Game or result? Sooner or later everyone faces this dilemma and makes a choice. For me, until the 2008/09 season this choice did not exist in principle – at the time I thought of soccer as a job and was guided by the principle “he who does the best job wins”. I didn’t consider soccer as an art.
But I think so now. Guardiola’s Barcelona was my Rubicon once and for all. Guardiola’s beautiful Barcelona, which showed, in my opinion, the only right way and style of play. And the most difficult one there is.
Laporta’s best decision in his presidential career
A number of soccer legends, a la Arrigo Sacchi and Sir Alex Ferguson, have called Guardiola’s Barcelona the strongest and most aesthetically pleasing team in soccer history. But it was not the result of a natural process or a process of soccer evolution. For it to form, the stars had to come together.
In 2008, after two consecutive seasons of no-fault, a vote of no confidence was announced against the club’s president, Joan Laporta. The vote showed: 60.6% of the Sosios were against Laporta. But even this figure did not make Joan leave his post – despite the fact that at one time Laporta himself advised Josep Lewis Núñez to “leave voluntarily” if the percentage of votes against him crosses the 50 mark.
What would you do if you were in Laporta’s shoes when choosing a head coach? I’m sure that 99% of all soccer club presidents in the world would put the project in the hands of an experienced coach. Laporta himself has held secret talks with Jose Mourinho, and even got the Portuguese’s preliminary consent. Not everyone in these circumstances would have risked to appoint a “cat in a bag”, which at the time looked young and inexperienced Pep Guardiola. The God of Football had it in his heart that Laporta valued the opinion of one man above all others. That man’s name was Johan Cruyff. In 2003, Laporta asked Cruyff who he would rather have as coach and technical director. The answer was “Rijkard and Chicky Begiristain”. In 2008, the great “Flying Dutchman” said just two words, and that was enough to make a decision that would rewrite soccer history:
The 2008 contract implied an annual salary of Pepa of about 1 million euros before tax plus bonuses. That is 9 million less than Eto’o earned and 7 million less than Leo Messi. Guardiola did not haggle when signing the contract and became the fourth highest-paid coach in the list of the highest-paid coaches in the Primera.
Here he is, the first entrenador in the history of Barcelona, who went the way of the Camp Nou bolbo, all youth categories, first-team captain and coach of Barça B.
When Cruyff took charge of Barça in 1988, he synchronized the work and playing style of all the youth teams of the Blaugrana with the first team, which allowed club trainees to painlessly make their way into the main team. As a result, during his seven seasons at Barcelona, 32 club trainees made their first-team debut. Guardiola proved to be the cleverest and most talented of the youngsters. When Pep led Barcelona’s first team, he had no doubts about success.
In the late 80’s European club soccer was a sad spectacle. There were plenty of teams with pretty soccer, but none of them could be considered the leader of European soccer. It was the most unremarkable era in the history of soccer: most teams overcorrected and tried, above all, not to win, but not to lose. All because of the two-point rule. Pragmatists appreciated the appeal of this rule, which gave trump cards to the supporters of the “buses.” National championships and European tournaments were flooded with a wave of “tactical draws. Cruyff was one of those who bent the line and did not betray his ideas. In the documentary Take The Ball Pass The Ball, Johan’s son, Cruyff Jr.
Getting rid of Ronaldinho and Deco, betting on club kids
Guardiola believes that soccer is a matter of understanding what you want and what type of players you need to achieve your goal. Because Barça is such a big team, it can choose its style of play and knows what kind of players it requires.
Pep was aware that at the end of Rijkard’s reign Barcelona’s training lacked intensity, and that some players relaxed and stopped reacting instantly to the situations on the field that required it. At his first press conference he said publicly that he no longer count on a very authoritative and creative, but ceased to obey the system Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto’o. It is known that the same Ronaldinho was given another chance in training, but did not take advantage of it – he could not lose the extra pounds. The conversation between the Brazilian and the new coach was short and honest.
Cameroonian striker Eto’o saw the departure of Ronnie and Deco as an opportunity to step into the role of first fiddle and convinced Pep to give him another chance, another season. The forward trained better than anyone else, was the team’s top scorer in the off-season, and enjoyed the confidence of his partners. The leaders of the locker room appealed to the coach to keep Samuel: “We could really use him in the coming season.” Guardiola agreed, but made it clear to Eto’o that the team will not be built around him, but around the talented 20-year-old Lionel Messi.
