Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughHow ‘Pep’ turned Cruyff’s dream into reality - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough How ‘Pep’ turned Cruyff’s dream into reality - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

How ‘Pep’ turned Cruyff’s dream into reality

Barcelona’s emphatic victory against Santos in the World Club Championship last month only confirmed what every football fan on the planet already knew. To say that Barcelona are the best football team in the world has to be biggest understatement known to man or woman for that matter. Some would even say they are the best football team of all time. This is perhaps a more debatable and contentious view and one that many will feel they have good grounds to dispute. But one thing that cannot be disputed is that in the modern era, this current Barcelona team have taken the beautiful game to another level. But the roots to Barca’s journey to excellence go back almost forty years and can be attributed to one man.

When Johan Cruyff commenced his love affair with Barcelona having signed from Ajax in 1973, few could have predicted the lasting impact his vision would have on the club. His legacy has evolved into the most successful spell in the club’s history and ironically it is one of his star pupils that is responsible for achieving this.

Upon Cruyff’s return to his adopted home to manage the Catalan club in 1988, he received a hero’s welcome having served them with such distinction as a player during the mid seventies. He duly set about building his team in his own image. As a player Cruyff was the most high profile and competent exponent of the Dutch ‘Total Football’ philosophy that was deployed with such aplomb by his Ajax side and the Dutch national team throughout the late sixties and 1970’s. As Barca’s new coach he duly drafted in plenty of flair in the likes of Romário, Michael Laudrup and Stoichkov. But the fulcrum of his new look side was a young, bright, gifted defensive midfielder called Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola. Guardiola was a Catalan native and came through the youth ranks at the club before being identified by Cruyff, who drafted him into the first team. He became the heart-beat of the ‘Cruyff project’ and it wasn’t long before Barcelona became the dominant force in Spain, winning four consecutive titles between 1991-1994. In 1992 Guardiola was a key member of the team that made history by winning their very first ever European Cup trophy, beating Sampdoria 1-0 at Wembley.

Cruyff’s new look team were given the title ‘Dream Team’. They played with flair, panache and a fluidity not seen before in Spain since Cruyff’s own days there as a player. When they reached the 1994 European Cup final they were considered to be at their peak. They faced an AC Milan team that were widely regarded as too old and no longer featured the flamboyant Dutch trio of Gullit, Van Basten and Rikjaard. Barcelona were hot favourites to regain the European crown, by now re-branded as the Champions League trophy. However, AC Milan, coached by one Fabio Capello, produced one of the finest tactical displays ever seen in the final of a major club competition and destroyed Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ 4-0. The manner of their defeat led many to question Cruyff’s philosophy and some even considered it flawed. After that defeat, Barcelona went into a rapid decline and seemed to fall off the European elite radar. In 1996 after two trophiless seasons Cruyff was dismissed as coach and replaced by the late Sir Bobby Robson. However, Cruyff had set in place a legacy and a footballing brand identity, given the name tiki-taka, which was to become synonymous with the club and the Catalan region for years to come.  It also marked the start of an unofficial allegiance with Dutch football that would continue for many years. Louis Van Gaal, and Frank Rijkaard both enjoyed successful spells at the club as head coach, with the latter delivering the club’s second Champions League trophy in 2006.

Guardiola for his part returned to the Camp Nou in 2007 as the reserve team coach after ending his playing career abroad the previous year. He quickly deployed the style of play that he was schooled in, by his master and mentor Johan Cruyff. After just one highly successful season he was offered the head coach role following the departure of Rikjaard, whose early success had started to fade away.

Guardiola took charge of a team that had started to underperform for his predecessor, but was nonetheless packed with some of the most outstanding talent the club had ever produced. Guardiola was still only 37 years old and was the youngest head coach in the club’s history. Many considered his appointment a huge gamble on the part of the then club President, Joan Laporta. Cruyff, who by now was back at the club in an unofficial capacity as an advisor, knew that in order to restore Barcelona to the world’s footballing elite they needed to go back to basics. He also knew that there was only one man still connected with the club that understood tiki-taka better than anyone else and who had the personality and the intellect to not only successfully re-introduce it, but to also get the best out of each and every one of his talented squad of players. Not for the first time Cruyff was proved right.

In his first season in charge Guardiola led Barcelona to the club’s first ever treble. But probably more importantly he re-engineered Cruyff’s vision and the tiki-taka style, in a manner that made the world sit up and take note. His Barcelona had players even more technically adept than Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’.  In Lionel Messi they had unearthed a player with such outstanding technical ability, that at the tender age of just 21 many were already comparing him to the all time greats. Messi’s mesmeric skill with a football was beautifully supplemented by the irrepressible midfield duo of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. Both had graduated from the Barcelona youth system, as did Messi and Gerard Piqué. Piqué was actually brought back to the club by Guardiola from Manchester United, and like the aforementioned was therefore well versed in the Barcelona modus operandi. All of a sudden, with a genuine expert like Guardiola conducting the Barcelona’s tiki-taka orchestra, the team was regularly performing to a worldwide audience.

