A year or so ago, the idea that Barcelona’s current side was the best to have ever played the game was pretty popular. The ball was passed from world-class player to world-class player as Barca would patiently strangle the life out of opposition teams.
One tricky season later and it seemed we had been caught in the hype, but is that fair? When you reach a certain level of dominance like Barcelona did, weighing up the side against the others that reached that level becomes a matter of deciding how the miniscule weaknesses and extraneous factors detract from each team’s greatness.
There’s a tendency to rank older teams and players higher in football, but that doesn’t really make a great deal of sense. For all the whingeing about modern football, the game is as good as it has ever been: higher standards of physical fitness and a tactical organisation that the likes of Roberto Mancini believe has reached an end point, at least as far as major developments go, mean the quality of football has increased dramatically over the past few decades. The likes of the Dutch Total Football sides were revolutionary but they would be ripped apart by most average sides today, which makes an excellent case for Barcelona being the best team of all-time – the last side to reach a similar level of greatness to Barcelona was probably Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, and they came 20 years before.
The second factor that sets Barca apart is that, in Lionel Messi, they have a player for whom you could make a genuine case for being football’s greatest ever. The greatest teams are usually made up of great players, yet the greatest usually go to teams that will build a team around them. PelÃ© and Diego Maradona played with good players at Santos and Napoli, but few will really go down in history, whereas Barcelona had a team that could go down in history in its own right, then have Messi on top of that – able to pick up the ball, dribble around five players, and dink it over the keeper when things aren’t quite going to plan.
At the tail end of Frank Rijkaard’s reign, Barcelona were looking more like Santos or Napoli – several players running around doing the defensive legwork for the stars – yet, unlike PelÃ© or Maradona, the stars weren’t putting in the creative effort to make the team function. Their B team, on the other hand, had been successful, with former captain Pep Guardiola leading them to promotion from their Tercera Division group, so Joan Laporta promoted him to the first team for the 2008-09 season.
Rijkaard still had a great squad to work with, but several key issues had plagued them. Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Deco had been the main reasons for Barcelona’s success under Rijkaard, but their laziness had become a massive problem by the end of his time there – Guardiola moved the Brazilians on immediately, while a new club couldn’t be found for Eto’o so he was allowed to stay on. The main change was what made those outgoings necessary though: Barcelona had played a possession-based style since the Johan Cruyff side Guardiola had been a part of, but they were left unbalanced by the laziness of some when they weren’t in possession – now everyone was expected to defend in an intense pressing game. To compensate for the harder fitness demands, they became even more possession-focussed. Barcelona would tire the opposition by making them chase the ball for long periods then give them no time to recoup when they finally got it back, having multiple players close in around them.
The team was built from back to front with this philosophy in mind. Victor Valdes was by no means a world-class goalkeeper but he was excellent with his feet, and having someone comfortable enough on the ball for his teammates to pass back to and recycle the ball when their build-up broke down was more important – if Guardiola’s plan worked, Valdes wouldn’t be facing many shots anyway. The intense pressing also made a high line a requirement for Barcelona, making Valdes’ quickness off his line important to Barcelona’s defending, stopping the opposition from just hitting it in behind them repeatedly.
Ahead of him was Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique. The rugged Bette Midler-haired Puyol doesn’t appear to fit the Barcelona template, but he offered solidity and most importantly a bit of pace to what was potentially an easily exposed defence. Looking at him, new signing Pique didn’t appear to fit the template either: he was big, bulky and also pretty slow, yet he ended up being one of Barca’s stand-out players. Earning the nickname Piquenbauer, he combined strong defending with class on the ball, striding out from the back at will to carry the ball forward.
While not that special going forward, Eric Abidal was a very good choice defensively at left-back – perhaps needed to cancel out the forays of Dani Alves on the right. In the style of fellow Brazilian Cafu, it wasn’t rare for Alves to be the furthest player forward. With Messi cutting in off the wing, width was needed from full-back and Alves was the perfect man for the job: raw athleticism and the space that attacking from deep gave him allowed him to easily power past opponents and pull it back across.
To ensure they didn’t get caught out at the back when the full-backs bombed forward, versatile defensive midfielder Yaya Toure would drop into the centre of the defence with the centre-backs spreading out to the wings. The Ivorian added muscle to an otherwise lightweight side and was good enough with the ball to later play as an attacking midfielder at Manchester City, nevertheless he played one of the uglier roles in Catalonia. Still it was necessary: under Rijkaard, Barcelona had attempted to play without a holding player to little success.