On what became a famous first training day in Scotland’s St. Andrews, Guardiola gathered the team in the gym and delivered a monologue that Spanish journalists recreated piece by piece, asking many of Barça’s players. Pep explained to one and all how much Barcelona means to him and the possibility of leading it to something unique.
Even before Pep met the players in preseason, he received messages from key Barça players who appreciated his bravery in the “Ronaldinho and Deco affair. With the same speech, the Catalan coach finally convinced everyone and made the players believe in his project. As journalist Guillem Balague noted, “Before leaving the room, Xavi told his partner that everything they needed to know had been said in that talk. “A breath of fresh air, order and discipline.”
The second bold decision Guardiola made was the transfer of Busquets and Pedro from the youth team to the main team, as well as the reliance on the club’s youngsters. Marty Perarnau wrote in his immortal book The Evolution of Guardiola: “For years it was thought that Xavi and Iniesta could not play together at Barcelona, until Guardiola found an approach to them – it turned out that this combination was extremely effective. During Johan Cruyff’s seven seasons as Barcelona coach, 32 club trainees made their first-team debuts. During Pep Guardiola’s four seasons at the Camp Nou, 22 club trainees made their first-team debuts for Barcelona.
In the summer of 2008 Pep forced Messi to work on defense in the training sessions, stopped answering the calls of the local journalists (the coach decided to communicate with the press only at the press conferences) and abolished the Spanish tradition to gather the team in the hotel the day before the match.
Everything was going great until the first official matches.
“Barcelona beat Vistula Cracow in the third qualifying round of the Champions League and made it through to the group stage, but lost in the return leg 0-1. The championship was followed by a defeat at the hands of modest Numancia and a home draw with Racinth. At the time, Guardiola was criticized by none other than the lazy man. However, all these critics judged the team solely on the result – not on the game.
It seemed that there was only one voice in the press in defense of the head coach, but which one: the voice of Johan Cruyff. In his weekly column for El Periodico de Catalunya, he wrote:
“This Barcelona looks very, very good. I don’t know what game you were watching, but what I saw was unlike anything I have seen at Camp Nou in a long time.
The worst start to a season in years. Only one goal scored, and that from a penalty kick. Such is the inexorable truth, judging only by the numbers. But in soccer terms, these matches deserve a different reading. And Guardiola is the first to read them differently. He’s not a rookie sorely lacking in experience, and he’s far from suicidal impulses. He looks, he sees, he analyzes and he makes decisions.
When he met with Cruyff, Pep had a simple and clear message: “Keep going. You’ll do well.” Guardiola then came to exactly the same conclusion himself. And in the next round his Barcelona defeated Sporting Gijon 6-1.
The next day, Pep received a printout of the statistics, and it was hard to hold back a smile. The numerical report showed that all the forwards had taken rebounds (and thus “strangled” Sporting in the opponent’s half), the team had 22 shots at the opponent’s goal (9 of them into the net), and the best player in the match defensively was Busquets, who had 10 rebounds. Of his 50 passes, only two were inaccurate.
With this victory, Guardiola was finally convinced that he was on the right track. The greatest team in the history of soccer was born.
For background, a few quotes from the documentary “Taking the Ball, Passing the Ball”:
Henri on the adaptation to Guardiola’s soccer:
“It’s something new, let me see it. And forget your pride. The team was full of guys who were kings in their countries. It was hard to tell a player like that: “Stay here, don’t do that, get behind him.” What? What do you mean? I know how to play soccer! Pep’s methods were different, they were different. He interfered in literally everything.”
“I’m not 15 years old. You have to treat me with respect, then so will I. But if there is no respect, then why should I respect you? I told Pep that he can’t talk to me like that. If that continued, I would have left.”
“Abidal came from Lyon, where soccer was played differently. Compare Abidal’s game then, and compare Abidal’s game three years later. The passes, the play down low, the passing technique. Before, he would have preferred to just take the ball out, and wouldn’t have been so calm in the final third of the field.
