Barcelona: Neymar, Vilanova and a hectic summer

This summer, the Camp Nou faithful have been taken on a roller-coaster ride, starting with the high of the Neymar signing, followed by a couple of bad business deals involving the sales of Villa and Thiago, the resignation of Tito Vilanova, and the appointment of a relatively unknown manager, Gerardo Martino, nicknamed Tata, to start a new chapter in the club history.

Gerardo Martino – A new chapter for FC Barcelona

It still hasn’t ended though, what with everyone awaiting the signing of a central defender who is expected to be the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle, and Manchester United putting in bid after bid for Cesc Fabregas after Pep Guardiola bagged Thiago from right under their noses.

You would think they are getting some points for trying, with both the player and the club having made it clear that the move won’t happen. So let’s take a closer look at some of these stories while wishing Vilanova a speedy recovery.

Vilanova departs and leaves a mini-legacy

Tito Vilanova, successor of Pep Guardiola, has done reasonably well in his first season in-charge. He brought the Liga title back to Catalonia, with a little help from Real Madrid, who gave up the title challenge sometime in December. But Barcelona accumulated a record 100 points, the same number of points gathered by Madrid the previous season, so let’s give him his due credit there.

He did not do so well in the Copa Del Rey and the Champions League. The Champions League exit, losing 7-0 aggregate to Bayern Munich, will remain a scar for a long time to come. Sure, Messi was injured and maybe there were a couple of other injuries, but in the end they bowed out to a team that simply outplayed them.

The same applies to the Copa Del Rey. So as previously stated, he did a pretty good job, but people wouldn’t have been unhappy to see another trophy.

Barcelona’s league triumph

But trophies are not everything that matter. The style matters. The philosophy matters. That was why he was appointed as manager, on the back of a managerial career that consisted of a year at FC Palafrugell, a Tercera Division (fourth level of the Spanish football system) outfit, and who got relegated to the Primera Catalana.

He kept the ideology intact, making some minor tweaks of his own. He tried to make Barca more direct, tried to make them play more long balls, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t.

He gave decent playing time to La Masia youngsters, such as Tello, Montoya and Bartra. The fact that he didn’t opt to desperately buy a central defender in the winter transfer window tells us that he counted on the youngsters, Bartra and Muniesa.

If this is all there is to the professional side of it, he suffered a relapse of his cancer problem in the middle of the season, causing him to leave the club in the hands of Jordi Roura, his assistant. He got his treatment, returned for the final part of the season, but unfortunately, he seems to have won the battle, but not the war. Yet.

Get well soon, Tito!

So let us all wish him a speedy recovery. This is by no means the end of his career at Barcelona. Barcelona will continue to pay him in the final year of his £6.5m-a-year contract, on top of the salary of the new manager, Martino, and he is likely to take another post at Barcelona come September. So here is to hoping that we see him back at the Camp Nou safe and sound.

Gerardo Tata Martino – Another Bielsista

If you are wondering why I said ‘another Bielsista’, it is because Pep Guardiola is a Bielsista too. If you are wondering what the term ‘Bielsista’ means, it is the term used to refer to the students of the school of thought practised by Marcelo Bielsa, the former Athletic Bilbao manager, whose team famously outplayed Manchester United in a Barcelona-esque way, in the 2011-2012 Europa League. In fact, Pep Guardiola in 2012 called him the ‘best manager in the world’.

Meet Gerardo Daniel Martino, popularly voted ‘the best player in Newell’s Old Boys’ history’ by the fans of the club. He might be little known in Europe, but make no mistake, he is a legend in South America. He hails from Rosario, the same place as Messi. He is the idol of Messi’s parents, as they support Newell’s.

He played for Newell’s in a total of 505 matches, including those under the managerial reign of Bielsa, from 1990-1992. He was a key player of Bielsa’s team, an elegant midfielder who was a natural leader in the team.

EL Loco – The visionary and footballing guru

This was the time when Bielsa implemented his ideals and explained his vision to the world with the help of his Newell’s team which surged under him. The intense defensive pressing with a high line, ball retention, quick passing were some of the ideals that helped Athletic Bilbao humble United.

After hanging up his shoes, Martino started his managerial career in 1998. After he managed a couple of teams in the Paraguayan league, even leading them to league triumphs, he surfaced to the limelight when he led Paraguay to the quarter-finals in the 2010 World Cup, only to be narrowly beaten by Spain 1-0. Paraguay had a goal denied and a penalty saved by Casillas in that match, so we can see that it really was a narrow win for Spain.

As was evident from that Paraguayan campaign, Martino is more of a flexible coach who can grind wins, such as with the 2010 Paraguay side, as well as play stylish football, such as his more recent Newell’s side, which has just won the league title.

He is more pragmatic than romantic, which is where he differs from Bielsa. So one can expect him to tighten the Barca defense, which does need tightening, but he is by no means a negative coach. He favors a 4-3-3 formation, with attacking full-backs playing the role of wing-backs, which is the way Barcelona plays. Perhaps that is why Barcelona went for him.

In these modern times, when the big clubs prefer big-money signings, whether it be players or coaches, Barcelona have stuck with their policy of going for ideology over impressive resumes, right from Frank Rijkaard to Pep Guardiola to Tito Vilanova, and finally to Gerardo Martino.

Rumours are that the final shortlist came down to Martino and Luis Enrique, and that Messi tipped the scales towards Martino.

Messi playing a hand in Tata’s appointment?

While Martino himself admitted this – “I don’t know the details of this situation, [but] I have no doubts that Messi spoke with the club directors. I am sure that Jorge (Messi’s father) and Leo have had some weight in this decision”, Messi has denied any involvement saying, “I have nothing to do with Martino’s signing.”

Whether or not he was involved, this signing surely made Messi happy, and Martino surely has big shoes to fill to match up to his predecessors.

That central defender

The resignation of Vilanova and the subsequent appointment of Martino has only slowed down this quest. Thiago Silva seems a distant dream now, Marquinhos has been snapped up by PSG, and these were the top two names in the short-list for defenders. David Luiz doesn’t seem close to a move either. So where does that leave Barca?

Vergini headed for Catalonia?

Word is that Martino is trying to bring in one of his former players, Santiago Vergini, a center-back at Newell’s. He seems like a good fit for the position, having good physique that matches a center-back at six feet plus. He is 24 years old and his recent performances have earned him a berth in the Argentine national squad. And best of all, he is available on a free transfer, his contract having expired at the end of last season.

Paulorosso, an assistant of Martino, said, “Tata lives for football 24/7. If you ask him about a player in the African fourth division, he knows about him.” So let’s hope that he can pluck one or two good players from there as well.

Tidying up

Villa, Thiago, Abidal and Fontas have been sold. Deulofeu, Rafinha, Bojan have been sent away on loan spells. That leaves Barca with Issac Cuenca and Ibrahim Afellay as players who might not find decent playing time at the Camp Nou.

Cuenca is a bright prospect for the future, after showing amazing composure and ability on the ball in his debut season with the first team. Unfortunately, his development has been hindered with injuries during his loan spell at Ajax. So it might be best to send him on another loan spell.

On the other hand, Afellay is 27 years old, and hasn’t had many memorable moments at Barcelona. 27 years is about the time when a player starts to peak, and he surely wouldn’t be satisfied with warming the bench. The club will be looking to complete his sale and wrap up the transfer window and set sail for the 2013-2014 season with their new manager.

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