March 6, 2011


Pep Guardiola the purist and pragmatist oiling Barcelona's machine: The Catalan manager would have supporters believe he has little bearing on Barcelona's brilliance. Don't believe a word of it (Sid Lowe, 3/06/11, The Observer)

[I]f Guardiola is given the credit for his work at Barcelona, there remain misconceptions that come with Barcelona's style; assumptions. Yes, they work hard now: "We had let ourselves go," Rafa Márquez said. But the way they play, well that's simple, natural. Autóctono, the product of 20 years' commitment to a footballing ideal, traceable to Johan Cruyff. Guardiola, captain under the Dutchman, said it: "This team will respect a philosophy," and one friend describes him as having "suckled from the teat of Cruyff". Xavi talks about the rondo – piggy in the middle – as the cornerstone of everything.

Which it is. But that makes it sound too simple, too unwavering. There has been much talk about how Arsenal will play Barcelona, but not very much about how Barcelona will play Arsenal. Well, the answer goes, like they always do.

Yes. But no. Under Frank Rijkaard, one insider claims, the exaggeration serving to make the point: "Barcelona found out who was in the team on the morning of the game." Guardiola could hardly be more different. Even as a player he was a coach, a thinker, a talker. "A talker?" says Fernando Hierro, the former Real Madrid captain, laughing. "He pretty much commentated the matches."

When he was offered the job in 2008, Guardiola asked his assistant, Tito Vilanova, if they were really ready. "Well," came the reply, "you certainly are." Charly Rexach, Cruyff's assistant, recalls that Guardiola was "the man we explained the tactical variations to. If we needed them, he implemented them." He had learnt too in Italy and in Mexico with Juanma Lillo, who coached in La Liga before he was 30. Guardiola had embarked upon a kind of pilgrimage – to meet Marcelo Bielsa, who has coached Argentina and until last month Chile, and the former's 1978 World Cup-winning coach, César Luis Menotti. The conversations lasted well into the night.

What some would describe as principle he believes is pragmatism. Guardiola designs his approach around the ball. Not because he is a puritan, although he is, but because like any other coach he wants control. Like any other coach, he is fearful and seeks to protect his team. It is just that his way of achieving control is different: defending well means attacking well. He will look at Arsenal and wonder how to protect himself from them, by trying to work out how best to do them damage.

"We play in the other team's half as much as possible because I get worried when the ball is in my half," he says. "We're a horrible team without the ball so I want us to get it back as soon as possible and I'd rather give away fouls and the ball in their half than ours." The stats bear that out: Dani Alves makes the fourth highest number of touches in the opposition half in La Liga. He is a full-back. Typically, only the two centre-backs and the goalkeeper spend more than 50% of the game in their own half.

Then there is possession: the top nine passers in La Liga are all Barcelona players. But that is not just an attacking option, it is a defensive one too. "There is no rule like in basketball that says you have to hand over possession or shoot after a certain amount of time, so 'attack' and 'defence' don't exist," Lillo says. Not in Barcelona's model. Barcelona attack to defend; when they lost to Arsenal, Guardiola was angry with Alves not for attacking too much but for attacking badly. That Barcelona lost because they were caught up the pitch is one reading; Guardiola's reading is that had they scored they would not have been caught on the break.

"Barcelona are the only team that defend with the ball; the only team that rests in possession," Lillo says. "They keep the ball so well, they move so collectively, that when you do get it back, you're tired, out of position and they're right on top of you." Lillo knows: his Almería side were defeated 8-0 by Barcelona.

Michael Laudrup, the Mallorca coach, said: "They move the ball so fast that by the time you get there, it's gone. You end up desperate, and shattered." As Rexach notes, Barcelona even waste time with possession. Most teams would go down to the corner; Barcelona would rather keep the ball between themselves. that too many teams play into a Barcelon's hands, and play them defensively, yielding possession entirely and hoping for a tie, when they could put out an offensive lineup and blow up their fragile back line.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 6, 2011 12:20 AM
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