Before Guardiola’s appointment, Xavi Hernandez was starting to get squeezed out of the team. Andres Iniesta and Deco were more dynamic, flexible players and, with the holding midfielder-less experiments a failure, it was only Iniesta’s willingness to play in the forward trio and Deco’s fall from grace that had rescued Xavi from a place on the bench. With Guardiola’s increased focus on passing though, the one-footed metronome established himself as one of Barcelona’s most important players. Between them, him and Iniesta would keep things ticking over, passing backwards then sideways, prodding the ball around as they led defenders away their positions, manipulating enough space to slip in the killer pass. As the more mobile player, there was more emphasis on Iniesta to get into attacking positions, but this left Xavi to do what he was good at: dictating the tempo of the game.
Messi provided a more direct version of this ahead of them, drifting in from the right to do what few other players could. At this point in time, the debates over whether it was him or Cristiano Ronaldo that was the best player in the world were still raging, but Barcelona’s destruction of Manchester United in the Champions League final made it a formality, with his headed goal not a bad response to those who gave Ronaldo the edge for his aerial ability. While Ronaldo was a monstrous goalscoring weapon, Messi could do the same then set up his teammates like a trequartista. Thierry Henry’s considerable powers were fading fast yet he still managed a decent goal tally from his wide left position, while Eto’o did his best to convince Guardiola he was worthy of staying in Spain, leading the line with energetic aplomb.
An opening day defeat to Numancia had the alarm bells ringing, yet Barcelona ended up winning every competition they entered, with a 6-2 thrashing of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu a particular highlight. Guardiola looked to refine his side further over the summer. Despite Eto’o’s impressive year, Guardiola still wanted to offload him, trading him for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while Pedro Rodriguez and Sergio Busquets were promoted from the B team. Although they had won the Champions League convincingly, Guardiola’s team had been lucky to get past Chelsea in the semi-finals, taking advantgae of some poor refereeing to fight their way through. Guus Hiddink had his team sit deep and soak up Barcelona’s pressure, comfortable that the short Catalans wouldn’t be able to challenge his side in the air, ensuring they would be squashed out of the game. Guardiola’s response to this problem was to bring in Ibrahimovic – a player talented enough with his feet to fit in at Barcelona, but also handy in the air, meaning teams couldn’t just camp out in their own box and let Barcelona play in fornt of them.
This ultimately didn’t work: used to Italian football, Ibrahimovic would slow the play down slower than what suited Barca, was often too slow to get onto the end of balls from deep and, although he put in a greater effort than he’s typically credited for, didn’t match the defensive work of his opponents. On top of that, the money they gave Inter allowed them to rebuild their team, putting together a squad strong enough to knock them out of the Champions League and win the competition.
The Masia graduates were a success however. In Toure’s role at the base of the midfield, Busquets was less physical but neater in his play, relying on his positional play and a keen sense for when football’s dark arts are approriate to get back the ball, then getting involved in the small passing triangles when he had it, while Pedro gave the added option of a tricksy more direct winger when needed. Barcelona were less dynamic, but, since opponents were starting to adapt to them, their more patient thoughtful play may have been a better move.
Rather than second guess his opponents, Guardiola seemed more willing to embrace his team’s philosophy the next summer. Messi had requested to play centrally, in a false nine role similar to the one Francesco Totti played in at Roma – he had done so to some success at the tail end of the 08-09 season, with Eto’o moving out to the right wing, so out went a grumpy Ibrahimovic to be replaced by David Villa. Fresh from playing in a left-sided role for Spain at that summer’s World Cup, Villa was the perfect man for the job: Messi could drift around in the middle and Villa would lead the line with diagonal runs behind the opposition defence, while still being comfortable enough to get involved in any build-up play.
The other major buy was Liverpool’s Javier Mascherano. Originally thought of as a waste of money after the success of Busquets, Mascherano was moved back into defence, where the defensive ability that made him one of the world’s best defensive midfielders was put to good use. His lack of height wasn’t that important when Barcelona’s high line meant aerial challenges were rare, putting a greater pressure on his superior speed, and his underrated passing was given a better platform with more space deeper on the pitch.
A loss in the final of the Copa Del Rey was the only disappointment of the season, but Barcelona seemed to wane the following year. Guardiola became more obsessed with changing Barcelona’s shape to combat other teams trying to predict what they would do, yet this seemed to just confuse his own players more. The loss of David Villa to injury also had a huge effect: Alexis Sanchez attempted to replicate his diagonal runs to lead the line, but didn’t look comfortable in a role more suited for a striker, while Messi found himself dropping deeper to join in with the midfield’s creation, often leaving an outnumbered and pretty lightweight frontline. Guardiola’s decision not to continue seemed best for his sanity, yet his poor final season shouldn’t sully the three years that preceded it. He built the most dominant, controlling team in history – even those that beat them rarely bettered them.