Monday, September 26, 2011

Guardiola to close the circle

It was a night of the Spring of 1988, April 28 to be precise. It was FC Barcelona's Night of Long Knives. It is important to set the context. La Quinta del Buitre's Real Madrid is the dictator of La Liga. The madridistas have won two Ligas in a row and the third is in their hands. At the same time, FC Barcelona live moments of total frustration, the memories of the defeat in the European Cup final at Seville against Steaua Bucarest are a heavy weight for a club that feels cursed. The club has just won 2 Ligas since 1960 and the future does not look brilliant. The season is terrible, out of the race for the title, the team sink in La Liga and the coach who took the team to the last Liga title and the European Cup final, Terry Venables, is fired due to the bad results. Luis Aragonés, his replacement, saves the season with a Copa del Rey title which does not hide the big problems of a broken team. In this situation, the night of April 28 1988 the players call the press to expose their disagreement with the club due to a situation created in the trial of Schuster and the club, which exposed the payments of salaries using the image rights, which caused a problem with the tax administration about the nature of these payments. The whole squad, represented by important players like Alexanko, Victor and Gerardo does not accept to assume the costs of the problems of the club with the tax administration and demand the resignation of the president of the club, Josep Lluís Núñez. Only 3 players of the 25 men squad do not sign the manifesto: Gary Lineker, who is travelling with his national team; Bernd Schuster, who is out of the squad and preparing his exit to Real Madrid; and López López.

The president Núñez faces the situation and prepares the revolution. The first step was to sack the coach, who supported the players. The next was to fire 13 players of the team: Amarilla, Calderé, Clos, Cristóbal, Gerardo, Linde, López López, Manolo, Moratalla, Nayim, Pedraza, Schuster and Victor, more than the 50% of the team. The remaining players were Alexanko, Carrasco, Julio Alberto, Lineker, Migueli, Roberto, Salva, Urbano and Zubizarreta. In a matter of two years, only Alexanko and Zubizarreta continued in the club. The president Núñez had "cut the head of the traitors", but the atmosphere in the Camp Nou was very hostile against his management and he needed a big impact to change the negative trend against him. It could only be one person, the last big idol of the club: Johan Cruyff.

Johan Cruyff
In these years of frustration, the figure of Johan Cruyff was important. As it happened in 1973, Johan Cruyff appeared to save the club, a reason (probably the only one) to feel illusion. The Dutch icon started his revolution. The club brought several important players making a huge economic effort to build a new team. Players like Bakero, Begirisitain, López Rekarte, Serna, Unzúe, Julio Salinas, Eusebio, Soler, Aloisio, Valverde and Manolo Hierro join the club.

Since the very first moment, Cruyff does not hesitate one bit to impose his model (or Ajax's model) in Barcelona. Cruyff bets on a revolutionary system in La Liga, a radical and, for some, suicidal 3-4-3 and style based on the ball possession, passing football and always opening the field with wingers. If this was not enough, Cruyff demands that every single team of the football section, since the youngest kids to the B team play under the same model and system. The whole system turned around the figure of the #4, the central midfielder, an anchor man designed to create and not to destroy. For this task, Johan Cruyff made a strong bet for Luis Milla, a player of La Masia who had the required skills to do the job and impressed everyone. The beginnings were not easy. The team struggles during the first season, adapting to such a revolutionary and unknown system. If this was not enough, Real Madrid continues with their dictatorship... adding the former blaugrana idol, Bernd Schuster, to the formula. Despite the difficult moments, the team ends up winning the Cup Winners' Cup at the end of the season.

Luis Milla

The 1989-1990 season had to be decisive. The club satisfies the demands of Cruyff and bring two of his petitions: Ronald Koeman, a central back with talent to play the ball from the back signed from PSV Eindhoven, and Michael Laudrup, a Danish forward who had been considered one of the most important talents of the continent, but had failed in Juventus FC. Johan Cruyff did not move a centimeter from the line he had drawn the previous season and kept insisting in the attacking 3-4-3 and the ball possession. The team keeps suffering to follow an unbeatable Real Madrid and the criticism of the press is furious. Besides, Johan Cruyff decided to separate Luis Milla due to the high salary petitions, which break the new wages structure of the club. With the head of Johan Cruyff in real danger, the victory in Copa del Rey final of 1990 against the powerful Real Madrid saved the season of the team and the position of the coach.

