Thursday, 1 September 2011

Guardiola doesn’t rest on his laurels

It appears that a week cannot pass at the moment without more praise of Barcelona FC; their style, technique and work rate is admired globally at the moment, and quite rightly so. They are the stand out team in European football at this moment in time and the side that every manager aspires to catch and supersede. The team is blessed with the best three players in world football; Iniesta, Messi and Xavi and have recently added Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez.

However, it is all very well having the best players but you have to have a coach who can orchestrate the players. In the summer of 2008 it emerged that Barcelona were to part company with the then manager Frank Rijkaard and that former Barca fans favourite Josep Guardiola would be succeeding him. It certainly raised a few eyebrows as his only previous experience had been coaching the Barcelona B team.

The first thing he did was to get rid of some of the side’s star players which again looked slightly controversial. Out went Deco, Edmilson, Eto’o, Ronaldinho and Zambrotta and in came Daniel Alves, Seydou Keita and Gerard Pique. He also promoted Busquets, Jeffren and Pedro to the first team after coaching them for a year in the B team. He ended the season winning the Champions League, the Copa del Rey and La Liga in his first season. Surely it was the players everyone said….how little they knew.

Success appears to have come naturally to the Catalan coach who has now guided his beloved Barca to 12 titles in just over three years. However, it is the ethos and style of football that has endeared them to many and made them so successful. He has made them the best pressing side I have ever seen; every player from right back to striker hounds, harries and tackles under possession is retained. Pep has also clearly told the players that their best form of defence is also to retain possession. It sounds like common sense to say but actually is very hard to do in practice, most of their games end with Barca having had 60%+ in terms of possession.

The side also benefits hugely from their youth training facility – La Masia. After the purchases this summer they are now capable of putting out a starting eleven that features only home grown players. This education they have received teaches them how to look after the ball, how to use it effectively and most importantly gives them the awareness to know what their teammates are doing too.

He is also responsible for deploying Messi in the new position ‘the deep lying’ striker. From here he is able to drop deep and pick up the ball and then really hurt the opposition. Barca appear to have developed an incredible knack of playing defence splitting passes from just inside their own half. The two wide players on either side are then able to make inside out runs which then put them through on goal – as shown against Madrid in the Super Cup.

Last weekend’s game at home to Villarreal was fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly, they brushed aside the side that finished fourth 5-0 which just shows how far ahead they are of the competition. Secondly, Pep began the game with a 3-4-3 formation with Busquets and Mascherano playing as part of the three defenders alongside Abidal. Next there was Keita who was the defensive midfielder and then they deployed Fabregas, Iniesta and Thiago in a three in front.

Whenever one of the back three brought the ball forward Keita would simply drop back into the three as cover. It enabled the side to always have at least two options to pass to every time they got the ball which makes it almost impossible for the opposition to retain possession – especially when up against some of the best football players in the world. It was remarkable to see and is the closest example of total football I can remember seeing in my lifetime.

Barcelona are a joy to behold for any football fan at the moment due to their style of play. Whilst many fans and pundits are quick to say it’s mainly because they have Messi, much of the credit must lie at Guardiola’s door. He has transformed the club from a very good team into possibly the best club side in the history of the game. Football is cyclical and the gap between them and the rest will narrow as time goes on but it will be fascinating to see how Pep’s career develops from here. He will not remain at the Camp Nou forever and will surely fancy a new challenge in the not too distant future.

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