In this series we will be breaking down the greatest sides of all time, the teams that have defined their eras – both tactically and philosophically. Starting with a side fresh in our memories. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona from 2008 to 2012.
Teams and seasons
In his four years, Guardiola’s men won 14 of the 19 competitions they entered, including six trophies in his first term, 2008/09: the Spanish Super Cup, La Liga and Copa del Rey, plus the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup. Helping to revolutionise the game of football and re-popularise possession play at a time when football had shifted and become very defensive.
The 2010-11 season made its two champions league titles and three La Liga championships in three years. Collectively the 2010-11 side, despite not winning the treble (losing to Jose Mourinho Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey final) was the superior side. They had by this point a clear footballing identity. Messi was now predominantly a false-nine, Villa and Pedro would press from the front and make runs inside the centre-backs, allowing Messi to drop deep to form a world beating midfield diamond with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets.
Defensively, Barcelona were a great side too, conceding only 21 goals in 38 league games, thanks to their philosophy being the best way to defend was to keep the ball and attack.
In 2011-12 Barcelona reached their fourth consecutive Champions League semi-final, won the Copa Del Rey beating Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in the final, finished runners-up in the league to Real Madrid – Pep Guardiola stood down as manager at the end of the 2011-12 season, having created something truly special.
In the summer of 2008 Pep Guardiola beat off competition from Jose Mourinho to become Barcelona first team coach. Guardiola was only 37-years-old and his only experince was a year in charge of Barcelona B. Mourinho, meanwhile was a franchise name, a superstar manager, who had won Premier League titles with Chelsea.
Pep was the pivot in Johan Cruyff’s dream team of 1992, a 5-foot 11 midfielder with a slender frame, he was extremely technically gifted player, Cruyff trusted him because of his passing and his brain. Cruyff plucked Guardiola from the third division and made him first team starter for his Barcelona team. Guardiola ascension – becoming the heartbeat of a European winning midfield, paved the way for the next generation of technical, diminutive, skilful midfield players – the likes of Xavi and Sergio Busquets.
El Classico – The Super Bowl of World Football
What is the biggest game in world football? Unequivocally it is – Barcelona v Real Madrid. Barcelona have 90.8 million followers on Instagram, while Real Madrid have 92.7 million followers, they are the two most followed sport teams in the world on social media. The last Classico was estimated to have had 650 million viewers around the world.
The rivalry comes about as Madrid and Barcelona are the two largest cities in Spain, and they are sometimes identified with opposing political positions, with Real Madrid viewed as representing Spanish nationalism and Barcelona viewed as representing Catalan nationalism.
To play for Barcelona or Real Madrid for many players is to reach the pinnacle of world football.
In the 2010-11 season, four El Classico’s in 18 days was where the rivalry between managers, players and fans reached new heights. It was the peak of El Classico – Guardiola v Mourinho, Messi v Ronaldo, Pique v Ramos.
- 16 April 2011, La Liga, Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid
- 20 April 2011, Copa del Rey final, Mestalla, Valencia
- 27 April 2011, Champions League semi-final first leg, Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid
- 3 May 2011, Champions League semi-final second leg, Camp Nou, Barcelona
After the Copa del Rey final, won 1-0 by Madrid, Guardiola rues a correct offside call:
A two-centimetre decision from a linesman who must have had a very good view ruled out Pedro’s goal.
This was like feeding Mourinho free candy who used that to ridicule Guardiola for criticising referees when they are right. That makes Guardiola snap. In the press room ahead of their Champions League semi-final, Guardiola looks into the cameras, asks which one is Mourinho’s, then addresses him directly:
In this room, Mourinho is the f***ing chief, the f***ing boss. I don’t want to compete with him in here… but this is a game of football.
In the ensuing clash, Barça win a toxic game 2-0, with Pepe dismissed and Mourinho sent to the stands. Mourinho then gives an extraordinary press conference in which he accuses UEFA’s referees of favouring Barça and devalues Guardiola’s achievements:
Deep down, if they are good people, it cannot taste right for them, I hope that one day Guardiola has the chance of winning a brilliant, clean championship with no scandal.
Tactics “Total Football” – Johan Cruyff
“Cruyff is the most important player in the history of FC Barcelona” – Xavi Hernandez (Take the Ball, Pass the Ball – Documentary)
In 1992 Barcelona won their first ever European Cup with Johan Cruyff as manager. His arrival transformed the club, changing the identity and mentality of the club.
For Cruyff winning football matches was important, however winning with confidence, controlling the ball, being creative was just as important, if not more so than the result, for Cruyff would rather see his side win 5-4 than win 1-0. It was his ideas that Guardiola followed religiously – In an interview with the Guardian in 2016 Pep said;
I thought I knew about football but when I started to work with him a new world appeared in front of me. Not just me – but a whole generation of players. Johan helped us understand the game. Football is the most difficult game in the world because it is open and every situation is completely different and you have to make decisions minute by minute. But I was a lucky guy. I am sitting here now because I met him. If not for him it would not have been possible.
Here are some of the fundamental aspects of Johan Cruyff footballing ideology Pep Guardiola inherited:
- Holding onto Possession and passing in triangles.
- Pressing the opposition, the moment they lose the ball.
- Staying close together to recover possession and keep the ball.
- Using a Sweeper-Keeper and high defensive line
- Building possession from the back
- Speed of the ball is more important than the speed of the legs.
- Play attractive football, entertain the fans.
Tactical exercise: El Rondo – A pivotal part of the training at Barcelona was centred around a training ground exercises called the rondo – invented by Laureano Ruiz it is fundamental part of training at FC Barcelona. Ruiz joined Barcelona in 1972 and was a prominent figure throughout the decade, working with the Cantera (youth team). Ruiz experimented and delivered Rondo exercises to the first team players, and seemingly this had a lasting effect on Johan Cruyff.
