Pep Guardiola insists for it not for Johan Cruyff, as a player he would never had left the third division. Guardiola was a slow mover but excelled in his intelligence convincing Cruyff to make him the focal point of his team’s play. From the period between 1991-94 the club won four successive La Liga titles and the European Cup and with 11 trophies, Cruyff became the club’s most successful manager to date.
More than that Cruyff gave Barcelona’s it’s identity; it’s roots sprung from the philosophies of Dutch Total Football, from the academy to on the pitch, playing an elaborate and expansive game which gave his side the title of the ‘Dream Team’. However with the disastrous defeat to Fabio Capello’s AC Milan side 4-0 in the European Cup in 94 it marked the end of the road for Cruyff. Two trophy-less years later and the Dutchman was sacked. The club needed a new man to bring the philosophies on the pitch to the modern world.
In that defining game, it pitted the wits of two managers with principles stemming from the Holland ’74 side, but each going their own different ways. The side coached by Rinus Michels and had Johan Cruyff as captain, was all about self-expression and an almost twin-like understanding having played with each other so much. With rapid passing, interchanging of position, continuous pressing and playing with a high line, it was almost the perfect team. Cruyff took the aesthetic side and Capello, the organisation side, continuing on from Arrigo Sacchi’s ideals. For Capello it was all about controlling space in zones, in the form of systemised pressing and having players capable of creating chances.
Cruyff’s Barca played in what is now their synonymous 4-3-3 but which was adaptable, allowing for triangle passes (i.e. more options in the pass) and the changing of positions. The wingers were detailed never to engage in pointless tracking back, instead pressuring the opponents high up the field and looking to rob the defenders of the ball.
Pundits described A.C Milan’s performance against Barcelona in the final as the greatest ever by a team in European Cup/UEFA Champions League history and question marks were asked whether this type of tactic was unsustainable. Roy Hodgson didn’t think so explaining; “There is less high-intensity pressing from the front in advance areas (in top-level European football). This is partly because concern of the interpretation of the offside law has led to teams to play deeper. Sides are sill compact, but this is mainly in their own half of the pitch.”
Van Gaal tried to account for this by updating the system in order to accommodate it’s pace, skill and athleticism. Hence the now direct Dutch 4-3-3 with more emphasis on counter-attacks and slightly more orthodox.
Juan Laporta talked about identity and principles in his reason not to hire someone like Mourinho instead of Guardiola and now the rookie Spaniard manager has brought back those ideals once considered difficult to play.
The three pronged attacked of Messi, Henry and Eto’o have a 100 goals between them. Guardiola’s forwards are no longer protracted by unnecessary tacking back, which invites the opposition to come at them and at the same time, tiring their own players. Instead they look to force the issue and press the full back’s and the defenders as high as possible, looking to force a mistake and maybe nick the ball. “Barcelona make the pitch look bigger than it really is,” says the former Barcelona midfielder and current Getafe coach Víctor Muñoz. “Barcelona play very high up the pitch and if they get the ball off you there, they’re lethal.”
It helps however if you have super players and Barcelona have that. Messi is arguably the best in the world and Andres Iniesta can’t come too far behind. As much importance to the team success is the forwards, the central midfield are probably much more, combining balance, technique, intelligence and tactical coherence they engage their opponents into a gruelling challenge of concentration. Not that Guardiola will have it any other way for his own side. He’s imposed strict fines while his attention to detail is frighteningly accurate, implementing video analysis to training sessions and berating the tiniest loss of focus.
And now Guardiola and Barcelona are gearing up for their greatest challenge. A manager with only a years experience against a manager who has more than twenty, locking horns in a stadium befitting the art of the second coming of the Dream Team.