Abidal explains that before he came to Barcelona, every time he had to take part in an episode, as a defender, he was obliged to focus on rebounding. As soon as Abidal came to Barcelona, he was immediately taught to think a step ahead, so he knew what to do with the ball once he got hold of it. “Now every time I get the ball, I know how to act because I’ve learned to understand the game.”
“I don’t care where you’re coming from. I don’t care. If you tell me you like soccer and you don’t like Barça, you have a problem.”
Guardiola’s philosophy is based on Cruyff’s positional soccer concept, which no one can explain better than Pep himself:
“We are, in a sense, followers of the teachings that Cruyff brought here. He wanted us to play like that: on the flanks and using flank players, and that whole theory comes first for me. It was Johan who introduced the concept of moving the ball quickly, showing the need to open up the pitch to find space, filling up the center to have a numerical advantage, and some other things that made it clear for everyone how Barça played, and most importantly, they showed the club how to play in the future. In short, it’s the greatest achievement that Cruyff left us. The idea of acting in a way that no team in Spain has done before seduces me. It’s a defining sign, a different way of playing soccer, it’s a way of life, a separate culture.
“Pep explained to us in detail the tactical concepts, the game system itself. His philosophy is clear: first we have to get the ball. When we have it, the opponent suffers and we have everything under control. Then we try not to lose the ball in awkward positions because it can create a dangerous situation. If they take the ball away from us, it should be because the opponent did it on their own, not because we made a mistake and gave it away. The third point is pressing in someone else’s half of the field. We must bite, we must work very hard. We already practiced this under Raikard, but Pep especially emphasized it. Each player has an area where he has to provide pressure. We all have to help each other. You must never lose concentration. Guardiola says that all these aspects are our strong point, and he repeats this most often in the locker room. When we implement our plan, everything works and the game goes on.”
Guillem Balague wrote:
“Pep Guardiola took the defensive aspect to a new level, and it was in this respect that Barcelona’s game became strong and spectacular: losing the ball, the team immediately, within five seconds, tried to take it back. The principle was simple and went back to van Gaal: when we lose the ball, we have five seconds to regain control of it; if it is not regained, the defensive phase begins, and the players have to retreat back quickly.
In a time of conservatism in the soccer world, when most coaches organized teams around a two-back system (4-2-3-1), Guardiola opted for an innovative approach, a system with a midfielder and two wingers, an approach that helped him unleash first Busquets, then Pedro, as well as unleash Messi.
In his first season, Guardiola radically rethought a number of concepts, such as the initial exit from defense, where central defenders were the initiators of the attack; he gave the game more depth with the constant use of wingers; he raised the speed of team movement without the ball; he worked tirelessly to create free zones through constant player movement; he developed concepts of numerical and positional advantage to a maximum level. He mastered the art of manipulating time and space with such ease and speed that many observers had the impression that what the team was doing was easy, when in fact nothing was more difficult in the realities of the modern game.
The high level of technical skill of the Barcelona players allowed them to make passes that other teams would not have thought possible; Xavi, Iniesta, Messi could receive the ball and pass or make a move even when cornered. But Guardiola revolutionized soccer because he took Cruyff’s idea and made it a method: from the start of the attack, engage more players than the opponent to gain the initiative. That is, you have to concentrate around the ball three players if the opponent has two, and four if three. This formula of numerical superiority does not guarantee anything, because, in the end, everything depends on the skill, accuracy and concentration of the performers making decisions and using the space around, but in this case there will always be a free man, and therefore there will be a “safe pass line” that can be used. With this approach, soccer becomes a sport of the ball and space.
Over time, Pep’s charges felt more and more confident on the field, coming out with a clear understanding of how the game would develop, what characteristics the opponent had (both as a team and in terms of individual players) and what needed to be done to defeat him. Yet despite such meticulous preparation, there was still plenty of room for the team to express itself on the field, for the players have always kept in mind that this is soccer, so they must think within tenths of a second and must have a certain freedom on the field to do things that have not been planned.”
