We have all noticed the subtle changes in Barca's game this season. Tito, in my opinion, has a thankless job. How can anybody expect him to win more than Pep Guardiola? However there are some pleasantly surprising changes he has brought to the squad.
Pep Guardiola was a man who was always about the details. Every last move on the pitch had to be planned for and executed perfectly. Ironically, for all the talk of tiki-taka and total football, Barcelona's success during Pep's era was largely down to being organized. Players had their positions and were allowed a certain level of freedom but within strict limitations.
Players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cesc Fabregas have seen that side of Barca's game and found it difficult to overcome. In Ibra's case, being Ibra, he just switched clubs (and thank the big man upstairs for that). Fabregas, however, had just joined and had to stick it out. In the first half of last season, Fabregas was right up there with D10S in productivity and had Arsenal fans taking back their "he's going to be on the bench forever" comments.
Leaving aside the average fan's rants, those of us who were paying attention noticed that the 3-4-3 was made to get the very best out of the Cesc-Leo partnership. Yes, defense wise, we were prone to conceding, especially against teams that played with even half-decent wingers. However, one must keep in mind the reason we bought Cesc back.
Fabregas is a special player because of how he plays the game. Moreover, he was probably the only midfielder Barca lacked at that point. Cesc is a goal scorer and a player capable of an assist every game. Unlike Xavi who runs the game or Iniesta who is incisive in everything he does, Cesc is all about late runs, and assists. He is somewhere between a midfielder and a forward to put it simply. Anyway, I'm digressing, the point is despite Fabregas' ability to rack up assists, he was also bought with the intention to allow Barca to play a little more direct and in the long run, replace Xavi or Andres (although I do think Thiago will eventually take Xavi's spot).
The second half of the season showed that Cesc was finding it increasingly difficult to play in Barca's system. So what has changed?
Well, our manager. Pep was stubborn. It's his stubbornness that won us trophies. Tito, however, seems to have accepted that each one of our players brings something different to the team and is more willing to play a particular game according to it's needs. This is in no way me putting Pep down (I'm his biggest fan and would admit to worshipping him for everything he has given Barca as a player and coach), but rather about our opposition being more prepared for how we play and in turn, Tito being forced to change things.
Most people would say that taking charge of this current Barca squad is easy. I'd agree that it is indeed an advantage to have a team like this, almost as much as it is an advantage to managing a team with unlimited funds like Real Madrid and Chelsea. Realistically though, nobody would want the Barca job after Pep. Just like nobody would want to take over from Ferguson when he retires (if ever :P). Tito seems to have taken to the challenge really well, he has understood that change was required and that he had the personnel to pull it off.
Tito's ability to make Barca play different styles is great in fact. On the one hand he can set the team up to play like before, where we keep possession forever and if needed, bring in players like Cesc to make things more direct. However, I think his greatest virtue, is his rotation policy. The Zaragoza game aside, Cesc Fabregas has started all of Barca's Liga matches. This allows Xavi and Iniesta to be fit for the big games, while also allowing Barca to change from being direct to keeping the ball.
Then there is Tito's presence in the media or rather, how we, as fans, see him. To put it simply, the man is nowhere as charismatic as Pep Guardiola. Pep was calm, smooth and had suits that would make James Bond weep with envy. Tito? Well he just doesn't seem to care. Sweaters, Wenger-style-jackets, suits, it's all good really. Although as calm as Pep was , Tito does not seem to be the kind to "show the other cheek" when an opponent (read: Mourinho) says something about his team or club. You poke the man and you're going to get slapped in return, better believe it and something about that is liberating as a Culé. Since Mourinho took over at Madrid, things have been too heated and most of us would agree that Pep's rant before the Champion's League semi-finals was way overdue and should probably have happened earlier.
Defense: I'm sure many of you have something to say about this. I am also sure many of you who are complaining about this are also the ones who said that last year Barca were all about possession and nothing else. Well you can't have it both ways. Here are the facts, Barca's possession stats have definitely decreased since last year. The team is without a doubt, more direct at times. We have had a whole lot of injuries in defense (the argument on whether we should have bought another player or not will have to be left for another time). All this points to two things: Opponents are not prepared for a Barca who are this direct and hence, we score more and we will concede goals more often simply cause we don't have the ball as much and we don't have a defense (like last year).
The summary? We have a manager who is willing to experiment, give the kids a chance, attack more (even at the risk of losing the ball) and hence score more. We concede more goals as well but all in all, that really is something we can work on. As long as we're winning, who cares? Do we have a team that can win Champions League right now? No, cause that would need a solid and consistent centre back pairing. Do we have a team that can win Liga? Again, no but right now we are leaders and also getting better. I suspect that the team will reach their peak form in terms of fitness and tactically by February or March, so the best is yet to come. Moreover, Alba's return to Barca has been a superb purchase. The Catalan's ability to read the game, make overlapping runs and use his pace in defense is mind boggling. Then there are the cut back's, both Alba and Montoya (I have no further comment on Dani Alves at this point of time) to find players like Cesc, Messi, Xavi and Song (against Zaragoza) who make delayed runs into the box to shoot in acres of space is by itself worth the 14 million Barca paid for him.
Well that's it from me, this is more a rant than anything else but had to be said.