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The fall of an ERA: Barcelona

Written by: Punit Tripathi

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The team has gone from 5-0 to 5-0, and the sides have reversed. . . 

‘Barcelona were the best team ever to line up against my Manchester United sides. Easily the best. They brought the right mentality to the contest. We had midfield players in our country – Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane, Bryan Robson – who were strong men, warriors, winners. At Barcelona, they had these wonderful mites, 5 feet 6 inches tall, with the courage of lions, to take the ball all the time and never allow themselves to be bullied.’

Not a difficult guess to make, this is an extract from Sir Alex Ferguson’s Autobiography. Coming from arguably the best coach in football history shows the kind of quality this team possessed and respect it warranted from its opponents. Mind you, Sir Alex saw four decades of football as a manager and a total of five and a half, if his tenure as a player is added.

Also Read: Dissecting Manchester United's journey in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era!

Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona side had won the Champions League in 2005-06 with an ageing side and cracks were clearly visible a little later as Ronaldinho had lost his status as the world’s most exciting player, Deco’s incisive powers had waned, Van Bommel had moved on to Germany and Edmilson was not the same-old player.

With age catching up and Rijkaard’s clairvoyance showing no faith in youth, the Barcelona management chose a former player who knew the club inside out. Pep Guardiola was one player who had kept the Cryuff theory alive at the club and it was the right time to promote the B-team coach to take bigger responsibilities.

Pep Guardiola at the first press conference after joining as Barcelona's first team manager

Guardiola signed for Barcelona on 1st July 2008 as manager. Here was a club, which felt and acted to make tradition feel important. Footballing philosophies can be changed by managers, but looking at the way the Catalan club worked, the Cruyff theory was there to stay. Guardiola was idolised by one of the modern greats and a player he closely worked with during his next four years – Andres Iniesta.

On his first day of training, a face-to-face meeting took place in the conference room of the famous St. Andrews Hotel, Scotland. The gaffer said a few things, and some of them left a mark on the audience, featuring Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, Lionel Messi and Tito Vilanova, no mean names in the circuit. Pep gave various messages to his players on unity, dedication, fighting for a cause and working as a team but the way he illustrated the complicated tiki-taka in four sentences is reflective of the powers the man possessed verbally.

Winning wasn't an option, it was a habit as the dominant Catalans romped to 14 titles in four years

“The style comes dictated by the history of this club and we will be faithful to it. When we have the ball, we can’t lose it. When that happens, run and get it back. That is it, basically.” These lines defined the next four years of football, as the world sat up, noticed and was left awe-struck. Sergio Busquets made it to the first team and alongside Xavi and Iniesta, they ruled the centre of the pitch wherever they played.

These three players orchestrated as if in a metronome, all striking a chord with Argentine sensation Lionel Messi hitting the right resonance to put the ball into the back of the net or create opportunities in a way never-seen-before on a football pitch. The lackadaisical way in which they went about their jobs would’ve been frustrating, easily seen by the way Cristiano Ronaldo reacted to chasing shadows. The defence was well led by noble thug Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, who were just the right sort of pieces needed to complete a jigsaw. The puzzle of La Masia was, finally, complete.

Four years, fourteen trophies later, Guardiola chose to move on to harder challenges in life. While that hasn’t been too glorious for the current Manchester City boss, we would carry on the Barcelona story. The club was taken over by assistant manager (late) Tito Vilanova, who continued the philosophy and the dominance throughout the seven continents.

After three Bundesliga titles at Bayern Munchen, Pep Guardiola did not win anything in his first season at Manchester City

Health issues saw Tito Vilanova resign and three days later, Gerard ‘Tata’ Martino was named as his successor. Coming from Newell’s Old Boys, Martino had no major qualities to show and it was reported that Lionel Messi’s recommendation worked strongly in his favour. Fast forward to the next summer and Martino resigned, after failing to win any major title except the Spanish Super Cup.

The team, here, had under-seen a tremendous change. Fans could see a change in style, typical to the manager’s choice and not the well-known possession football theory. Argentina is known for its sleek and flashy football and a clash of opinions saw a lot of key points being dropped and players not being confident about their roles on the pitch. Back to Plan A. Sign Luis Enrique.