In his book The Way of the Champion, Marty Perarnau noted:
“Pep has studied all the mechanisms that can bring the team closer to the opponent’s goal. Xavi, Iniesta and Messi began this stage by being instructed to stay close to the penalty area. Xavi did not sit too deep, so his combinations with Messi on the right, Eto’o in the center and Iniesta on the left began to play out regularly. Little by little the plan changed, because one of the pillars of Pep’s methodology is the evolution of the process. Guardiola never believed in absolute truth, and this gave him flexibility in interpreting various issues. So Xavi was moved to a deeper position so that there was an opportunity to draw out his direct custodian, taking the distance between him and the opponent’s central defenders. This, in turn, gave Messi more freedom behind the opponent’s midfield.
“The coach made us understand the game. He didn’t just give us orders, he explained why it was necessary. So you become a better player, because you know the reasons behind the instructions. In this way, everything makes sense. He has absolutely firm convictions about what he believes in, and the team was proud to accept from him all the rich baggage of tactical knowledge.” On the field, in the heat of the action, this allowed Guardiola’s Barcelona to switch between schemes and change positions five to six times per match. When the players began to understand why they had to do this, it became easier for them to respond to shouts from the bench during the match.
“The recipe for Barça’s success lies in innovation: they defend in threes in an era when everyone is in charge of the doctrine of four defenders; they were the first to compose a midfield entirely of undersized players, while the rest of the world preferred to put powerful, speedy players in the engine room of the team. What others see as a weakness, Barcelona sees as a solution: low midfielders mean you can’t win the ball, so you just have to try not to lose it.
The next trick is the goalkeeper, who touches the ball with his feet as often as the central defender – and often even more regularly than the opponent’s midfielder. In fact, Valdes can be called a central defender who occasionally picks up the ball.
But the most remarkable innovation from Barcelona is perhaps least of all their policy of breaking stereotypes, of selecting such great players with the necessary technique and vision, or even of recognizing that such soccer is beautiful and appealing because it is effective, and vice versa. Rather, what is new is the fact that Barcelona has found a way to use the space on the pitch in a way that is almost impossible to resist. Yes, Pepa has beaten both Chelsea and Real Madrid in the past, but in the time that Guardiola has been at the helm of Barcelona, he has achieved the highest percentage of wins in key matches in history. And that wasn’t by accident.”
Pep Guardiola’s philosophy of play is based on high speed, rondo (fast crossing of several players at speed), ball possession, positional play, artificial overload on the flanks and the ability of players to anticipate their next move even before they get the ball. This is achieved by positional play in training where special training fields are divided into twenty (!) zones; the principle of Juego de Posicion can be formulated as follows: one vertical line should not have more than two players, one horizontal line no more than three. A player is obliged to change position if at least one condition is not met. If that happens, the team will almost always have options for moving the ball, regardless of their own scheme and the opponent’s positioning.
Dani Alves said that Pep allowed his charges to improvise, but the proportion of this very improvisation was insignificant and concerned only the decisions made in the final third of the pitch. There were times when Thierry Henry was substituted at halftime after scoring. Guardiola was unhappy with the Frenchman’s actions – the striker did not act in the best interest of the team.
In the match against Osasuna, Dmitriy Chygrynskiy made two long passes to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who after them was close to two one-on-one exits. The Ukraine national team defender was also substituted, because he did not comply with the team’s setup and style of play – to play with the ball with short and medium passes, gradually breaking the opponent’s defense.
For Guardiola the style has always been and still is paramount. The players are second.
Other innovations of Guardiola in tactical terms are the revival/introduction of false positions: at Barcelona Leo Messi acted in the position of false nine, at Bayern Lahm played in the position of false flank defender.
The idea of using Messi as a false nine before the game against Real Madrid came to Guardiola while watching the previous el clasico. Marty Perarnau, in his book Pep: Confidential, wrote:
“Pep noticed how much pressure Real Madrid’s midfielders, Guti, Fernando Gago and Royston Drenthe, put on his players, Xavi and Yaya Toure. He also noticed the tendency of central defenders Cannavaro and Metzelder to retreat into the goalkeeper’s area and position themselves near Iker Casillas. That free space between them and the Real Madrid midfielders was enormous.
Then Pep said to Messi:
“I want you to start the Madrid match as usual on the flank, but then I will give you a sign and I want you to move away from the midfielders to the spot I indicated. That’s what we did last September in Gijon.
