with the signing of Henrik Larsson from Celtic. Coming towards the end of his career, Larsson had no illusions about becoming the number one striker at Barça, and was more than willing to accept his role as a substitute player. Which he did very successfully and was part of the team which won the 2006 Champions League final. But how many Henrik Larsson type players are out there?
It promises to be another long and interesting summer break as the press bombard us with exclusives about who is about to sign for Barça and who is about to leave. This year the Euro Championship finals in Poland and the Ukraine may complicate things. Will clubs try to sign any new players before the tournament begins or do they wait until it is all over? Plenty to keep us going until the new season starts again.