By Sopan Joshi [ Published in OPEN magazine ]
Two factors have changed football rapidly in recent years. One, the offside rule was altered in 2005, reducing the impact of the offside trap. Two, referees are now told to be especially severe on cynical defending, and they are only too willing to flash the yellow and red offence cards to vigilante defenders. A penalty is guaranteed for a cynical foul anywhere inside the box. The rules of football have been bent to favour attacking football.
For the past four years, FC Barcelona has thrived due to these changes, leading a renaissance in football, particularly in Europe’s club football, which has overtaken the World Cup as the top drawer of the game. The ideologue of this renaissance is the club’s manager Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola. After he announced on 27 April that he would leave Barça next month for a year of rest, the reaction was sharp. He drew the kind of attention reserved for the passing of a Titan.
It’s easy to forget that Guardiola is all of 41 years old, among the youngest managers of a major football club, and still an age befitting an apprenticeship with a coaching veteran. He is yet to complete his fourth year at his first job as manager and coach. Along the way he has created a team often called the greatest club side of all time, which in four years has won an unprecedented 13 trophies, with the possibility of a 14th in the final of the Spanish Cup. His influence was noticeable in the Spanish team that won the World Cup two years ago; it is rated among the greatest national sides of all time. It is no secret that the core of that Spain team came from Guardiola’s Barça. His management of Barça has become a reference point—in international sport as much as in business management and leadership. There are comparisons with Jesus even. How did he get here?
It’s been a long journey for the slender, deep-lying midfielder whose elegant passing game was considered obsolete 10 years ago, when he was still in his prime as a player. A journey he covered rapidly, if in the same understated manner that defined the way he orchestrated attacks from a defensive position. Guardiola’s is a classic resurrection story.
Birth in the province of Catalonia primes one to a bias in favour of the collective. Its capital Barcelona has a Leftist political reputation: it was the hub of Europe’s anarchists and trade unions. The Catalans consider themselves a separate nation, seeking a release from Spanish monarchy. Into this sensibility arrived, in 1973, Johan Cruyff—then captain of the Dutch football team, widely considered the greatest footballer in the world, Guardiola’s would-be mentor, and the embodiment of a radical attacking approach called ‘totaalvoetbal’ (total football). In this radical approach to the game, when one player moved with the ball, another automatically moved into his position, all players moving with the coordination—and sting—of a beehive. The emphasis was on keeping possession of the ball, frustrating opponents by denying them initiative. Called ‘Pytha- goras in Boots’ for his accurate, intricate, triangular passing, Cruyff was as good a goal scorer as assister to team mates, doing all the hard work to play them into scoring positions.
Cruyff had become a hero in Catalonia after refusing to join Real Madrid, Barça’s archrival club in the Spanish capital with a royalist and rightwing heritage. Cruyff insisted on developing a youth academy to groom players for this type of football. After Cruyff retired as a player, he became a coach, moving to Barça in 1988. He visited the Barça youth academy founded on his advice, and instantly spotted Guardiola—a promising teenager with a thoughtful approach to the game and a sharp awareness of every player’s position on the pitch, a vision that helped him anticipate the run of play. Cruyff fast-tracked the young Guardiola, soon making him the captain and fulcrum of the all-conquering Dream Team Cruyff coached.
Guardiola’s was a versatile role. On paper, he was a defensive midfielder, playing just in front of the defence. But with his superior vision and passing ability, he launched attacks even from deep-lying positions. Technically gifted and blessed with a soft, anodyne touch, Guardiola could suddenly split the opposing team’s formation with a deadly pass threaded through gaps that only he could see. The goal-scoring reputations of the likes of Stoichkov, Romario and Laudrup were built on his magical passes. Because he played deep (in the manner of a queen bee in a hive), marking and containing him was impossible for defenders. Guardiola became the perfect enabler, the metronome, pulling the strings for every move, his presence bringing out the best in others. Like Cruyff, he started visiting the youth academy, where he was a hero to many talented young players.
Cruyff left Barça and, in time, so did Guardiola. The role of the ‘defensive midfielder’ had got typecast: a physically strong tackler, willing to rough up opponents to win back the ball, and then supply it to attacking midfielders to create scoring chances. The beautiful and the effective, traits that Guardiola unified, had been cast asunder. The midfield role model of this era was Real Madrid’s: the artistic and attacking Zinedine Zidane, playing in front of a physical and defensive Claude Makelele. Real Madrid was the dominant team of this time, full of the best attacking players in the world, bought for record transfer fees from clubs around the world. Madrid didn’t bother to groom talent and invest in developing an effective youth system; it would simply pay for the best players, the greatest starcast.