Pep rethought the 4-3-3 scheme and total soccer. The main change was not in Messi’s new position, but in the principles of possession in general and in the 4-3-3 scheme in particular (which is simply ideal for this concept), as well as the fast, high pressing of which Pep himself is the author – the same five second rule (which was originally a six second rule, but there is no limit to perfection). Guardiola’s emphasis was not just on possession, but on possession of the ball in the opponent’s half, with the clear intention of scoring. As a result, the team used slow, short passes to advance across the field in a horizontal attack that culminated in an explosive finish in the final third – usually provided by Messi. Pep used possession without the intention of scoring on several occasions – in order to confuse and embarrass his opponent – which was also a kind of tactical trick.
Guardiola’s coaching career at Barcelona can be roughly divided into three periods: the 2008/09 season with the “old guard”, the seasons 2009/10 to 2010/11 – “squeezing” the maximum out of the “new guard”, the 2011/12 season – the change of scheme to 3-4-3 and the fading of relations. Pep had enough problems in each of those periods: first with the non-sale of Eto’o, then with the conflict with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the poor adaptation of Dmitriy Chigrinski and Ibrahim Afellay; I am not talking about the fourth season at all. Nevertheless, in each of these periods, Guardiola’s Barcelona played an alien level of soccer, and in each of these periods Pep showed the world novelty after novelty in “tactical” matters.
The team’s achievements: three championships, two Champions Leagues and a white flag from Sir Alex
In terms of trophies, the 2008/09 season was the greatest in Barcelona’s history. The team won absolutely all the tournaments in which it took part: the championship (with a margin of 11 points over Real Madrid and victories over them in their personal meetings with 2-0 and 6-2), the Spanish Cup (in the final, Athletic were beaten 4:1: 1), the Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup (defeating Shakhtar in extra time), the Spanish Super Cup (defeating the same Athletic 5:1 on aggregate in two games) and the Club World Cup (defeating Argentina’s Estudiantes 2:1 in extra time in the final).
That season, the Catalan team went all over the rink. Messi and company scored 105 goals in La Liga, five or more in seven league games and four more in four. In the first quarterfinals of the Champions League, Bayern were beaten 4-0 in the first half, and in the final, the Blaugranas defeated the great Sir Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United without question. The only black spot of the season was the unimpressive return game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, in which Norwegian referee Tom Henning Øvrebe made some controversial decisions in favor of both teams – but for the most part in favor of Barcelona. At the same time, I have no doubt that Barça brought the situation to this point only “thanks” to the calendar and the unavailability of Puyol, who was injured. All the detractors of Barcelona remember the unimpressive game in London, but they forget that this match was held on the fourth day after the famous 6-2 victory of Guardiola’s team at the Santiago Bernabeu. The team was exhausted both physically and emotionally. Thanks to Andres Iniesta, the decisive goal was scored on 90+3 minutes.
In the Champions League final, Alex Ferguson felt that Barcelona had taken the ball away for three seconds instead of five. In his autobiography, the great Scotsman explained the reason for his team’s defeat. Because of Messi’s departure to the center of the field and playing as a false nine, United’s defenders did not know what to do: to meet Leo in front, or to reassure themselves and stay behind him.
“Against Barcelona in both Champions League finals, we could have done better if we had played more defensive soccer. But in the decisive match, trying to win in that style would not have done Manchester City any good. We used that tactic against Barcelona in the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2008, when we played defensively and it was a real torture for me, not to mention the fans, who had to go through all the pains of hell. So in all the subsequent matches against them I wanted to leave a more positive impression of our game, and it was partly this change of focus that led to our defeat. If we had dug in our penalty box and held our defense tighter, then maybe we could have got the result we wanted. I don’t blame myself, no. I just regret that our soccer couldn’t lead to a better outcome,” Ferguson noted.
And Sir Alex also noted that there were only four world-class players in that Barcelona squad: “Pique, two central midfielders and Messi. Obviously, by two central midfielders he meant Xavi and Busquets. But what about Iniesta? Andres didn’t play his best in that final because of an injury. Barcelona’s club doctor even recommended the left midfielder not to take shots from afar, so as not to aggravate the injury.
The final was decided by goals from Eto’o and Messi, with Leo scoring with his head, eluding Rio Ferdinand on the breakaway.