The rondo is four against two, you need to move constantly to find space, the player with the ball must have the option to pass to his right, another to his left, and another through the middle, in a match it teaches players to make effective, short, snappy sideway passes to the feet or a through ball. It was training in tight spaces with exercises like the rondo that allowed Barcelona to have such control of the ball on the pitch.
La Masia – Catalan for ‘the Farmhouse’ – is the name that is generally used to describe the Barcelona youth academy, or cantera (meaning ‘quarry’) to give its Spanish name.
A residence in which young players receive a football and academic education, it has become synonymous with inculcating the philosophy of Barcelona (Mes que un club), with its graduates invariably leaving branded by what club officials have described as “the stamp of La Masia”.
Pep Guardiola, said it best:
The player who has passed through La Masia has something different to the rest, it’s a plus that only comes from having competed in a Barcelona shirt from the time you were a child.
It just so happened that the youth system had a generational crop of players coming through the ranks at the time this side was peaking. In 2010, La Masia became the first youth academy to have trained all three finalists for the Ballon d’Or in a single year – Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Xavi.
The academy teaches players from a young age a certain style of play. Defenders have to be able to dribble the ball and make the right pass, midfielders must be technically sound, masters of the fundamentals – passing and moving and forwards can not just be goal scores, they have to be able to link-up the play, stay wide to make space for the midfielders and defend from the front.
Famous players brought through the academy:
- Pep Guardiola
- Lionel Messi
- Xavi Hernandez
- Andreas Iniesta
- Cesc Fabregas
- Gerard Pigue
- Jordi Alba
- Victor Valdes
Messi won four consecutive Ballon d’Or in a row (2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012) during Barcelona historic stretch. He become the second player in history to win a three consecutive Ballon’d’Or after France legend Michel Platini and the first ever to win four.
A pass first player who is one of the greatest scorers to ever play the game. The intelligence of a deep-lying midfielder, the creativity of an attacking midfielder, the finishing of a refined number nine, and the dribbling of a number ten. Messi is the ultimate football player.
Nicknamed “The Illusionist” – Iniesta was a player that mastered the art of making the impossible, look easy. His control, passing, dribbling was world class. His unassuming nature made him the perfect student, Guardiola’s summed him up:
Iniesta doesn’t dye his hair, he doesn’t wear earrings and he hasn’t got any tattoos. Maybe that makes him unattractive to the media, but he is the best.
The midfield maestro was as close to perfect as a passer as anyone ever, to the extent that one miss-placed pass, would cause you to quite literally gasp in shock, such was the rarity of the occasion. The heartbeat of the greatest international and club team of the century. The grand master of midfield players.
La Liga: Barcelona 6-2 Real Madrid, May 2nd 2009
This match felt like a proper title decider. With five games to go, Barcelona were four points clear, this was the victory decided the league title and offered a defining display. Messi debuting as a False nine and scoring two goals. Xavi running riot from midfield – finishing with four assists, in perhaps his finest ever performance in a Blaugrana shirt.
UEFA Champions League: Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona, May 6th, 2009
Drama, controversy, chaos, mayhem, Chelsea were denied at least two definite penalties and possibly four. Iniesta’s stunning goal in the 92-minute sent Barcelona through to the final, one of the defining images of his career, alongside the small matter of a World Cup final goal.
2009 UEFA Champions League Final: Barcelona 2-0 Manchester United, May 27th, 2009
Barcelona took on defending champions Manchester United, who had somewhat dominated their way to the final with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney leading the way. However, inside ten minutes, Barcelona took the lead through a Samuel Eto’s strike underneath of Edwin van der Sar. An hour later, it was Lionel Messi putting the match out of reach with a fantastic header.
La Liga: Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid, November 29th, 2010
The peak performance, the perfect picturesque football, and the purest distillation of an entire era. Real were dismantled by perhaps the most dynamic football of Guardiola’s time at Barcelona. Five goals, a five-star performance. Guardiola undoing his greatest individual opponent, Jose Mourinho, who was then in charge of Barcelona’s greatest rivals.
It was Monday night game and it felt as if the while world was watching. Wayne Rooney reaction summed it up perfectly – “I was watching in my living room and I actually stood up and applauded what I was seeing,” said Rooney in an article in The Mirror. “Coleen walked in and asked what I was doing! But it was the best performance I’ve ever seen. It was unbelievable.
2011 UEFA Champions League Final: Barcelona 3-1 Manchester United, May 28th, 2011
Barcelona dominated with 63 percent of possession and took almost five times as many shots as their opponents, Manchester United. Despite a beautiful goal by Wayne Rooney allowing United to draw level at 1-1 at half-time, Barca were able to thoroughly dominate the second half. After three brilliant goals, Barca were able to conquer Europe with a 3-1 victory. Such was Barcelona dominance; Rooney’s goal was United’s only shot on target for the entire match.
In popular culture
Culturally Barcelona or a modern phenomenon. Responsible for hundreds, thousands, millions of kids, adults, and players around the world proudly declaring FC Barcelona as their favourite side.
Below I have listed some essential reading and watching if you want to relive those four glorious years.
- “Take the Ball, Pass the Ball” – (Guardian Documentary)
- “The Making of the World’s Greatest Team” – Graeme Hunter (Book)
- “The Barcelona Legacy” – Jonathan Wilson (Book)
- “Fear and Loathing in La Liga”- Sid Lowe (Book)
They won’t remember the trophies we won, they will remember the way we played
– Pep Guardiola