A midfielder with a lot of versatility and confidence, Luis Enrique set out to revamp the side. Enrique knew the club and system and started off well, winning a treble and a double in consecutive seasons. The chinks, however, were visible in the armour. Xavi had waned; Rakitic’s tirelessness was an added virtue but did not have the verve and technical guile to match the Spanish medio.

Sergi Roberto tried to come in and work it out in the midfield but did not look apt enough to play the role. Fabregas, too, was deemed slow, unimaginative and low on concentration to control the possession and the new coach set on to change or tweak the system. With Rakitic, he only had Busquets and Iniesta in the midfield to play the fluid system associated with the Catalans.

Guardiola's system will not suit just technical footballers; it needs players who can think and implement the same on the pitch

The club, at this stage, had begun its disintegration. Enrique started to tinker with starting lineups on the pretext of rotation, something which did not go down too well in the dressing room. The Spaniard changed that and looked to make his squad happy, which was a positive incoming for a stipulated, short validity. Playing the same team week in, week out when you’re competing in four competitions can be a difficult thing to do, but more often than not, Enrique managed.

Tiki-taka now looked like an expensive habit Barcelona used against easier opposition to stamp their class. Against better opposition, the touch was restricted to the back line and two midfielders, coupled with swift transitional play and balls through the channels. As the numbers to play one-touch football went down, Messi came central and lower down the pitch. Iniesta’s injury made matters worse. Andre Gomes, Denis Suarez were brought into the system, and so was Arda Turan. There was enough quality, just not the technical abilities to revert back to the system. The touch was lost.

The team has changed and will change Furthermore next season. After the 4-0 and 3-0 defeats at Parc Des Princes and Old Lady respectively, it is safe to say that the certain invincibility is gone. We’re not seeing the tiki-taka in the next years to come. Not soon. It will take a Herculean effort to scale those heights, but if a team ever does that, it will certainly be put on a scale and weighed with the Barcelona team which had a generation of La Masia kids. Barcelona might win the Champions League the next season, but it wouldn’t be through tiki-taka or the beautiful and creative football of a strong-willed, intensely intuitive midfielder.

Will the prodigal return at Nou Camp and will make a legacy comparable to Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford?

If I’m ever given a chance to romanticise the game, Guardiola and the home team dugout at the Nou Camp is what dreamy love stories are made of. The way he has worked his way on the touchline post his Barcelona-heroics easily shows he’s not happy with the way his players have received and incorporated his plans on the pitch. There, in those days, on that pitch, were 11 players, 8 of them homegrown, who knew his language and perfectly laid out whatever those moving fingers suggested from the touchline.

Can we see the brilliance one more time? Can we be lucky one more time? Similar to millions throughout the world, I would like the reunion of the bald man to his favourite pitch and team. There are some matches made in heaven. The games were seductive, and the basics were guidelines to kids throughout. The fact that the same technique saw the Spain National team win a World Cup and two European Cups proves its effectiveness.

Also Read: Arrigo Sacchi, Brian Clough, Bill Shankly or Sir Alex Ferguson, who was the 'Greatest ever'?

As we see the curtain dropping, we must hope that one day the footballing gods will be good to us and for one, one last time, we’ll see the beautiful game unfold in front of us again. With both parties equally faltering, can we see it happen one more time? As Guardiola failed to win the Champions League with Bayern Munich and the Premier League with Manchester City this season, another Busquets has risen in the ranks of the Catalan Army, ready to fight it out one more time with his timeliness and effortlessness in the middle of the pitch.

The key question here: Is Guardiola willing to take a trip down the memory before he makes his final swan song? I’m that kid who wants to watch Sachin bat against Warne one last time, I’m that kid who wants to watch Pete Sampras and Boris Becker take on Andre Agassi (though Nadal versus Federer almost compensates that) and I’m that kid who misses Evander Holyfield take on Mike Tyson. I’m that kid who is the ultimate sports romantic and wishes to see the tiki-taka folklore unwind on the pitch, ONE LAST TIME. 

Published: Sat Jul 29, 2017 11:03 PM IST

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