Barça had a group of players from its youth academy around the same time, but its stars—the likes of Ronaldinho, Henry, Et’o—were imported. The coach was Frank Rijkaard, a product of Cruyff’s years as Ajax manager. In 2008, after a disappointing season, most of the imported stars left Barça. They had already won everything; the hunger was gone. Besides, there were serious problems in enforcing discipline on superstars who were bigger than the team. Rijkaard, too, quit. Guardiola, who had joined the previous year to coach the club’s B team, was unexpectedly promoted to manage the senior team. These were players groomed in the passing game, players who liked to keep the ball, who had the DNA of total football, who had grown up together and understood each other instinctively. More than anything else, these were players who had idolised Guardiola in his prime, sticking his posters to their walls. They did not need to be converted. None of these players was powerfully built or very physical—the Barça style suits a smaller frame with a low centre of gravity.
There was Xavi (5’7″), who used to be deployed to substitute Guardiola in his last months as a player at the club. There was Iniesta (5’7″), who had a very similar game to Xavi and thrived playing alongside him. And there was the prodigious Lionel Messi (5’7″), who had moved to the academy from Argentina at the age of 13 to get treatment for his growth hormone disorder. These were all players who could keep the ball and pass it around all day. In Guardiola, they had a coach who would fashion the most successful football philosophy of the day out of these qualities.
When these players lose the ball to the opposition, they do not run back to their half to defend a counter-attack. They run down the opposition in its own half. Most of the action happens in the attacking half of the field, with the last defenders standing around the half-line. At any given point of time, Barça has seven players attacking and creating scoring chances.
Poor defence has remained the big flaw of all great attacking sides. Barça’s solution was simple: if the opposition does not get the ball, they cannot attack. A tactic devised to attack was adapted as a form of defence. Such an attack-minded team had never seemed so sound in defence. Because everybody ran down the attacker together. The forwards—even Messi, now three times world footballer of the year—track back all the way to win the ball off the opposition. Team after competing team was left agog.
After Barça defeated Manchester United in the final of the UEFA Champions League in 2009, United manager Alex Ferguson said had there been two balls on the pitch that evening, Barça would have controlled both. He described the Barça style as death by a thousand passes, and his players’ frustration at chasing the ball, being passed around in triangles, as being put on a carousel. In 2009, when Guardiola’s first year in charge ended, Barça had won six trophies, including a historic treble of winning the Spanish league (La Liga), the King’s Cup (or Copa del Rey) and the UEFA Champions League.
Among the first changes Guardiola introduced was a premium on discipline. There were fines on players arriving late for training. Guardiola was always the first man on the ground, the last to leave. The team seemed well prepared for every game. There hasn’t been another team that regularly clocks 500-600 passes a game, with an average ball possession of 60-70 per cent. The heartbeat of the team, central midfielder Xavi, clocks an average of more than 100 passes a game (with a success rate of over 90 per cent); he runs about 12 km a game. The team’s right full-back, Dani Alves, had the third highest number of passes in the attacking half in the entire season ending 2011—in all of Spain.
The grooming and the discipline have created an unprecedented beauty. Football writers have exhausted their reserves of metaphors and aphorisms to describe the music of watching this Barça team on song. The ‘tiki-taka’, as the short passing game is called in Spanish, has won admirers around the world, making Barça itself international shorthand for aesthetic football. The players regularly say they like to play a game that is easy on the eye, and which entertains the public. Winning titles seems almost like a by-product of tiki-taka. This team of mostly local lads defeated a star-studded Real Madrid, very likely the most expensive football team assembled ever, in nine out of 15 encounters, losing only twice.
That Barça achieved the impossible and then went on doing it over and over gave it an aura of immortality. But the intensity with which it has played over the past four years cannot be sustained forever. It took its toll on Guardiola, who quit simply because he was exhausted. In true Barça style, rather than ‘buy’ an expensive coach, they have promoted Guardiola’s assistant, Tito Vilanova, also a product of the Barça youth system, though not as illustrious a player as Guardiola. The team may have lost steam towards the end of the current season. But going by its record, there is every reason to watch each game it plays in the coming season. Because in the Barça way, the collective is always bigger than the individual, and each individual creates his own replacement.
On the pitch, Guardiola created Xavi. In the dugout, there is Tito Vilanova. Their style of football, like their passing, just keeps going on. We should certainly hope so.