HOW GUARDI­OLA’S BARCELONA STINT CHANGED FOOT­BALL FOR­EVER

It is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to de­scribe Guardi­ola’s ap­point­ment at Barcelona as one of the most in­flu­en­tial mo­ments in foot­ball, which has con­di­tioned the mod­ern game right down to the grass­roots.

The Sunday Guardian - - Sports - MIGUEL DE­LANEY LON­DON

Pep Guardi­ola knew that, be­fore he could even change re­sults, he would have to change minds. Be­cause, as re­mark­able as it is to think now, his ini­tial ap­point­ment as Barcelona man­ager in sum­mer 2008 wasn’t just doubted as a mas­sive risk due to his ex­treme in­ex­pe­ri­ence. It was also viewed as a cyn­i­cal po­lit­i­cal use of the sym­bol­ism a club youth grad­u­ate rep­re­sented, in or­der to in­su­late the Joan La­porta pres­i­den­tial regime from in­creas­ing crit­i­cism at a dif­fi­cult time for the club. Guardi­ola knew he had to set the right mes­sage im­me­di­ately.

“I’m ready to over­come this chal­lenge and be­lieve me, if I didn’t feel that, I wouldn’t be here,” the then 37-year-old pro­claimed at one of his in­tro­duc­tory press con­fer­ences, af­ter be­ing pro­moted from the Barcelona B team. “I know that we have to start work quickly and in­ten­sively, who­ever wants to be with us from the start will be wel­comed. And the oth­ers, we will win them over in the fu­ture.”

It is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to de­scribe Guardi­ola’s ap­point­ment at Barcelona as one of the most in­flu­en­tial mo­ments in foot­ball. It has al­most en­tirely con­di­tioned the mod­ern game from the top level to the grass­roots and looks set to do so for some time. For­mer AC Mi­lan man­ager Ar­rigo Sac­chi has fre­quently de­scribed Guardi­ola’s Barcelona as mark­ing “a be­fore and af­ter in world foot­ball”, and re­cently re­asserted this view at the Fes­ti­val dello Sport in Trento.

“The last 50 years in the sport have been a con­stant evo­lu­tion from Ajax to Hol­land, Mi­lan to Guardi­ola’s Barcelona,” the Ital­ian great said. “With­out evo­lu­tion, the sport is dead. With­out risks, you re­main in the past, whereas in­no­va­tion makes you change ev­ery year.”

The teams ref­er­enced are pointed, be­cause they re­flect how Guardi­ola ob­vi­ously didn’t in­vent press­ing, or pos­ses­sion or any of the other prin­ci­ples of the Jo­han Cruyff phi­los­o­phy. His in­no­va­tion - as the true evo­lu­tion of ideas tends to go - was to rein­ter­pret and prop­erly rein­tro­duce those prin­ci­ples for the mod­ern game so that his whole ap­proach has had as pro­found an ef­fect on how the sport is played and coached as pretty much any fig­ure, team or tac­tic in his­tory.

As re­gards a de­scrip­tion of that ap­proach, Guardi­ola has al­ways bris­tled at the sim­plis­tic and al­most twee-sound- ing ‘Tiki-Taka’ ti­tle. He’s right be­cause it’s re­ally a so­phis­ti­cated com­bi­na­tion of pos­ses­sion and press­ing that are syn­chro­nised through elab­o­rate po­si­tional play. That com­bi­na­tion, as well as the ex­tent of Barcelona’s suc­cess and ex­am­ple of their play, led to the whole sport be­ing ex­ploded open and mul­ti­ple other con­se­quences and so much of the mod­ern game links back to it.

That ex­plo­sion was most clearly ex­pressed in the most fun­da­men­tal of mea­sures: goals. The av­er­age-per-game in the Cham­pi­ons League shot up from 2.47 in 2007 to 3.21 last sea­son - a quan­tum leap. It was a leap first fired by the ba­sic ad­ven­ture of Barcelona’s play, with the nat­u­ral will to mimic it ini­tially just lead­ing to more open matches.

It was the deeper repli­ca­tion of the way they did it, though, that re­ally had the ef­fect. Youth coach­ing be­gan to pri­ori­tise the ball-play­ing tech­nique that Guardi­ola’s foot­ball cham­pi­oned and so many man­agers re­alised the value of press­ing, while mod­ern sports sci­ence al­lowed the un­prece­dented sus­te­nance of it. Press­ing has ac­tu­ally now be­come the game’s dom­i­nant qual­ity, get­ting ever faster and shap­ing how ev­ery team sets up. Uefa›s own tech­ni­cal re­ports even de­scribe this as “the Guardi­ola ef­fect”.

