The sudden and unexpected resignation of Tito Vilanova, due to a recurrence of his cancer, as head coach has opened a new era for FC Barcelona. The prompt appointment of Gerardo “Tata” Martino as the new head coach has ensured a relatively smooth transition. However by opting for someone with no experience of coaching in Europe the Barça board are likely to be looking for something different. Though pretty much unkonwn in Europe, Tata has had great and successful experience in South America and has most recently won the Argentinian championship with Newell’s Old Boys. He also took Newell’s to the semifinal of the Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League. So he comes with very good credentials. He is also a declared admirer of the way Barcelona play football and is a personal friend of Leo Messi’s father. All of which should stand him in good stead as he starts his new career at the Camp Nou.
What will he bring to Barça? He likes his teams to be very well organized and disciplined, he favours pressing as far up the pitch as possible and his teams play open and attractive football. So there is not likely to be much in the way of changes in the team’s play, at least at first. The one point he has emphasised again and again is that the wants the team to recuperate its best version, that of 2011. In effect he most definitely wants his forwards and midfielders to press the opposition with a view to recuperating the ball as soon as possible. Something at which the team has not been so effective in the past two seasons. What else? Difficult to say just now. He will not have learned much that he did not know already from the first two pre-season friendlies. Neither the 2-0 defeat to Bayern nor the 7-0 victory over Norwegian team Vålerenga will have much influence in his decisions. The games are too early to make definitive judgements and the Spanish and Brazilian internationals, including Neymar, only start training this Monday. Only two pronouncements stand out so far. The first is that he seconded the club’s determination to hold on to Cesc Fàbregas, despite the continuing offers from Manchester United. The other was to recognize that the team needed to sign a new central defender.
It may not be as simple as all that. On first appearance, it would seem that Cesc’s future is clearer now that Thiago Alcántara has left the club. Most commentators, including myself, assume that Cesc will most often play in midfield and with Xavi getting older, he will get lots of playing time either instead of Xavi or occasionally instead of Iniesta. Sergi Roberto will be the fourth option for an attacking midfield place. However the signing of an established central defender may unexpectedly change all this. How so? It all in a way depends on how well and how fully Puyol has recovered from his latest injuries and operations. If he has fully recovered he will expect to play a fair number of matches. Piqué is more or less guaranteed a place, which currently leaves Puyol and Mascheranno to fight it out for the right to accompany Piqué, leaving Bartra as the fourth central defender to wait his chances. But what happens if Barça signs this long anticipated first class central defender? If as suspected he is an established player, then he is only likely to sign if he can legitimately expect to play if not most of the time, at least a lot of the time. Always assuming that Puyol is fit, this is most likely to relegate Mascheranno to fourth place in the pecking order and doesn’t do much for Bartra’s chances of playing first team football.
This is where it could get very interesting indeed. It has to be remembered that Mascheranno was originally signed as a defensive, holding midfielder to provide cover and competition for Busquets. It was only injuries that caused first Guardiola and then Vilanova to play Mascheranno in defence, which he has done very well. However he is not a natural central defender and in particular lacks height. For the Argentinian national team, he continues to play in midfield. What if Tata decides to play Mascheranno more as a midfielder, competing with Song for this place in the team? This in turn would allow Busquets to move forward and provide cover and competition for Xavi. It is worth remembering that Busquets is an exceptionally talented and gifted player. He would have no difficulty in playing a role in the team similar to Xavi. With the added advantage of offering extra physique and height to this part of the pitch. A bit far fetched? At this moment in time, yes. However stranger things have happened – such as Mascheranno playing in the final of the Champions League as a central defender. The most interesting aspect to all this speculation is how would it affect Cesc? If Busquets were to become an attacking midfielder, this could only mean that Cesc becomes the fourth in line for a berth in the midfield. He could of course continue to be used in the attack, but that would only cause other problems – namely what to do with Alexis, Pedro and Tello. At least one of that threesome would lose out.
All this as a possible consequence of signing an established central defender and Puyol recovering full fitness! Somebody will be badly affected by this signing, if it does in fact happen. After all if Puyol has fully recovered Tata and his team may decide to wait another year before ending this particular saga. All should become clearer by the end of next week. Then Tata will have seen all his first team players in training and on Friday they are in action again, this time against Santos in another pre-season friendly. If Cesc is to go, then both Barça and Manchester United would want it to happen sooner rather than later. Barça so they will have time to make whatever adjustments to their squad they deem necessary before the season officially starts. Exciting times ahead! Benvingut Tata!