By Michael Robinson and John Carlin

By Michael Robinson and John Carlin

Barça evolution

By Michael Robinson and John Carlin

There is much discussion, in Spain and beyond, as to whether Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona is the best football team of all time. However entertaining the debate, it is impossible to resolve conclusively. There are too many variables and we lack information. The game is much faster today than it was 40, 50 years ago, the players run longer distances, the pitches are better, the referees less indulgent towards hard tacklers, the boots and balls are different from those Alfredo di Stéfano or Pelé used.

Furthermore, for a large part of the game's history television did not exist. Who, then, is qualified to refute the notion that the finest team ever seen was the Italy side that won the World Cup in 1934 and 1938; or the Arsenal team that regularly swept to victory in the English league during the same era; or even one of the two teams that contested the very first international match in 1872, England and Scotland?

What we can say, on the other hand, is that the current FC Barcelona mark a watershed in the evolution of the game. There is a before and an after with this team. They have redefined the way the game is played and caused the entire football world – from coaches of children’s teams to the technical staff of the biggest clubs on the planet – to return to the drawing board and reconsider their most basic premises, among them the concept of tactical formation. Be it the 2-3-5, the 4-3-3, or the 4-2-4, or the 4-4-2, Barcelona have consigned mathematical rigidity in football to irrelevance. They have done the same with the ancient and venerable notion that centre halves, or centre forwards, should be tall and strapping. Also torn to shreds is the article of faith that dictates all teams need a “stopper,” a specialist in defensive destruction, in the midfield. What’s more, Barcelona have signalled a democratic revolution in the sport. They have shown, through their success, that the qualities a football player requires to prosper are technical skill and intelligence on the ball. Size doesn’t matter; neither does the position of each player on the pitch.

The seed of it all was the “total football” of Ajax Amsterdam, patented by one of the sport’s philosophers, Rinus Michels. His favorite disciple, Johan Cruyff, brought it to Barcelona, first as a player and then as manager. From there the Barcelona “Dream Team” of the early Nineties emerged. What we are witnessing today is the perfected version of that model, a purified distillation of the ideology of Michels. What the “Pep Team” delivers is more than total football; it is absolute football.

Let us go further back in time, before Michels’ Ajax, whose principles the visionary Dutchman transplanted onto the wonderful Holland team of the 1970s (mirroring the relationship today between Barcelona and the World Cup-winning Spanish national side). Let us return to the very roots of a game whose rules were first committed to paper in a London pub in 1863 and attempt to trace its evolution, observing how over time football has discarded what doesn’t work, adapting to a changing habitat, adopting attributes that tend to ever greater efficiency.

That first international fixture in 1872, between England and Scotland, was played on a cricket pitch before 4,000 spectators. The chroniclers of the time began the vogue of setting out the formations on the pitch in numerical terms, pointing out that England fielded a 2-8 and Scotland a 3-7. Despite the predominance of forwards on both sides the game ended 0-0, proving a great truth that has not been entirely digested even today: that packing the forward line with players is not always the most efficient method of scoring goals; that congestion does not lead to creativity. The other lesson from that encounter, related to the first, was that leaving more spaces allows for a more flowing game. Scotland’s 3-7 resulted in a style of play more defined by possession and passing than the long ball tactics and less-than-efficient attempts to dribble favoured by England.

The qualitative leap came 16 years later, in 1888, when Wrexham won the Welsh Cup with an innovative 2-3-5 formation, the so-called “Pyramid System,” which became the inflexible orthodoxy for the next 40 years. The Pyramid System’s hold on the game was smashed in 1930 thanks to Herbert Chapman, the coach of Arsenal, who patented the WM formation, and the Italy manager Vittorio Pozzo, who invented the 4-3-3, known then as “the Method.” Both consisted of setting up the team in such a manner as to allow the players more room for manoeuvre, catching static opponents by surprise. Rival players could not decipher the formations devised by Chapman and Pozzo, a large reason why Arsenal was the dominant side in England during the 1930s, while Italy won consecutive World Cups in 1934 and 1938.

After the Second World War revolution dawned in Eastern Europe. A match between England and Hungary at Wembley in 1953 shattered ancient premises. The possibility of defeat never entered into the minds of the English players. The Three Lions had never been beaten by a side outside the British Isles and England considered themselves de facto the best team in the world, in much the same way that American teams winning baseball or American football tournaments call themselves “world champions.” Hungary, reigning Olympic champions, humiliated England. English commentators had little choice but to recognize that the Mighty Magyars had handed the inventors of the game a footballing lesson. Employing a philosophy based on possession of the ball and exquisite individual technique – Hungary's star performer was the future Real Madrid forward Ferenç Puskas – the visiting side unveiled a secret weapon that England were incapable of countering. The nominal center forward Nándor Hidegkuti did not play as such; he occupied a deeper position in the center of the field, what in very recent times (thanks to Lionel Messi)we have come to call a “false nine.” Hidegkuti was neither forward nor midfielder and the robust English defenders did not know how to deal with him. Hidegkuti scored twice and carved out the spaces to allow Puskas to add two of his own. The final score was 6-3 to Hungary. When the teams met for a rematch the following year in Budapest England proved even more inept, losing 7-1.

