In the past few seasons the first international break at the start of September arrived irritatingly early, usually after just one league game, which was like a giving a new toy to a child and then taking it away after thirty seconds. This season, despite kick off times being messed with, we have at least had three league games along with the two Supercopa games before the break which means we have had more of a chance to begin to get an idea of how things will be under Tito Vilanova.
My first impressions are pretty balanced. On the one hand it is positive to see that there is no change to the general philosophy of playing possession football with a high-intensity pressing game when we lose the ball. This was expected of course, and so far Tito has pretty much stuck to the 4-3-3 shape that has been our standard for so many years now. What is perhaps most interesting is that so far the two wide attacking positions have been taken by forwards while neither Cesc Fabregas nor Andres Iniesta has been used in the forward line. This, combined with the use of two attacking full backs, has given us plenty of width. It will be interesting to see if Puyol ever gets used at full back, and what will happen if Eric Abidal makes it back (and the signs are looking very positive that he could be back before Christmas).
Fabregas has been the centre of attention with many expressing concerns about his form. It seems Tito wants to use Cesc to alternate with Xavi and Iniesta and he has started in the three league games so far but has been subbed off around the hour mark in each of those games while playing only eight minutes against Madrid in the supercup. I think the press story of a possible loan move to Milan is a bit premature as he is obviously a player with a lot of talent who has already demonstrated in his first season that he has plenty to offer. It could just be down to a run of bad luck in front of goal affecting his confidence, and I think we should be patient. However, with Thiago Alcantara fit again after his shin problems Fabregas will have to start turning things round or his opportunities may become even more limited.
Our other big signing from last summer Alexis Sanchez has also been struggling to find his form, and like Fabregas, he has yet to score this season. It seems that the goal-scoring burden will again fall on Leo Messi who with six goals has 50% of the team’s total. However, there is positive news with the gradual return of David Villa who took less than ten minutes to find the net after coming on in the 5-1 win against Real Sociedad, while also returning to Spain’s national team with a penalty goal in last night’s 6-0 victory over Frank Rijkaard’s Saudi Arabia. We can also expect goals from Pedro who is looking back to his best, he had an excellent game for Spain scoring twice.
Of our two new signings it is still very early to make much of a judgement. However, Alex Song, in just 105 minutes of football, has really looked the part and looks sure to give Sergio Busquets something to think about. Jordi Alba has shown glimses of his attacking strengths but at the same time the odd sign of a defensive weakness and it seems he will have a fight to win preference over Adriano, who despite his sending off in Madrid, has started the season well.
We cannot hold Tito responsible for players going through bad patches and we should also be able to accept that there are some days, such as when we beat Osasuna, when we play well below our best. Guardiola’s team had its ups and downs and I’m sure we will have the same with Tito. If I have one major concern, aside from the form of individual players, it is the number of individual errors that have cost us goals. We know our lack of height means we are always going to struggle against high balls and we will always concede goals at corners and free kicks. However, we were especially punished for individual errors by Madrid and it is something we need to watch out for. Guardiola was an expert at keeping the players’ mentality at an optimum. We will need to tighten up at the back or we may end up relying on Cristiano Ronaldo messing things up in Madrid if we are going to reclaim La Liga this season.