In the space of just six months, Pep Guardiola has transformed Barcelona from a squad of underperformers into Europe’s most exciting team.
By Sid Lowe in Madrid
Hey say that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. But sometimes the stats are true. Sometimes there’s just no arguing with the numbers.
Sometimes the case they make is so overwhelming as to become simply incontrovertible. This is one of those times. This time, the arithmetic does go hand in hand with the aesthetic. This time, crunching the numbers reveals just how comprehensively Barcelona are crushing their opponents; just how far they have come in six short months.
So let’s do the maths. At the back end of last season Barcelona were forced to give the newly crowned champions, Real Madrid, a humiliating guard of honour at the Santiago Bernabeu before succumbing to an embarrassing 4-1 defeat. They finished the season 18 points behind their rivals.
Fast forward to the halfway stage of this season and, having played every side in La Liga once, they sat 12 points ahead of Real. In 19 matches they had lost just once and drawn twice, winning 16 times.
That solitary defeat came on the opening day of the season, and one of the draws was a week later. In other words, in the next 17 league games Barcelona won all bar one. And speaking of bars, they also hit the woodwork a staggering 17 times. That’s more posts than city rivals Espanyol had goals. And we’re not talking about doses of bad luck in games that were already over, either. An inch the other way and they would have reached the halfway mark with a 100 per cent record.
As it was, they got there with 50 points: the best tally for that stage of the season in Spanish football history. Their 12-point lead was comfortably the highest ever at the midway point. Only Real Madrid’s 1960-61 team had matched their unbeaten run of 16 games. And no one had ever completed eight successive victories on the road as Barcelona had just done.
It’s not just that Barcelona were winning; they were utterly dominating. And there could be no complaints about good fortune, no whingeing that they had defended their way to success or bored their way to victory, and certainly no accusations that they had kicked their way to the top.
You couldn’t even say it was all the product of a huge squad as Barca had used fewer players than any other side.
Motivation has returned
What has changed is the coach. In fact, as one insider puts it: “This season Barca have two things they didn’t have last season: hunger and a coach.” That might be unfair on Frank Rijkaard, the man who led Barca to two League titles and the Champions League, but under the Dutchman they had begun to slip; the professionalism and the desire had gone. As Rijkaard’s assistant Eusebio admitted: “After winning the Champions League it was hard to find the motivation.” Under Guardiola, that motivation has returned.
Unexpectedly so. As the captain and undisputed spiritual leader of the “Dream Team” that won four successive League titles and the club’s first-ever European Cup, Guardiola was the focal point of the club’s most emblematic side of all time, the metronome that kept them ticking over, constantly moving the ball on with a single touch.
Born in Catalonia, schooled barely 100metres from Camp Nou, a former Barca ball-boy, a charismatic and eloquent player, Guardiola could not have been more of a hero. And yet few were calling for him to be made Barcelona coach. For many, the choice was clear: Jose Mourinho.
Although he had just led Barcelona B to promotion, it was Guardiola’s first year as a coach. They said he was too young, too inexperienced, too much of a risk. They were wrong.
“The people who say Pep is inexperienced are idiots,” insists one of his closest collaborators. “Guardiola was a coach when he was a player.
“Experience is not things happening to you, it is seeking solutions, thinking about things, analysing them, challenging yourself. Pep has always been tremendously active in that sense.”
Videos and tactical analyses made a return, as did motivational techniques, as Guardiola brought in a new code of conduct that was designed to push professionalism and foster fraternity, making collective and individual responsibility the key. He introduced, and imposed, a £500 fine for anyone who did not arrive early enough to have breakfast with the rest of the squad, £1,000 for anyone not at home by midnight, and £6,000 for every minute a player was late to training. Humility is the word and Guardiola, acutely aware that the side had become satiated on success, barely ceases insisting that Barcelona “have not won anything”.
Privately, he spoke to his players too. With the exception of Martin Caceres and Sylvinho, the entire squad has played decent minutes in an attempt to fully integrate everyone in the project.
After a difficult first season, Thierry Henry was reassured that he had a role to play, Eidur Gudjohnsen was persuaded to stay, and a frustrated Yaya Toure was told that he would be in the side as soon as he was properly fit and he should forget about Arsenal. Guardiola was as good as his word – just as he was when he listened to his squad’s complaints over long trips away. Barcelona no longer oblige their players to spend the night before home games in a hotel. The trade-off is good behaviour, intensity and focus.
That intensity is increased with the element of surprise. In press conferences, Guardiola always but always talks up the players that the press does not. In the dressing room he keeps his players concentrated and on their toes, invariably making points they do not expect. That intensity is also palpable on the pitch. Barcelona play extremely high, suffocating the opposition.
Quite remarkably, the front line of Messi, Henry and Eto’o have committed more fouls this season than centre-backs Carles Puyol, Rafael Marquez and Pique. What that means is they are winning the ball back quickly and in dangerous positions, and having it at the feet of their most dangerous men. Meanwhile, the central midfielders are encouraged to dash beyond the strikers. Xavi is on course for his best-ever goals tally, while Keita and Gudjohnsen have also weighed-in with decisive late runs.
Intensity also applies to the coach. Guardiola is never silent, constantly cajoling his players, always trying to help correct mistakes. He hones in on the smallest details but the idea is the key. Results breed confidence, sure, but the players have to be committed to the model first and foremost. Conviction is everything.
Barcelona and Guardiola are steeped in the Cruyff school, and there is an iron commitment to quick passing and attacking, possession football which, of course, suits the players at Guardiola’s disposal – players, like him, who are cut from the classical Barcelona mould.
Quality and quantity
In the short term, good results in lieu of good performances are not allowed to interfere with the search for Guardiola’s football – a search that will, the coach believes, ultimately lead to good results. Quality and quantity will ultimately be one and the same.
Guardiola has bemoaned performances after thumping victories and then talked up his team after draws. When Barcelona lost to Numancia on the opening day, his complaint was not with the scoreline but the fact that the team had not done what he had asked them to do. His assistant Tito Vilanova described the 1-1 draw with Racing – one of only three games in which Barcelona dropped points – as their best display.
Alongside Vilanova, Guardiola has the team working harder than ever before. Leo Messi’s continued fitness, for the first time in four years, is testimony to that, and the Argentinian has been phenomenal this season. But more importantly, he has them working smarter too. He had to tell Seydou Keita to stop running so much and Dani Alves to concentrate his phenomenal efforts in specific areas.
The identity and the concept is crystal clear; the courage of Guardiola’s conviction unsheakable. He is tireless in his battle to make it equally unshakeable for his players. With each new victory, every festival of goals, the model – Barca’s model – becomes more reinforced. With each victory, the title that already appears to be in the bag draws closer.
Mourinho might have been the first choice for many, but the stats don’t lie: Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona have been breathtakingly brilliant all season.