Tiki-taka is a style of play based on short, often intricate passing and intelligent movement, particularly in the final third of the pitch where it matters most. Such is the confidence that the players have in each other’s abilities to ‘look after’ the ball, that they will routinely play their short pass and move game in all areas of the pitch no matter who the opposition are or the magnitude of the match they are playing in. Opposing teams have tried to press Barcelona high up the pitch believing this is the key to stopping them. Occasionally it has worked.  Inter Milan managed to overcome Barcelona’s might over two legs in the 2010 Champions League semi-final tie. However, in order to gain success against Barcelona, a team must be able to sustain the high pressing game for 90 minutes or more. Moreover they also need to consistently find a means of preventing a set of players that have been drilled in the art of accurately passing a ball through the eye of a needle from feeding Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, who are the creative heart beat of the team. Guardiola’s version of tiki-taka is also combined with a high work ethic on the part of his players. He understands that in order for it to work the team must be in possession of the ball as much as possible. It is said that he challenges his players to retrieve possession of the ball within seven seconds of losing it. You will often see his players hunting in packs to win back the ball and their intense pressing game is often cited as the real key to their success under Guardiola.

During the 2010-11 season Guardiola’s Barcelona took the beautiful game to new heights. The breathtaking quality of the football Barcelona produced was at times unbelievable. The eulogies that followed came from far and wide and perhaps the pinnacle came in the first El Grand Clásico of the season. Their 5-0 annihilation of Real Madrid at Camp Nou sent a chilling message out to not just their bitter rivals, but the entire watching audience of some 400 million worldwide spectators. They also completely dismissed any notion that the previously unbeaten Madrid were poised to take Barcelona’s title.

By now Guardiola had deployed his and the world’s best player in a different role and the impact of this change was devastatingly effective. Barcelona scored a staggering 147 goals in 60 matches (2.45 goals per game). Messi for his part scored 53 of them and assisted in a further 24. Messi, who under Rikjaard played mostly on the right of a front three, was switched by Guardiola to a free role. Guardiola has given him the freedom to roam into areas where he can receive the ball and run at defenders to draw them out of position. His devastating speed and close control has provided the ultimate cutting edge to the team’s often patient approach play. If he does not score he provides and has plenty of talent around him to ensure that that is possible.  In matches where Messi is partially contained, the opposition still have to contend with Xavi and Iniesta who are currently regarded as the two best midfielders in the world. Sir Alex Ferguson picked the two out for particular praise and described their tiki-taka style as a ‘passing carousel’. His pre-match concern ahead of the 2009 and 2011 Champions League Finals was justified. On both occasions United were powerless to prevent them both from running the show and dictating the tempo of the two matches.

In his three seasons as head coach of Barcelona, Guardiola has produced a team that is universally regarded as a joy to watch. He has a staggering win percentage of almost 73%. For this he and his team deserve every single accolade they get.

Following the introduction of tiki-taka under the Cruyff managerial regime in the late eighties and early nineties, many Spanish coaches, past and present have tried to adopt it. But it wasn’t until Luis Arogonés deployed it during his tenure as national team manager that it started to yield any significant success outside of Catalonia. His Spain team, flooded with many Barcelona players, won the 2008 European Championship playing some of the most magnificent football seen in a generation. Accepting that they could not compete with teams in a physical sense, they placed more emphasis on the technical aspects of the game such as passing, movement, touch and creativity. In Fernando Torres and David Villa they also had two of Europe’s most lethal finishers at the peak of their game.  Arogonés retired after the tournament and his successor Vicenté Del Bosqué, who is a former Real Madrid player and head coach, continued with it, leading to further success in the 2010 World Cup.

Spain and Barcelona have become the world’s two outstanding footballing teams. Both are blessed with a generation of highly technically gifted individuals that have emerged and effectively grown up together. Many of them have been schooled in the art of tiki-taka for many years and seem to be able to play it in their sleep. Watching these two footballing entities achieve such huge success is the ultimate vindication for Johan Cruyff and his footballing vision and a philosophy that he himself executed on a football pitch with such grace and magnificence. But in order for the seeds he planted to really bare fruit, it needed his willing apprentice to resurrect it and implement it in such a way that it is his Barcelona team that will undoubtedly be the one that is remembered for eternity.

Wayne Wiggins @Wayne_Wiggins

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