The next season 2009/10 was more difficult. Despite only one (!) defeat in the championship, La Liga was won with the advantage of only three points; the Spanish Cup was “lost” to Sevilla in the 1/8 finals, and in the Champions League Guardiola’s team was knocked out by Jose Mourinho’s Inter. He did it in the most unattractive way possible: after a 3-1 home win (Diego Milito scored one of the goals from offside), Mourinho gave the Camp Nou his most famous, cowardly and disgusting version of the “bus”. The Portuguese applied what Sir Alex defiantly refused to do. “Barça won only 1-0, and missed out on the final against Inter.
Arguably, in the 2010/11 season, Barcelona reached their peak under Guardiola and displayed the most beautiful soccer from an aesthetic point of view. Jose Mourinho, who joined Real Madrid, suffered more than anyone else that season. In the championship he received a manita at Camp Nou in the form of 0-5, and in the Champions League semi-final Leo Messi alone made a real laughing stock of the Slivos’ defense. The Argentine outmaneuvered three Madrid players and scored one of the most beautiful goals of his career, and he did it at the Bernabeu. Yes, he distinguished himself 15 minutes after the suspension of the opponent’s central defender Pepe, but who was the doctor to the naturalized Portuguese that he went to Dani Alves with a straight leg at speed…?
Barça faced Real Madrid five times that season, and lost only once to Mourinho’s team – in the Spanish Cup final, in extra time with a score of 0-1.
In the final, Barça found old friend Sir Alex and his Manchester United. The main difference from the last meeting was the place of the battle. This time it was Wembley. “United were intent on revenge, and the walls were on their side. Now United’s defenders knew exactly what they should do with Messi – they sat in their zones and didn’t throw themselves forward. But it didn’t prevent them from losing: Manchester United only responded to Pedro, Messi and Villa with Wayne Rooney’s goal (and it was scored from offside). And before the match Alex Ferguson saw Abidal’s presence on the left flank of the defense as an advantage. The Frenchman had not played for a long time and Guardiola was openly risky when he put Eric in the starting line-up for the final match.
“After the second defeat against Barcelona in the Champions League final, I asked myself: what was our main problem? First of all: some of the players played below their level. Maybe it was the fact that we got used to control the ball most of the time in matches. And when Barcelona stripped us of that advantage, the players lost their usual confidence and concentration. There is certainly merit in the hypothesis that our players were not ready to play second, even Giggs or Park Ji-Sun, who in the quarterfinals against Chelsea ran up and down the pitch all night and took the ball away from everyone. But I didn’t see him play like that in the final against Barcelona.
After that defeat I had serious concerns about the coaching in our academy, and Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and I exchanged views on it. I thought about appointing another technique coach.”
After winning the championship, Champions League and Spanish Super Cup, the Catalans won the Club World Cup in late December, defeating Santos with Neymar in the final (4-0). According to Guardiola’s right-hand man Manel Estiarte, that match was Barça’s best match under the Catalan.
What followed was a decline.
“Barcelona was still good, but something broke in the relationship between the coach and the rest of the team. According to Pepa’s version, the eyes of some of his charges had “faded,” and he could no longer motivate these players in the same way as before. According to a number of players, Guardiola’s own attitude has changed.
“We didn’t understand what was wrong with Pep, and it became a concern for the team. Usually he renews his contract in February or March. But in February there was no news, and then March passed, and… nothing.”
“We had a preseason game, and I saw Pep yelling at Puyol and Pique. When I saw that, I said to Iniesta, ‘He’s leaving, this is his last year;
“Even geniuses make mistakes, and Pep was definitely wrong. It felt like we didn’t matter to him anymore. I really wanted to understand what was going on, that’s why the fights started. If Pep had asked me to jump from the ninth floor, I would have jumped – if Guardiola himself asked it, then he knew something. But that year, if he had asked me to do it, I would have turned him down.
In his last season, Guardiola won only one trophy with Barcelona: the Spanish Cup. In the final, Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic were already destroyed by the 25th minute, by which time Barcelona were leading 3-0.
