FC Barcelona surged to supremacy under the tutelage of Johan Cruyff during the 1990s and instituted a philosophy that has been unremittingly sustained over the previous three decades.
Blaugrana winning the 1992 European Cup against Sampdoria at Wembley Stadium consolidated their ascent under Johan Cruyff. The Dutchman had implemented a possession-based style, which has been ingrained into the chromosome of the club across future generations.
It was a heavenly period of ceaseless success for Barcelona and Cruyff was commended for his tactical virtuosity. Cruyff arrived just 10 years after the inception of Barcelona’s academy model known worldwide as La Masia. Barcelona harvested some of the most talented players in Spain and they consequentially reaped the rewards by producing the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mari Bakero and Txiki Begiristain.
The signings of foreign players such as Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup, Romario and Hristo Stoichkov was equally as influential as the emergence of Barcelona’s new generation took Spain by storm.
Expectations precipitously skyrocketed in the aftermath of the Cruyff era and Bobby Robson and Louis Van Gaal fell cruel victims to the unsympathetic perspective of supporters. FC Barcelona won eight major honours in the post-Cruyff era between 1996 and 1999, but spectators were unsatisfied with the aspirations and performances of the club.
Barcelona’s ostensive decline ignited a revolution behind the scenes, starting with the election of Joan Laporta. Joan Gaspart had resigned from his position as club president to the satisfaction of the supporters, after spending three years at his post.
Laporta was a devoted supporter of Cruyff and attempted to revive history and create a model consisting of the philosophy presented by the Dutchman. The impetus immediately switched to the production of young players and La Masia was preparing to generate an exemplary group of players.
Frank Rijkaard, who was recommended by Cruyff, was appointed manager in 2003 and was entrusted with overseeing the future generation. Brazilian phenomenon Ronaldinho was acquired to become the catalyst of a new-look Barcelona and the wheels were in motion for a prosperous period.
The Rijkaard Revival
Rijkaard had played under Johan Cruyff during his first spell at Ajax Amsterdam and was influenced by his managerial ideology. Rijkaard was inclined to implement a possession-based style of play and focused on educating the young players on playing in the same manner as the first team to ease the transition from the academy to the senior team.
Barcelona reinstated themselves as a domineering titan in Spanish football by sealing back-to-back Spanish La Liga titles. They were craving the biggest prize in the most prestigious tournament in Europe and reached the 2006 UEFA Champions League final, after defeating Chelsea, Benfica and AC Milan in the knockout stages respectively.
Jens Lehmann was dismissed just eighteen minutes into the clash at the Stade de France for fouling Samuel Eto’o outside the penalty area. It was an uphill battle for the English outfit from this point onwards, but Sol Campbell broke the deadlock with a header inside 37 minutes.
Henrik Larsson marked his Barcelona departure with two assists in his final appearance. Eto’o equalized with 14 minutes remaining and Brazilian full-back Juliano Belletti captured victory with the decisive goal on 80 minutes.
Rijkaard was hailed as a club hero for his achievements at the Camp Nou, but the tide would soon change for the worse. That famous comeback victory against Arsenal would prove to be Rijkaard’s last trophy in Catalonia and he was dismissed as the dressing room was sent into disarray during the 2007/08 season.
It was a hostile end to a glistening era with star players, most notably Ronaldinho causing ruptures behind the scenes with his actions off the pitch. Laporta remained composed during a turbulent period and had a strategy to revive the club from an inexorable decline…
Pep Guardiola to the Rescue
Former club captain Pep Guardiola had been manifesting his managerial skills by guiding FC Barcelona B into the third tier of Spanish football. Laporta believed Guardiola was capable of adopting a similar philosophy to Cruyff and selected him as Rijkaard’s successor ahead of the 2008/09 season.
Despite being inexperienced in the managerial industry, Guardiola was quick to demonstrate his authority by selling luminary talents Ronaldinho and Deco. He opted to construct his team around La Masia graduates Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.
Ronaldinho had previously been the catalyst under Rijkaard, but his departure enabled Guardiola to pass the baton to the prodigious Argentinian international Lionel Messi. Guardiola also signed Brazilian right-back Dani Alves from Sevilla, re-signed defender Gerard Pique from defending European champions Manchester United and promoted Spanish midfielder Sergio Busquets into the first team.
Guardiola had now assembled his desired squad and strived to implement his iconic “tiki-taka” style at the Camp Nou. The system consisted of incessantly passing the ball with the purpose of causing the opponent to fatigue. There were further complexities to his style of play, such as interchanging of positions, reducing space on the pitch and understanding the importance of triangular passing.
It also required radical physical fitness, which meant Guardiola commanded dependable and conformable characters to execute his vision. Victor Valdes’ distribution was reliable and his role as a “sweeper-keeper” enabled Barcelona to maintain a high defensive line and utilize the goalkeeper as the first line of attack.
Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique complimented each other beautifully due to their contrasting playing styles. Both defenders had an abundance of footballing intelligence, but whereas Pique was more conservative, Puyol asserted his superiority in the back-line by imposing his physicality and unrelenting bravery.
Dani Alves provided an attacking outlet from his right-back position and Sylvinho influenced the attack with his incursions down the left channel. This inevitably abandoned defensive security, which made the role of Sergio Busquets extremely important. Busquets was instructed to play a selfless role in the heart of midfield, but his inexperience planted seeds of anxiety in the minds of the supporters. He exemplified an incredible level of maturity for a young man at the age of just 20 and was an irreplaceable figure in the starting line-up.
Spanish duo Andres Iniesta and Xavi represented Cruyff and Guardiola’s philosophy and vision more than any other Barcelona player. Xavi was cool, calm and collected from a deep midfield position and Iniesta had attacking flair, an instinctive ability to link up play in the final third and a tireless work ethic. They were the engine of the FC Barcelona midfield and spread the play for the attacking talents of Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi. All three forward players were capable of scoring goals and proved a menace for opposing defenders throughout the 2008/09 season.
Guardiola also intelligently created extraordinary squad depth to enable his team to remain durable throughout the season across all competitions. Players such as Martin Caceres, Rafael Marquez, Eric Abidal, Seydou Keita, Alexander Hleb, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Bojan and Pedro all made an impact during the campaign, despite having to settle for limited playing opportunities.
FC Barcelona sustained a deplorable defeat to Numancia in the opening fixture of the 2008/09 season and failed to convince supporters with underwhelming draw against Racing Santander just two weeks later.
His method took time to understand, but Barcelona began to click after a sceptical beginning to the season. They climbed from seventeenth place to comprehensive leaders by winning 19 of their following 21 Spanish La Liga fixtures.
They also transmitted their form in La Liga into both the Copa Del Rey and UEFA Champions League. Barca defeated Benidorm, Atletico Madrid, Espanyol and Mallorca to reach the Copa Del Rey final and finished at the summit of a European group containing Sporting Lisbon, Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Basel.
The attacking triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o was plaguing opposition defences across the globe. They had placed themselves in pole position to pursue an unprecedented treble, but faced difficult competition along the way.
Creating an Everlasting Legacy