The 3rd season of Johan Cruyff was definitive for him. It was all or none. Hristo Stoichkov signed for the club to reinforce the attack, but the press kept insisting about Luis Milla, who had been essential in the style and the formation of the team on the pitch. Charly Rexach, Cruyff's assistant, made an already mythical comment: "Forget about Milla, we have a kid in the B team who is much better". The new #4 was a 20 year old thin kid: Josep Guardiola. And everything started to work smoothly: Barcelona started to play like the angels, all the criticism disappeared and everyone started to praise the beauty and the style of football of Cruyff's Barcelona. It was the beginning of the most golden era of the club in its history: 4 Ligas and 1 European Cup in 4 years, not forgetting another Cup Winners' Cup and Champions League final in these years. The success and the legendary status of this team changed everything in Barcelona. The club got rid of the nostalgic and cursed feeling to become a self-assured community with a recognizable style. Since 1990, Barcelona had ups and downs, but the club never gave a step back towards the past.

Barcelona's Dream Team at Wembley
There was only one thing that got lost in the way. The 3-4-3 system used in the times of Johan Cruyff by his Dream Team was the only thing that belonged to the past. Even in the most successful moments of Louis Van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard, who also come from the Ajax school, the team never played with this system and "only" kept the ball possession and attacking style. Even during the first three seasons of Pep Guardiola as coach, the 3-4-3 was not even considered a possibility except for eventual and exceptional moments.

But something changed this year. Pep Guardiola insists in one technical aspect: "We must reinvent ourselves year by year". A phrase that easily belongs to Cruyff too. And it is true that last year's Barcelona was similar to the one of his first season, but not exactly the same. New variants have been introduced, like moving Leo Messi from his limited wing to the fake striker position, as Laudrup had done in the early 90s many times, but the basic 4-3-3 was not under question. While everyone was doubting about the way to manage players like Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc Fàbregas and Thiago Alcántara for only two positions, Pep Guardiola had a plan. The reinvention is here: Barcelona goes 20 years backwards and introduces a modernized 3-4-3 system to give these players the space they needed. The message is clear, Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc can play together and Thiago joins the party rotating one of the stars, but getting the minutes he was demanding in his progression. Probably, the arrival of Cesc, who added a more direct style to his Masia DNA, gave Guardiola the solution to reintroduce the 3-4-3 in Barcelona's football.

The players are different (probably even better) to those who were part of the Dream Team and some details difer, but the idea is the same. Villa and Pedro are the modernized version of Stoichkov and Goikoetxea; Messi is as fake striker as Laudrup once was; Cesc is an elitist version of Bakero; Xavi and Iniesta highlight the new gravity point of the team, just where Amor and Eusebio were the diesel engine of Cruyff's Dream Team; and "don't worry about Toure Yaya, we have someone better in the B-team" Sergi Busquets is a more muscular but equally intelligent Guardiola of nowadays.

Josep Guardiola did not forget the 3-4-3, he had never forgotten this system. It was somewhere stored in his memorable mind, in a brain that, since the first day, learnt everything from every single coach he had. Josep Guardiola is not a copy of Johan Cruyff, there are details of every coach who has managed him in his football.  But, Guardiola owes Cruyff a lot and, as good barcelonista and member of the Dream Team, the seed of the master was in the pupil. The circle took 20 years to get almost completed. This Barcelona of records has still one to reach: the 4 consecutive Ligas of the Dream Team.

The frenetic game of Barcelona in Mestalla made everyone see Cruyff's Barcelona again, this infinite search of the goal by the blaugranas mixed with sudden heart-attacking counters of a rival exploding the spaces left by a 3 men back line. This is the reinvention, the tribute to the master and only the victory with the 3-4-3 would definitely close the circle.

Johan Cruyff & Josep Guardiola

1 comment:

  1. Superb.

    In the future, I suggest you write up on a possible successor of Guardiola as coach of Barça, who would best be a suitable candidate to reinvent and revolutionized this club into further bigger successes when Pep leaves.