Guardiola creating a new sensation
Josep Guardiola is Barcelona's creative mastermind and bridge to Johan Cruyff's successful football system. (Lluis Gene/Getty Images)
They are calling it Cruyffismo 3.0. The Dream Team reloaded and upgraded.
“Today Pep Guardiola sits at the same table as Steve Jobs,” wrote Martín Mazur in a provocative article for El Gráfico. “He makes a decision and the world follows. They try to copy it but are unable to do so.”
Much like Apple introducing a new iPhone or an iPad at the Yerba Buena centre in San Francisco, Barcelona unveiled their latest innovation before the media and the fans at the Camp Nou on Monday night. It was a 3-1-3-3 formation - an old favorite of Guardiola’s, evoking the time when he used to play in the system under Cruyff as the pivot or No 4. Only this version represented an elaboration if not a new interpretation.
To say it was a success would be an understatement. Barcelona outmaneuvered and then set about dissecting Villarreal in a stunning 5-0 victory. Not since the 1958-59 season, when another great manager Helenio Herrera was sitting on the bench with László Kubala leading the line of his attack, had the Catalan club started the season with such an emphatic win.
“Last night a new team was born,” wrote Ramon Besa in Tuesday’s edition of El País. Indeed, many feel that the next episode of Guardiola’s time in charge of Barcelona is now upon us.
Admittedly, the decision to move away from the team’s usual 4-3-3 shape to a 3-1-3-3 was circumstantial, owing to the suspension of Dani Alves and injuries to Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, Adriano and Maxwell, which had decimated the backline.
“If we had all the players available then maybe I wouldn’t have changed the system,” Guardiola confessed after the game.
Yet the clear advantages presented by Barcelona’s 3-1-3-3 when faced with Villarreal’s 4-2-2-2 – such as a spare man at the back, a 4 v 4 in midfield and wide men up front to restrain the opposition full-backs – all would appear to indicate that, even had everyone been fit, it would have been the right tactical set up to counter this particular opponent.
Guardiola’s resolution not to promote Marc Bartra and Andreu Fontàs, Barcelona’s highly regarded young centre-backs, and ask Javier Mascherano to play right-back again to create a makeshift back four can perhaps be considered more evidence to that effect.
Why else would he instead be so daring as to name Eric Abidal the only natural defender in his starting XI to face Villarreal?
“The biggest risk you can take is not to take risks,” Guardiola once quipped. That statement echoes a speech made by Jobs at Stanford University in 2005 when the Apple founder told the students in the audience to disregard dogma and to have the courage to go with their hearts.
“Stay hungry. Stay foolish,” he said.
When viewed from that perspective, Guardiola’s decision to change the formation, be it an exception or a new rule, makes a degree of sense.
After overtaking Cruyff’s own personal trophy haul at the club by winning an unprecedented 12 titles, the possible dilemma for Pep now is how he prevents his players from becoming stuck in their ways and keeps them motivated.
It’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that this thought entered Guardiola’s head whilst watching the Spanish Super Cup in August. Yes, his team still won and can argue a case for being the greatest club side ever, but there was a definite sense over the two legs that José Mourinho and Real Madrid have closed the gap.
For three years, Barcelona have played more or less the same way, evolving little by little - Messi’s role has changed from that of an inverted right-wing forward to a false nine; Sergio Busquets has learned how to drop from midfield into defense so Alves and Abidal can push up to counter teams who sit deep; and Mascherano, although signed from Liverpool as an anchorman, has transformed himself when needs must to become a very competent center back.
What each of these moves achieves when taken together is a tactical reformation. Treat them individually, however, and one could argue that by frequently asking his players to adapt or reinvent themselves, Pep is able to maintain their focus, create new challenges and ensure that things stay interesting and stimulating.
A product of Barcelona's La Masia youth academy since the age of 10, Cesc Fabregas returned home eager to win more silverware for the blaugrana. (Valery Hache/Getty Images)
The emergence of a new generation of players at Barcelona with Cesc Fàbregas finally returning from Arsenal, Alexis Sánchez arriving from Udinese and Thiago Alcántara coming up through the ranks, also adds another layer of intrigue to this debate.
Guardiola’s quest for a Plan B has already led him to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the £61m signing from Inter in 2009, but it didn’t work out. While the 6ft 3in target man, a veritable Gulliver in Lilliput, did score 21 goals, assist 11 more and hit the winner in a Clásico against Real Madrid in his one season at the Camp Nou, his falling out with the coach put paid to that experiment.