The championship was lost to Real Madrid by nine points, and in the Champions League Barcelona were eliminated in the semi-finals by Chelsea. In the first leg at Stamford Bridge, Blues coach Roberto Di Matteo repeated Mourinho’s Camp Nou trick and successfully parked the bus in front of his goal, and in the return leg he danced off a dry win and the away goal rule. In this two-match encounter, Barça took 46 shots on goal (23 away, 23 at home), but still failed to advance to the next stage.
Yet Guardiola’s achievements in four seasons are phenomenal: three Spanish titles, two Cups, three Super Cups, two Champions Leagues, two UEFA Super Cups and two Club World Cups.
Barcelona stars: the great five
“Barcelona 2009-2012 was made up of a number of great players, against which three players of absolutely top class stood out: Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi. The distinguishing feature of this trio was their height: Xavi and Messi “grew” to 170 centimeters, while Iniesta was one centimeter taller. In the 70’s there was a sign on the coach’s office door saying “If you want to offer a young player below 1.80 centimeters, turn around and go home”. In those days, even just getting into the Catalan team, this trio didn’t stand a chance.
At that time Catalonia did not yet know that low-sized players started, turned and stopped faster, and therefore had an advantage over long and bulky opponents. It would be another decade and a half before Johan Cruyff would take on the task of building Barcelona’s youth team system, when scouts would look first at technique, not size, in their search for talent.
“La Masia has brought up talented players for the first team before, and Pep himself is a vivid example of that. But before that the Barça school has never produced three top-level players of the same generation. Before Messi, the soccer world was arguing about who was the best player in the history of soccer – Pele or Maradona (unfairly forgetting Alfredo Di Stefano and Johan Cruyff). After 2011, this question is no longer relevant.
Lionel Messi was able to turn his disadvantage – a small height – into an advantage. Thanks to his low center of gravity and short stride, the Barcelona captain can “walk through” opponents without losing his balance. He sharply changes the direction of the run. Having spent less than ten years for Barcelona’s first team, he has already become its best player in history. Proven by six Golden Balls.
But at least one Golden Ball was earned by Xavi and Iniesta, or as they are affectionately known in Spain, “Javinesta”. In 2010, a unique case in the history of this prize (so what if it was the first FIFA Ballon d’Or and not France Football!): Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, players from the same team, topped three podiums in the voting. Five times in his career Xavi was in the top five in the voting for the most prestigious individual award, but never won it – because of the great Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. At the same time, there is a feeling that the brain of “golden Barcelona” deserved this award much more than some other winners of the Ballon d’Or, even if we take only the 21st century.
It’s the same with Iniesta, who has been in the top five four times (another time he ranked sixth in the voting). This, of course, once again discredits the award.
“Xaviñesta, along with Messi, perfectly comprehended Cruyff’s philosophy and became ‘lords of space.’ They were the best in terms of speed of decision-making; vision of the game, quality of passing; the ability to slow down, accelerate, take a pause in time; the first touch they used to get away from opponents; the ability to change the direction of the attack. In his autobiography, Iniesta noted:
“There are people who believe that my secret lies in the first ten meters of space around me, which I cover by starting the movement. Others say that I sacrificed my talent as a striker, which distinguished me as a child, to be able to cover the kind of distances I cover on the field now. I don’t. Like I said, I just do what I intuitively feel. If I were born again, I would play exactly the same way. When I get on the field, I have more or less an idea of how I’m going to fit into the game, I immediately get a sense of how fast the match will go and how it will develop. Sometimes the feeling that tells me what will happen in the game comes the day before the match. I imagine it all in my head, and then it happens just like that. Or I do something on bare intuition, without even thinking about it a second in advance. My brain thinks really fast. My mother says that sometimes it works so fast that it’s not far from exploding – it’s very inherent in our family.
Speaking of all this, it’s important not to forget that, before Guardiola came to Barcelona, for years it was thought that Xavi and Iniesta could not play together. Xavi even considered leaving for AC Milan because Louis van Gaal didn’t see him in the first team. He was not a solid base player under Rijkard either – in 2006 Frank preferred to let Edmilson out in the starting line-up for the Champions League final instead of Hernandez.
Guardiola himself, in addition to this “holy trinity,” valued two more of his charges, Gerard Pique and Sergi Busquets.
Sir Alex Ferguson said in his autobiography that at a conference in Europe, Guardiola confessed to him that Gerard was the best player he had ever signed