So, his Barcelona have ul­ti­mately been re­spon­si­ble for the pace the game is now played at and the space that is used in it, the open­ness and the num­ber of goals at the very heart of preva­lent de­bates over whether man­agers like Jose Mour­inho are past it.

In chang­ing minds, he changed the game. To fully ap­pre­ci­ate just how much foot­ball has changed, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing a match from be­fore Guardi­ola’s ap­point­ment that has be­come rel­a­tively in­fa­mous be­cause of one line. Mour­inho’s Chelsea and Rafa Ben­itez’s Liver­pool met in the 2006-07 Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal, with the highly con­strained na­ture of the oc­ca­sion prompt­ing Ar­gen­tine leg­end Jorge Val­dano - one of foot­ball’s fore­most thinkers - to de­ri­sively talk of “shit hang­ing from a stick”. While that quote has be­come so mem­o­rable, the eru­dite words which fol­lowed it are ac­tu­ally more rel­e­vant.

“Put a shit hang­ing from a stick in the mid­dle of this pas­sion­ate, crazy sta­dium and there are peo­ple who will tell you it’s a work of art,” Val­dano wrote in Marca. “It’s not, it’s shit hang­ing from a stick... Chelsea and Liver­pool are the clear­est, most ex­ag­ger­ated ex­am­ple of the way foot­ball is go­ing: very in­tense, very phys­i­cal and very di­rect. But, a short pass? Noooo. A feint? Nooooo. A change of pace? Noooo. A one-two? A nut­meg? A back­heel? Don’t be ridicu­lous. None of that. The ex­treme con­trol and se­ri­ous­ness with which both teams played the semi-fi­nal neu­tralised any creative li­cence, any mo­ments of ex­quis­ite skill.

“If Di­dier Drogba was the best player in the first match, it was purely be­cause he was the one who ran the fastest, jumped the high­est and crashed into peo­ple the hard­est. Such ex­treme in­ten­sity wipes away ta­lent, even leav­ing a player of Joe Cole’s class dis­ori­ented. If foot­ball is go­ing the way Chelsea and Liver­pool are tak­ing it, we had bet­ter be ready to wave good­bye to any ex­pres­sion of the clev­er­ness and ta­lent we have en­joyed for a cen­tury.”

This was ac­tu­ally some­thing Guardi­ola him­self had recog­nised three years be­fore­hand, as he re­flected on his in­creas­ing ir­rel­e­vance as a player in a search­ing 2004 in­ter­view with The Times.

“Play­ers like me have be­come ex­tinct be­cause the game has be­come more tac­ti­cal and phys­i­cal. There is less time to think. At most clubs, play­ers are given spe­cific roles and their cre­ativ­ity can only ex­ist within those pa­ram­e­ters.”

This was the is­sue. The game was be­ing phys­i­cally suf­fo­cated. The lead­ing man­agers like Mour­inho and Ben­itez prop­a­gated what Val­dano ac­cu­rately de­scribed as “ex­treme con­trol”. Tac­ti­cal ap­proaches were rigid and set with lit­tle risk and less ex­pres­sion and it led to con­tain­ment as much as con­trol. Mus­cu­lar­ity reigned, but it was rel­a­tively un­mov­ing. The low­est scor­ing Cham­pi­ons League sea­sons since its fi­nal 1999 ex­pan­sion were 2003-04 and 2006-07, with both at 2.47 goals per game. Th­ese sea­sons in­volved, re­spec­tively, Mour­inho’s ca­reer launch­pad win with FC Porto and then Ben­itez’s sec­ond Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal with Liver­pool.

Foot­ball was essen­tially locked up be­tween th­ese tac­ti­cal ap­proaches and the mus­cu­lar­ity that at that point came from ini­tial de­vel­op­ments in sports sci­ence.

Guardi­ola didn’t pick this lock. He blew it open. The sud­den will­ing­ness to open out and at­tack was, to quote Bruce Spring­steen on hear­ing Bob Dy­lan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ as a teenager, “like some­body’d kicked open the door to your mind”.

Guardi­ola turned the game’s think- ing up­side down by turn­ing the pitch up­side down. So many of his play­ers have spo­ken about hav­ing to ef­fec­tively learn a new way of play­ing un­der him. Guardi­ola first of all sim­ply opened out pitches that had up to then been so con­strained. His team would play much higher up the pitch, while press­ing op­po­si­tion so high up the pitch, with what they did with the ball in be­tween bring­ing floods of goals. There was risk with that high line, sure, but so much rigour be­hind it. That com­bi­na­tion of pos­ses­sion and press­ing also brought the ide­alised syn­chronic­ity be­tween in­di­vid­ual ex­pres­sion and col­lec­tive or­gan­i­sa­tion.

