Barcelona are preparing for what could be a historical game for the club on Friday night as they face Porto in the UEFA Super Cup. This particular game offers Josep Guardiola’s side the opportunity to truly stake a claim as being greater than the team that inspired them so: Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team.
Historical impact in the game is as unquantifiable as it is fascinating when drawing comparisons between teams past and present, both feeding and clipping debate. With Barcelona, recent discussion has centred on two versions of L’equip Blaugrana – Cruyff’s from of the late 1980s into the mid-1990s, and Guardiola’s from 2008 to the present day. Intriguingly though, a quantifiable element has come into play.
The controversial conclusion to the 2011-12 season opening Supercopa de Espana overshadowed an important landmark for the club and its current Coach. The victory saw Guardiola equal Cruyff’s club-record tally of 11 trophies, and now having drawn alongside his mentor and former Coach, Friday night could see Guardiola move ahead as the most successful Coach in the history of the club.
Naturally, people have different perceptions as to how to measure success but if looking for a quantifiable measure, then the UEFA Super Cup provides evidence to stake the claim that this is the best team in the history of Barcelona, both in terms of what they represent on the pitch in playing style, and what they have achieved through titles won. Add to that the timescales of such achievements – Guardiola equalling Cruyff’s trophy haul in half-the-time – and the comparison leans heavily in favour of the current incarnation of the Blaugrana.
To only look to quantifiable methods when facing the teams against each other though would be to ignore the ethos of the club itself. Barcelona pride themselves on being ‘more than a club’ and their style has developed through years of growing according not just to an attitude but also a tactical blueprint.
That tactical blueprint in question was introduced by Rinus Michels and embodied by Cruyff as he asserted himself as an icon for the Catalan faithful. Michels coached Cruyff the player at Ajax, Barcelona and at the 1974 World Cup with the Netherlands.
Their work together, and Cruyff’s continuation into his own coaching career centred on a 4-3-3 tactic that encouraged tactical interchange between players, gave birth to Total Football, and the sense that players should be confident of playing anywhere they were required to.
There have been occasional detours in the tactical history of the club but Frank Rijkaard’s utilisation of the tactical cultural template that had been instilled in players throughout the ranks of the club ensured that the formation would continue to form part of what is generally perceived as the most beautiful and entertaining playing style in European football. The fact that the Spanish national team have adopted a similar setup shows the cultural power of the club and it is here that the argument in support of Cruyff’s team stands at its tallest.
The tactics of Michels that were developed and enveloped by Cruyff now find themselves used by the current Coach. Guardiola was a part of Cruyff’s Dream Team and as a player and as a Coach is steeped in the unwritten code of playing ethics that exists at the Camp Nou.
Interestingly, as Guardiola approaches overtaking Cruyff in terms of success, it is with Cruyff’s legacy, tactics and inspiration he continues to draw upon. Indeed, even as Cesc Fabregas’ arrival threatens a move away from the 4-3-3 into a diamond midfield 3-4-3, the club’s Joan Gamper win over Napoli saw Fabregas take up a false No 9 position in attack, as the team maintained its traditional shape.
Fabregas’ apparent comfort in the switch mirrors that of Javier Mascherano, who will find himself as often at centre-back as defensive midfield, whilst both mirror Michels and Cruyff’s philosophy that has become Guardiola’s – who plays where matters not as much as maintaining the collective sense of fluidity and shape.
Opinions vary as to which of these two teams is the greatest at implementing this approach. One man who played a vital role in Cruyff’s Dream Team and now faces Guardiola’s as a Coach is Michael Laudrup who perhaps best sums up the most common opinion on the matter: “This
Victory on Friday night at the Stade Louis III would only add further strength to the claims that this Barcelona side is the greatest team of all time. Guardiola is a modest man but the team he coaches is firmly up there in the pantheon of the greatest collectives to have graced the sport. The debate over whether it is the absolute best or not can only continue, but should the UEFA Super Cup be lifted by Barcelona, quantifiably Guardiola’s men are the best to call the Camp Nou home. Even if they weren’t the first to do so.