Real Madrid embraced the idea, signing Puskas and finding in Alfredo di Stéfano an improved version of Hidegkuti, even more dynamic, unpredictable and all-terrain. Imitating the Hungarian blueprint, but taking it to new levels, the resulting team proved unstoppable.

Italy, or more precisely the legendary coach Helenio Herrera, came up with the antidote at the start of the 1960s; not just for the Hungaro-Madridista style but also for the physical prowess of another national side now in the ascendency, Germany. Eschewing the premise that the ball is indispensable, catenaccio was all about falling back and biding your time, ensnaring the opposition in a defensive spider's web, taking advantage of the rivals’ single-minded attacking fixation and waiting to launch a counterattack when the opposition had run itself into the ground. One goal was often enough. Herrera also invented the phenomenon of the sweeper, a defender operating behind the last line of defense, in case of emergency. Catenaccio was not, and neither did it pretend to be, a work of art; Herrera was no Michelangelo and the San Siro was not the Sistine Chapel. But it worked. Herrera's Inter Milan won back-to-back European Cups in 1964 and 1965.

The Germans were intrigued by the notion of a sweeper but they were more audacious in their scope. If the player operating in that position did not have to mark a specific player, neither would anybody be assigned to mark him. Rather than limiting the sweeper to a fireman’s role at the back, he could be deployed to infiltrate the midfield, joining the attack to create numerical superiority against the opposing defence. For the first time, a player whose position on the tactical diagram was at the back assumed the part of a playmaker. He was also capable of shooting on goal. This was the role patented by Franz Beckenbauer, whose West German team very nearly won the World Cup in 1966.

The eventual victors, England, came up with British Isles’ first tactical contribution since Herbert Chapman. Alf Ramsey dispensed with the orthodoxy of the winger, the specialist wide player whose mission it was to take the ball down the flanks, beat the full-back with tricker and speed and then launch crosses into the opposition penalty area for the centre forward to contest. Ramsey's side were dubbed the “wingless wonders”: a team of versatile players who made up for their lack of technical brilliance by their controlled, intelligent deployment on the field.

The dominant team of the age, though, was without doubt Brazil. World Cup winners in 1958, 1962 and 1970, the Canarinha were the Harlem Globetrotters of football; a sui generis phenomenon, and therefore unrepeatable, based on a level of skill never before witnessed and a philosophy of relentless attack. Brazil played a 4-2-4 and their plan was a simple one: if the opposition scores one, we'll score two; if they score three, we'll bang in four. In other countries, the left-back, for example, was a diligent work-horse, schooled only in the principles of defence. To this day only Brazil consistently produces players like Carlos Alberto, Roberto Carlos, Marcelo or Dani Alves who, while nominally defenders, cover the entire length of pitch, coursing up the flanks with the same attacking intent as the wingers of old.

Following Brazil's exuberantly memorable exhibition of football at the 1970 World Cup, the first time the competition was broadcast on TV in colour, the sport exploded as a cultural phenomenon, embraced by a vast worldwide public. Next up was Holland, cradle of the great revolution of modern football, one whose impact resonates to this day. Rinus Michels, who led the revolution, bequeathed a legacy that included three consecutive European Cup triumphs for Ajax Amsterdam, from 1971 to 1973, and that took Holland’s “clockwork orange” team, with Johan Cruyff as standard-bearer, to the World Cup final in 1974 and 1978. Michels drew his inspiration from the Hungarians who put England to the sword in the 1950s, but his Dutchmen took that model to a new level of speed and refinement.

The system was based not on the manner players were distributed on the field -- by a clear division between defenders, midfielders and forwards -- but by a change in attitude that led the entire team to perform, and think, in a different way. The defender was no longer a mere stopper, he had to be capable of distributing the ball as adeptly as a midfielder. Possession was the indispensable prerequisite. A player in a Michels team had to be comfortable with the ball at his feet, whatever his position. When he recovered possession, he would lift his head, find a teammate and initiate another attack. The game was suddenly being played at an entirely different rhythm. Ajax and Holland appeared to play with more speed than any other team in history. They gave this impression because it was true. Next to how Real Madrid played just a decade beforehand, or even the great Brazil a couple of years earlier, it seemed as though Ajax were moving in fast motion, like characters in an early Hollywood film.