And ex­ploded with goals. In Guardi­ola’s first 10 league games as Barcelona man­ager, they scored at least six times in four dif­fer­ent matches. Such un­prece­dented scor­ing her­alded the un­par­al­leled dom­i­nance to come as Barcelona won Spain’s first ever tre­ble in that first 2008-09 sea­son. Seven of Guardi­ola’s play­ers would then ap­pear in the Span­ish na­tional team’s 2010 World Cup fi­nal win, form­ing the core of the first in­ter­na­tional side to win three suc­ces­sive tro­phies, be­fore Barcelona then added an­other Cham­pi­ons League in 2010-11 to go with an­other two league ti­tles.

Guardi­ola foot­ball was on top of the world, rul­ing the game, but was also do­ing some­thing deeper fur­ther down.

Manch­ester United great Michael Car­rick played against Barcelona in both of those Cham­pi­ons League fi­nals and couldn’t help notic­ing a con­nected shift.

“I think I prob­a­bly did [see a shift], yeah,” he tells the In­de­pen­dent. “There was al­ways that pos­ses­sion-style, like with Hol­land, but def­i­nitely for that three or four-year pe­riod, Spain were al­most un­touch­able. Barcelona were pretty much known as the best team at that time and be­cause of the way they did it, it was so nice to watch, so easy on the eye. Ev­ery­one’s sec­ond team re­ally in Eu­rope was Barcelona be­cause of how they played the game, so en­ter­tain­ing - ar­guably the right way.”

This was what was so cap­ti­vat­ing, the al­lure, why they ini­tially be­came so in­flu­en­tial. Like with so many of the great sides through his­tory - from Real Madrid 1960 to Brazil 1970 - so many play­ers and teams were in­spired to just… play. To ex­press them­selves. One of the most cru­cial ef­fects of Guardi­ola was how it changed coach­ing. One of his edicts is that the ball must al­ways be played out from the back, ab­so­lutely never played long, and this was what youth de­vel­op­ment came to ad­dress. So many coaches from all over Eu­rope now speak of how play­ers were ef­fec­tively trained to be “uni­ver­sal­ists”, first of all adept in ba­sic tech­nique be­fore any­thing else. This was most vis­i­ble with de­fend­ers, where ball-play­ing be­came more im­por­tant than ball-win­ning.

The ideas spread far, as Bay­ern Mu­nich of­fi­cial and for­mer in­ter­na­tional Matthias Sam­mer ex­plained in a 2014 in­ter­view with FourFourTwo.

“When I was work­ing for the Ger­man FA, we closely an­a­lysed Barcelona from the per­son­al­ity of their coach to their style of play,” Sam­mer said. “The team had an iden­tity. It had individuality, qual­ity, stamina, style, class.”

And now we’re in 2018 and so many of the game’s play­ers have been coached along th­ese lines. They have the tech­ni­cal base to play in the man­ner Guardi­ola ide­alises. But it’s not just how they can play the ball, it’s how they’re made to think and made to press.

The ex­tent of Barca’s press­ing had such a pro­found ef­fect, and made such a tan­gi­ble dif­fer­ence, it is now the el­e­ment that shapes the mod­ern game more than any­thing else. It is some­thing all of the top teams prac­tice, some­thing that de­fines so many of the most prom­i­nent mod­ern coaches from Jurgen Klopp to An­to­nio Conte.

In fact, it has evolved so much it has gone far be­hind Guardi­ola’s ini­tial idea of press­ing, forc­ing even him to adapt.

It is said to have con­sumed his thoughts more than any­thing else in the build-up to this sea­son - how his record-break­ing Manch­ester City side squan­dered the chance at the Cham­pi­ons League be­cause they couldn’t live with the speed of Liver­pool in the quar­ter-fi­nals.

Guardi­ola’s in­flu­ence has been as pro­found as that of that in­fa­mous Ital­ian tac­tic. He has ef­fec­tively un­done its ef­fect.

Af­ter Nereo Rocco’s AC Mi­lan won the Eu­ro­pean Cup in 1963 with the first prom­i­nent use of that de­fen­sive ap­proach - and some highly cyn­i­cal tac­tics - its suc­cess brought a long-term de­cline in goals scored. The in­evitable spread of those ideas en­sured Eu­ro­pean Cup av­er­ages be­gan to rad­i­cally drop in the 1960s and stayed roughly around 2.5… un­til the last few years.

This is what Uefa mean by the “the Guardi­ola ef­fect”. This is what has changed.

He didn’t just change minds. He changed how ev­ery­one in the game thinks. THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

IANS

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