In the buildup to their recent clash with Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu, Barcelona's players sat down for a pre-match pep talk with a difference: rather than the manager showing them a video, a video showed them their manager.
The message came via video conference call from New York, where Tito Vilanova is undergoing radiotherapy and chemotherapy for cancer of the parotid gland in his throat. He has been there much of 2013 after the relapse was announced on 19 December, only temporarily returning to take his place on the Camp Nou bench for Barcelona's 4-0 victory over Espanyol in January.
Barcelona lost the match against Madrid, their third defeat in four games having been knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Madrid at the Camp Nou and defeated 2-0 by Milan at San Siro in the Champions League. It was not just that they had been defeated either; it was that, unusually, they deserved to be defeated. The Bernabéu match became the 13th consecutive game in which Barça had conceded and, across three meetings with Madrid and Milan, Leo Messi had managed only one shot on target.
With hindsight, the run could be traced further. Since assistant coach Jordi Roura has been in charge in Vilanova's absence, Barcelona have played 10, won five, drawn two and lost three. A side who were on course to break records, who reached the halfway stage of the season on 18 wins and a draw, have slipped. Their last eight results read: draw, draw, win, win, lose, win, lose, lose. Of the three wins, two were distinctly unimpressive: they scraped through 2-1 in Granada and squeezed past Sevilla by the same scoreline. The question had finally become unavoidable: were the two things related?
It was a question to which the answer appeared obvious but that most had hoped to avoid. To frame Barcelona's slipping form and poor results in terms of the absence of their coach felt wrong, insensitive, maybe even a bit grubby; as if to do so was to somehow blame Vilanova for suffering from cancer, as if he should almost feel guilty. To frame Barcelona's poor form in terms of Roura's managerial ability felt equally unfair. His friend was seriously ill and this was not a job he had wanted.
For the first few weeks, results remained good. Some even argued that Barcelona were a team that did not need a coach, an argument which has proven to be absurd. There was talk of autogestión, players self-coaching. They certainly showed responsibility when the news broke, with early pre-match press conferences held by captains rather than the coach. In the short term, it may even have brought them closer.
At that stage, even those who had doubts lingering in the back of their mind were reluctant to express them. Certainly, no one wanted to be the first to break ranks and, largely, media and fans have been sensitive; the privacy that Vilanova and the club requested has been respected. But three defeats in four raised the issue.
Vilanova was, and still is, in constant contact with Roura. He watched every match and every training session, carried out by Roura and the fitness coach Aureli Altimira. They spoke on Skype and during games, he sent messages by WhatsApp. Some team meetings, like that before the Bernabéu, were handled by video conference call. "Everything is discussed and agreed with Tito," Roura says. At first, that was presented as a sufficient surrogate. For all the technology, though, there is simply no substitute for actually being there. Nor is it a momentary absence: it is almost nine weeks now.
There are times when Roura must decide, when he must intervene, and then the risk is that the message becomes mixed. Roura is popular but he does not have the gravitas, the charisma or the authority that Vilanova possesses. Nor does he seek it. This is not his role, it is a responsibility that weighs. Privately, people at the club refer to it as a burden. "I do not have nor do I want more autonomy," Roura says. "I am just the second coach." In that context, it is natural that the intensity has slipped from Barcelona's game, the precision and pace, that competitive edge whose centrality to their success is too often overlooked. Plan B is, up to a point, a red herring if they get Plan A right.
When the question is asked whether Barcelona have been affected by the absence of their coach, the response must surely be: how could they possibly not be? How could the absence of a manager not affect them? Javier Mascherano put it in stark terms: "Our coach is not in New York on holiday." It is not just that he is absent, it is why he is absent.
There have been flashes of emotion when Roura has been asked about him: this is a friend, not just a colleague. The president, Sandro Rosell, called Roura a "hero" this week, noting that he and the players have carried a heavy "emotional load". However positive the message, the bottom line is that Vilanova is seriously ill. And some of the more optimistic prognoses have not been met. "We have been carrying problems for a while," Mascherano noted, in reference not only to Vilanova but Eric Abidal too. "And it is normal to end up reflecting that [in our play]. A team-mate got ill, the boss too."
Barcelona have other problems: small unattended issues that, put together, can make a difference. Some of them go back a long way: it is tempting even to see the hint of decline in Pep Guardiola's decision to depart. The pressure on the ball is not what it was; the dependence upon Messi grows greater, conditioning everything and everyone; their play tends to get funnelled through the middle; Xavi, 33 now, is the ideologue but he is struggling for fitness; defensive mistakes are common; their signings have not all proven successful. Alex Song's arrival continues to baffle.
Roura offered up another possible explanation: Barcelona's long-term planning allows for a physical dip in February, in preparation for the vital months of March and April. The problem is that you have to get to March and Milan provided stiffer opposition than anticipated, so they have spent the last fortnight shifting their regime to reach something like full fitness for the second leg. Whether it will be enough remains to be seen.
Whatever Barcelona do, it is harder without a coach. No team can continue as normal without one. "Of course we miss him: he is our leader," Rosell said.
Last week Rosell travelled to New York to see Vilanova; if there was a temptation to see it as a kind of summit, a management meeting, Rosell did not entertain that idea. Instead, he insisted again that Vilanova's priority should not be Barcelona; rather, Barcelona's priority should be Vilanova. There have been no complaints, either, no calls to action.
"We are going there to see Tito," Rosell said before he boarded the plane. "The only thing that is really [important] is his health. We're not going to ask him [to do] anything, we're just going there to be with him." When he returned he insisted: "Tito's health is the most important thing; everything else is secondary. Tito is our coach, nobody else. We are not going to move anyone, even if it means winning nothing. For us, a good season is Tito making a full recovery."