On a mildly cold spring night in Manchester, Paul Scholes scored a rocket from 25 yards to put the final nail in the coffin of Frank Rijkaard’s reign at the Nou Camp. What had been suspected for quite some time, looked inevitable now. A 4-year-long journey, which began in 2004, seemed destined to conclude very shortly. And so it did. On the night of May 8, bitter rivals Real Madrid mauled Barcelona at the Camp Nou. But the night had grown sour on more than just one tone. President Laporta announced that Frank Rijkaard would be stepping down as manager come the end of the season. What seemed inevitable for quite some time, finally took place. It almost fell that an era had come to an end. An era in which the world saw the best of Ludovic Guily, Rafael Marquez, Deco and above all, the might of the Samba Star – Ronaldinho.
The 2007-08 season was a disastrous campaign for Barcelona on all fronts. On the field, the team lost out on the League to rivals Real Madrid and were knocked out of the European Cup by eventual winners, Manchester United. Off the football pitch, “the team’s stars lived a high life - convinced like so many gifted, rich young athletes before them that they were so talented, so full of the magic dust which makes superstars that they could bend the rules and still excel. They were wrong.” Rijkaard lost the dressing room and the club. Eventually, the fans too.
And this is where President Laporta had to intervene. Rijkaard was shown the door, and Guardiola was called upon to replace the Dutch enforcer. Fans expected as much from their captain in his managerial capacity as they had previously seen in his days as a midfield general. Guardiola‘s notable work with the youth team, resurrecting the academy from the ashes, was duly rewarded by the hierarchy. Though the fans expected a high profile man to take charge, Guardiola‘s appointment was met with skepticism as he freed up the squad from the shackles of soaring egos and lazy attitudes by selling the poster boy of Barcelona – Ronaldinho, and the midfield maestro – Deco. Little knowledge did the club’s fans and its officials have of the dream that they were about to see. Little did they know, about the magic that was to follow. Little did they know, that their club was about to probably change the face of football.
The first, and probably the biggest decision by Guardiola as a Barcelona manager was selling Ronaldinho, and diverting the spotlight of the footballing world to the new sensation on the blocks, Lionel Messi. Under Rijkaard, Messi was always overshadowed by the overseas talent in the shape of Ronaldinho and Deco. But now was the time to take the next step. As Graham Hunter points out - “If Messi found a taste for nightlife too, then Barca might lose three great players instead of just two. The Brazilians had to go”
Initially, the Argentine forward played on the right of a forward three. A year later, he spearheaded the attack. Another year later, he became the epitome of a new system at the Nou Camp – by playing the ‘False 9.’ Three roles, three success stories with each story being better than the one before. From being a ‘small lad’ , Messi has gone onto become a colossus in world football. The talent was always there. It needed the backing of the men who mattered, and that is when Guardiola played the role of a father to Messi.
Overseas talent had always found priority in Rijkaard’s scheme of things – Guily, Marquez, Ronaldinho and Deco were elected to be the faces of Barcelona. The La Masia graduates, except a few chosen ones, found it ridiculously tough to make the cut at the senior level, a prime example of which is the Barcelona full-back, Jordi Alba. The cantera was in utter dis-array, and the nadir of playing in the 4th division marked the dark period of the famed ‘La Masia.’ Xavi, who is widely regarded as the DNA of the current Barca team, launched a stinging attack on his former mentor by claiming that Rijkaard had never appreciated his talents.
This apartheid was phased out when Guardiola took charge. One of the primary reasons for the, so to say ‘bias’ towards La Masia graduates, was that Pep himself was in charge of the youth team prior to his appointment as the first team manager. He was ready to build his philosophy around La Masia. Marquez was replaced by Pique (who was summoned back from his stint at Manchester United), Yaya Toure was replaced by Busquets and Thierry Henry was replaced by Pedro. This ‘bias’ meant that overseas and well-established talent found it increasingly difficult to cement a place in the starting line-up, and were compelled to look for game time elsewhere. And the faith shown in the club’s Cantera has been duly repaid. Sergio Busquets is widely regarded as one of the best anchors in the game currently. Pique has elevated himself from being a ’squad player’ to being among the premier center backs in the game, currently. And now, the next bunch of youngsters – Tello, Cuenca, Sergi Roberto, Fontas and Martin Montoya – seem poised to continue the legacy of their predecessors.
First as a player, then as a manager – Guardiola has Barca’s blood running through him since the days of his childhood. Frank Rijkaard’s philosophy hinged around quick passing and interchanging in the final third, with all other components being a subset of a ludicrously attacking side that went on to conquer Europe in 2006. He favoured the ’4-1-2-1-2′ or the ‘Diamond’ formation, in which the major attacking threat came from the left with Ronaldinho and Deco feasting upon the opposition. In total contrast, Guardiola instilled the ‘passing game’ at the Nou Camp, with the motto being – ‘Pass the ball until the opposition is forced into submission.’ In many encounters under Guardiola, Barcelona simply outpassed the opposition to victory, with all of it looking most simple at face value, but being the most difficult to implement in the day-to-day scheme of things. The forte of Guardiola’s system was – positional interchange and manufacturing space in water tight situations.
It’s hardly surprising that Spain’s golden era in World Football co-incided with Barcelona’s domination of football under Guardiola. The axis of Xavi and Iniesta has been gleefully adopted by Del Bosque for the national team, with the move yielding ‘supernatural’ returns on both club and national level. In the 2006 World Cup, Barcelona had just 3 players representing the Spain national team. In the 2010 World Cup, Barcelona had 7 – a testament to the immense work put in by Pep.
4 seasons – 14 trophies, achieved through countless hours of elegant yet breath-taking football. The team that Guardiola built could not work on a Plan B – as evident from the failure of a ‘goal-scoring striker’ in Ibrahimovic. The calmness at work and the capability to deal with adversity puts Guardiola in a different league altogether - having seen veteran Eric Abidal and assistant manager Tito Vilanova forced to battle life-threatening illnesses during his tenure and yet going on to win the La Liga and the European Cup by defeating a wily Scot’s Manchester United, surely is no mean feat.
But as it said, no one is a perfectionist. Every great person has minor flaws, and the only visible set-back in Guardiola is his scouting – bringing in the likes of Aleksandr Hleb, Dmitri Chygrynskiy and the audacious attempt at replacing one of the iconic strikers in Samuel Eto’o with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, are moves which hopelessly backfired for the Catalans. And just as a true professional acts quickly to mend his mistakes, Guardiola did not hesitate to get rid of any non-performing assets. Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic wasn’t spared.
Gracias Pep! After serving his beloved club for over a decade, Guardiola’s appointment to stabilize a tricky period at the Nou Camp could be put down as ‘poetic justice.’ Being the manager of Barcelona is not easy. You’re expected to win most of your games – be it a friendly or a cup-final. After winning every possible trophy there is to be won, breaking all records time and time again and setting a whole new bench-mark – Pep surely did justice to Laporta’s decision of appointing him to calm the storm at sea. And after those 4 exhausting, enthralling, enticing, breath-taking, record-breaking and once in a lifetime seasons, Guardiola deserved his break. We fall short of adjectives in trying to describe the team that he built and the only hope remains that this team continues to exhilarate and the creator of it returns to football, so that the game takes another step forward.