Monday, 27 April 2009

Barcelona are the cream of dream teams

author: Sid Lowe
source: The Observer/The Guardian

date: 26 April 2009

Josep Guardiola is fighting a losing battle. Not on the pitch but off it.

If his calculations are correct, and they usually are, he has sat through 104 press conferences this season. He has answered questions in Catalan, Spanish and English, but whatever the language the message is the same. "We have not won anything," he says over and over, as if it were a mantra. He's desperate to quash the euphoria surrounding FC Barcelona. He's also quite right: they have won nothing. But no one seems to hear him.

They would rather respond to El Mundo Deportivo's appeal for a title for the current team, likening it to Johan Cruyff's Dream Team – the aesthetes' aesthetes, the side treated with an evangelical reverence after winning four successive league titles and the 1992 European Cup, their first triumph in the competition; the side that did so with a commitment to attacking, possession football that bordered on the obsessive.

Guardiola admits that he is a "son of the Dream Team", having himself starred in it, committed to the style that prompted Guus Hiddink to describe his Barça as "the most beautiful" he ever saw. A successful son too. The midfielder Yaya Touré believes Chelsea are the "worst team we could face" but the feeling must be mutual. After all, three Barcelona players – Leo Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o – have scored more goals between them than the entire Chelsea side.

One is a 5ft 4in Argentinian who needed growth hormones to get that far; one is a Frenchman who was considered past it, dismissed as a "dinosaur"; and one should not be at the club. But together they could be the finest forward line football has known. The question everyone is asking is: how do you stop Barcelona scoring? Since the opening day, no one has.

Fifty games in a row they have found the net. Time and time again – 136 times to be precise. They have scored so many that they have rewritten the rules. Once, teams went to Camp Nou and defended, hoping for a draw. If Barcelona scored, they would come out. Now, they keep defending. A 2-0 defeat is a respectable result. Recent modest results speak not of weakness but preservation of the team's energies. Chelsea should not be taking comfort. "It's not that their opponents are small," Cruyff says, "it's that Barcelona make them small."

Eto'o, Messi and Henry have 27, 21 and 18 respectively; 66 league goals, 90 in total, between three players. Ninety. It is not just that they have outscored every other attacking trio, it is that they alone have as many as any team in Europe's other major leagues. Collectively, they are Barcelona's best ever forward line. Even Alfredo Di Stefano, Kopa and Puskas could not match them: their best season, 1959, yielded 54 league goals.

"The secret," Guardiola says, "is that they are very good players." Henry is Arsenal's all-time leading scorer, Eto'o Spain's top scorer over the past five years, and Messi has averaged just under a goal every other game before this season. Yet they have outdone themselves, all three on their highest-ever totals, and such success is something of a surprise.

Arriving in the summer to succeed Frank Rijkaard, Guardiola got lucky, but he also got busy. It was his good fortune that no one wanted to pay for Eto'o. The skill came in his collective handling of the forward line, and it has made all the difference. Privately, Guardiola insisted last season that, such was the talent available, all it would take was seriousness and organisation to get Barça back on track. It was a fresh start under a new coach: in came Guardiola's strict regime, with checks and fines.

The timing was good. After two years without success, Guardiola discovered a receptive squad. The vices of Rijkaard's laissez-faire approach were ditched. "You mean we have to train too, boss?" ran the joke that revealed the change. Eto'o, whose beef was with the failure of other players – in particular Ronaldinho – to put in the same effort as he did, was delighted.

Guardiola's method is characterised by the asphyxiating pressure on the opposition. The whole team push forward, chasing every ball in packs. During pre-season, sessions were constantly stopped while he berated players, Messi especially, for not pressuring at throw-ins. Guardiola never let up, nor did he want his players to. "You're the best player in the world with the ball – you have to be the best without it," he told Messi.

The pressure begins with the ­forwards. This team is built from the front. Henry, Messi and Eto'o have all committed more fouls than centre-backs Márquez and Carles Puyol. The benefits are not just ­defensive. "The closer we are to the opposition's goal when we win the ball, the easier to score. There's less ­distance to cover, fewer players to beat and ­normally the other team's out of position," Alves explains.

Attentive and perceptive, Guardiola has had to handle Eto'o, Messi and Henry personally, to mould individuals into a collective. Despite their own egos, they are suited to playing together. Eto'o chases and harries and moves, ­constantly opening gaps for others, always on hand; Henry is gracefully quick coming in from the left; Messi meanders inside, opening up the combination with Eto'o, Iniesta or Xavi and leaving an avenue for Alves to exploit.

It was Guardiola who persuaded the club to allow Messi to travel to the Olympics with Argentina, where they won the gold medal. Guardiola's clever handling, from personalised training to careful rotations (nine times Barcelona have started without him in the league alone), has resulted in an injury-free season. Fully fit and with a functioning team around him, Messi is the world's finest footballer. He is, says the former Barcelona coach Louis van Gaal, "like Luís Figo and Rivaldo mixed together: he provides the goals and the assists".

And that is the thing. The functioning team. One where even the water carriers can play. Xavi moves the team, providing more assists than any player in La Liga – "I think he misplaced a pass once, in 1996," jokes Van Gaal. Alves and Iniesta – the former a new signing, the latter, Guardiola's particular weakness, finally handed genuine responsibility – have added something extra. Everyone is fitter, better organised, brighter and hungrier than before. The identity of the side – the Dream Team's identity – is clear. It is not just the goals that blow you away but the control. The whole package.

"What do Henry, Eto'o and Messi have that makes them so special?" former Barcelona striker ­Stoichkov asks. "Xavi, Iniesta and Alves behind them. Just as me and Romário had Laudrup, Eusebio and Bakero. And, of course, Pep Guardiola."

read the full and original article here

Read more:
The weak points of Barcelona
Barcelona Is Winning With Style
Why are Barcelona scoring so many goals?

1 comment:

barcacanada said...

this sort of article makes me feel confident in us winning some titles this season, even after that desperate draw against valencia.

here's to good luck!

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