The search for an alternative went on. Yet the convergence of Cesc, Alexis and Thiago perhaps brings it to an end. Their initials do spell CAT, a sign of destiny or sheer coincidence for a club, which is a symbol of Catalan identity. Either way, far from being incompatible, as some first feared, it would appear that the trio provides Guardiola with another route to victory.
They all played and scored against Villarreal. Cesc got his third goal for the club since his £25m transfer and, as you would expect, his role garnered a lot of the attention. Initially it was thought that Guardiola would simply rotate Fàbregas with Xavi and Andres Iniesta in Barcelona’s midfield. But it’s clear he has other ideas, too.
In the Gamper Trophy against Napoli, Guardiola decided to keep Messi on the bench and experiment with Fàbregas from the start in the false nine position flanked by David Villa and Kiko Fermenía. He scored after 26 minutes with a wonderfully timed run from deep to sweep in a cross from Adriano and the overriding sensation when he came to be replaced by Messi in the second half was that of a job well done.
Asked to explain why he used Fàbregas in the false nine role, Guardiola replied: “Basically for his individual characteristics. [My assistant] Tito Vilanova knew him as a kid and told me that he played as a No. 4, but always got forward.”
By way of corroboration, Barcelona’s legendary winger Charly Rexach elaborated further on what the club thought of Fàbregas in the past and how it might impact on his future.
“I remember that in the beginning Cesc was more attacking than defensive,” Cruyff’s former deputy wrote in El Mundo Deportivo. “He has a lot of llegada (the ability to arrive in the box at the right time) although at Arsenal he retreated into a deeper position. Nevertheless for me his natural role is behind the striker as a mediapunta and I believe that’s where we’ll see more of him.”
Fàbregas displayed his llegada again when Barcelona travelled to Monte Carlo to face Porto in the European Super. His second goal for the club was almost a carbon copy of his first – another late dash into the penalty area, this time to meet a chipped through ball from Messi, which he volleyed past Helton.
On that occasion Fàbregas had featured beside Xavi and Seydou Keita in midfield. Against Villarreal, as Rexach had predicted, he played off Messi at the tip of a diamond taking it in turns to be the false 9. What stood out again was the understanding between them, which considering the time that has elapsed since they played together for the Juvenil A is remarkable. To illustrate that point, Messi gave the ball to Fàbregas 18 times - more than anyone else on the team - and he returned the favor 13 times.
“Messi and I were educated the same way,” he said after the match. “There have been many training sessions, many games, many years spent together. You don’t forget that… If Messi has played 2000 games since I left Barça, I have seen 1,999.”
Great teams are often characterized by the nurture and development of players from a young age, so that they create a bond, an extrasensory perception of where they should move and where their teammates are moving.
This was the focus of a column discussing Barcelona’s management style by Schumpeter for The Economist in May. He highlighted one study that showed how, as in business, the secret of long-term success lies in cultivating a distinctive set of values and that this usually means promoting from within and putting down deep local roots.
Fàbregas’s return forms part of that. “We must not dwell on tactics and how he fits in,” Juanma Lillo told Don Balon, “the only thing to do is facilitate his play.” The system itself is not important – formations tend to be neutral remember.
Guardiola once made this point in an article for El País entitled ‘Feel it’. The piece was published shortly after the last time Barcelona actually started with a three-man defense, on February 28, 2007, when Frank Rijkaard lined up Oleguer, Puyol and Lilian Thuram in a Copa del Rey quarter-final second leg against Real Zaragoza at the Romareda, which they won 2-1.
Guardiola was responding to claims that Rijkaard’s shift to playing three at the back was in and of itself a revival of the style adopted by Cruyff between 1988 and 1996, claims which he felt were reductive.
“It seems, according to what they say, that the Dream Team returned in Zaragoza,” Guardiola opined. “I believe that the Dream Team never left.”
He then quoted one of his favorite lines from Marcelo Bielsa. “I am drawn to victory and I realize that the path which leads closest to it is protagonismo. Never think about a game without playing it on the opponent’s turf.”
To Pep that sentiment lies at the heart both of his and Barcelona’s philosophy. “Don’t doubt Bielsa’s words,” he concluded. It doesn’t matter how his team plays as long as it is in that spirit. What’s important is that they ‘feel it’.