The club are struggling in the shadow of Cruyff and Guardiola
“Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it,” is how Pep Guardiola put it.
If ever there was a coach who understood what it meant to play in the Barcelona way, it was Pep Guardiola. He had played under the late Dutch manager, took his iteration of modern football and expanded on it to the point that he himself is almost as highly revered as Cruyff. He didn’t just maintain the work of art, he improved upon it.
Barcelona’s starts with the ideologue that was Johan Cruyff and ends with Pep Guardiola. It seems a miracle that a more pragmatic coach like Luis Enrique has lasted this long. Tata Martino certainly didn’t and he has since described his year at the club as a total failure.
Tito Villanova took over from Pep and instilled a more pragmatic approach, but was too ill to be able to continue and Martino also went rogue when he offered a more vertical style to that which Barcelona are used to. Barcelona had gone 316 games with the majority of possession before a game under Martino, during the 2013-2014 season, against Rayo Vallecano saw them cede ground and lose the possession stakes - they still won of course, but that’s not the point.
Enrique, on the other hand, has slowly but surely eroded Barcelona’s style to the point that some players at the club are calling for a return to Barcelona’s style. Sure, he has lost Xavi and the kind of player that allowed Pep to hone his tiki-taka style but his reliance on his three front is becoming a bit laborious. Reliance on the play, or on mercurial talent is not a sustainable strategy.
Gerard Pique, a man tipped to be the future president of the club and one who already has Pep Guardiola’s vote said after the game that Barcelona needed to recover their style, "It all depends on ourselves and how we play football. If we recover our style, which we in part recovered today, we're unstoppable and we can turn things around.”
The “in part” he might be talking about was when Andres Iniesta came on the field. Not fit enough to start, he came on in the second half and Real Madrid, who had shown their teeth in the first half with Luka Modric conducting things from the middle, suddenly backed off. They took one look at Don Andres and they retreated. They knew that pressing the little man from Albacete would leave spaces at the back that he would fill the ball with and release the attacking trident.
He gives Barcelona options in the middle of the field and he forces the opposition to ether retreat and allow Barcelona to pick holes in your defence of press high and let him set the like of Messi, Neymar and Suarez free with his immaculate vision and ability to turn that vision into through balls.
“What we needed was to fill the middle of the pitch with players where we needed it most. I much prefer to win 5-4 than 1-0,” said Cruyff when he went from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 in an effort to pack the midfield with passing options. Luis Enrique though, might not see it that way.
One thing that Barcelona pride themselves on is their ability to change personnel without losing their essence. Luis Enrique said in the press conference before El Clasico, when asked about Andres Iniesta’s return, that it was indeed great news but their style does not depend on one player and it is the collective that wins at the end of the day.
Wonderful in theory, but the truth is that Barcelona do not have the type of player coming through their ranks any more that can live with Iniesta, and he is the kind of player that money simply can’t buy - see Andre Gomes. Not to suggest that churning out an Andres Iniesta every generation is easy but the more players in the side like him, the more Barcelona can be themselves and play the possession-based football introduced by Cruyff and expanded upon by Guardiola.
Summer singing Samuel Umtiti denounced Pep’s keep ball as boring. "I adore Barca but when they keep possession for 10 years it's boring.”
Boring might be one way to describe it but they were as good as invincible back then. More importantly, they were Barcelona and they were untouchable. Alex Ferguson, after two decades in charge of Manchester United, playing against the best teams in Europe and the world in regular basis, said “in my time as a manager, I would say they're the best team we've faced.”
Ferguson said that teams and styles go in cycles and that Barcelona, at that time, were at the peak of theirs. Cruyff, as he was wont to do, put it another way:
“After you’ve won something, you’re no longer 100 percent, but 90 percent. It’s like a bottle of carbonated water where the cap is removed for a short while. Afterwards there’s a little less gas inside.”
Maybe Barcelona were due a down year, which has resulted in players like Pique insisting on a return to the Barcelona of old.
Luis Enrique is standing atop of the scaffolding in the chapel. Brush in hand and he knows what he is supposed to do. Improve on it, or restore it; just make sure not to destroy it.