Michels carried the orange torch to Barcelona, where he was coach for two spells in the 1970s, failing each time to make his model gel. He did, though, leave his mark, notleast by his decision to sign Cruyff. Barcelona, indefatigably indignant at what they considered to have been Real Madrid’s ‘robbery’ of Di Stéfano in 1953 (it is claimed to this day that General Franco interfered to ensure Real signed him and not Barcelona), had tried to balance out that perceived injustice by paying princely sums for established world stars. But neither Ladislao Kubala, Diego Maradona, Bernd Schuster nor Cruyff could break the dominance of the Spanish capital’s big club. The conquest of the European Cup remained the Holy Grail for the Catalans. Maradona came and went but the goal remained elusive.

The turning point came when Cruyff took over the team’s reins in 1988. Suddenly the coach was king; his philosophy would now become the key to success. Cruyff’s first season at the helm was, however, a disaster. Had it not been for his legendary name, and if he had not believed so stubbornly in his own abilities, Barcelona would have sacked him. Cruyff convinced the president of the club, Josep Lluís Nuñez, to forget about the short term and think strategically, allowing time for the concept of total football that had captivated the world 15 years previously to permeate the club. This was the path to adhere to, this was the cause for which it was worth fighting and, if need be, dying.

In a private conversation back then, on a particular evening long on Heinken consumption, Cruyff confided to one of his drinking companions, “I am going to change the world of football.” How? “My defenders will be midfielders; I will play with two wingers and no centre forward.” Cruyff’s interlocutor assumed the Dutchman was drunk. He wasn’t. Without a centre forward to preoccupy them rival centre halves would be left bewildered, unemployed; with two wingers the available space opened up enormously and from such a tactical platform a team whose players were all masters on the ball were free to play expansively.

An example of Cruyff’s philosophy was seen in the signing of Miguel Ángel Nadal. At Mallorca, Nadal (uncle of the tennis player) had been the midfield conductor, as well as a goalscorer. Cruyff raised eyebrows by deploying Nadal in the heart of defence, but there the player triumphed, defending when he was required to defend but also launching attacks. A year after the arrival of Nadal, Barcelona won their first European Cup, at Wembley, courtesy of a goal from Ronald Koeman, total football made flesh; on paper the Dutchman played in midfield, on the grass he played everywhere.

But Cruyff’s Barcelona never defined itself in terms of European triumphs accumulated, like Real Madrid or Ajax, or the team that usurped Barcelona on the continental stage, Arrigo Saachi’s AC Milan, an incredibly effective hybrid of the traditional catenaccio virtues of toughness and guile in defence with the God-given talent of the three Dutchmen who formed the spine of the team; the goal-scorer par excellence Marco van Basten, the versatile midfielder Frank Rijkaard, and Ruud Gullit, who could play anywhere he liked.

Milan spoilt Barça’s party. As did the memory of Real Madrid’s achievements. Yet Cruyff’s trophy haul was not inconsiderable: four consecutive Spanish Liga titles, a King’s Cup, a Cup Winners’ Cup, European and Spanish Super Cups and that one, coveted European Cup. The “Dream Team” impressed the football world, transcended frontiers. The Cruyff blueprint became emedded in the club’s DNA. The seductiveness of the Cruyff playing style captivated the fans, the Catalan press and the youth players, none more so than the most intelligent and receptive of them all, Pep Guardiola, who rose to the first team captaincy under Cruyff, where he remained after the Dutchman’s departure in 1996. Two Dutch coaches, Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard, perpetuated the club ethos, with varying success but unwavering fidelity.

When Guardiola, Cruyff’s protégé, ascended to the first team bench, he coincided with the emergence of a group of players who had been immersed in the in-house philosophy from adolescence, among them Xavi Hernández, Víctor Valdés, Gerard Piqué, Andrés Iniesta and Leo Messi. What they had been taught, as their chief article of faith, was that the ball was sovereign; possession the primary – practically the only – priority. It was the polar opposite of catenaccio, the thesis of which was to let the opposition have the ball. It was also diametrically opposed to the robust athleticism favoured in English football, embodied in the sergeant-majorish figure of the Chelsea captain John Terry, who is a great defender, a great stopper, for the simple reason that he has to be; not blessed with great technique, he and his clones in the English game deliver the ball back to the opposition with such frequently that they need to be always performing at the very limit of their abilities, in a state of continuous emergency.

The same may be said of Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher, so admired by his fans and English football in general for his martial qualities. Watching the likes of Terry and Carragher on a football pitch, it is not hard to understand how Great Britain managed to carve out an empire on which the sun never set; it is also easy to see why the England national team isn’t setting the world on fire and why it hasn’t won anything in half a century.