Johan Cruyff is the most important figure in the history of FC Barcelona. Between 1960 and 1988, the year he took over as manager of the club, Barça only won two league titles, and no European Cups. To put that into context, during the same time, La Real Sociedad and Athletic Club de Bilbao each won two league titles.
Since Cruyff transformed the club in his brilliant eight-year spell at the helm, Barça has won 12 league titles and four Champions Leagues, an astonishing record in 27 years. More importantly, in that time Barcelona has maintained a consistent identity and style of play, one based on possession and compact lines. It’s a level of consistency that is almost unfathomable in a more and more globalized soccer world.
When Cruyff speaks, people in Barcelona pay attention, and after Sunday’s 2-1 win over Real Madrid, his verdict was clear: “It’s great being able to win a game playing badly”. Ouch.
It’s easy to play the result when you analyze a game after the fact. And yes, the win puts Barcelona in a very favorable position to win the league this season. But Cruyff saw something else. He watched as Luis Enrique put the final nail in the coffin of a style of play that he instilled into the very foundations of his beloved Can Barça.
Luis Enrique joined Barça this summer, and some of his first moves were blocking the possibility of signing Toni Kroos in favor of Ivan Rakitic and insisting upon signing Luis Suárez. This showed his intention of moving away from the elaborate possession-based game that saw Barça dominate the last decade of European soccer in favor of a more frenetic, direct, quick transition style. It’s a style that was de rigeur after Real Madrid used it to destroy Bayern Munich in last year’s Champions League semifinal. It’s a totally acceptable approach, if that’s what you’re into. It’s just not Barça.
Throughout long stretches of Sunday’s game, Barca was pinned in its own half, as Pepe and Ramos stood basically on the halfway line. This was unthinkable even a couple of years ago. It’s been 26 Clásicos since Real Madrid last won the possession battle. On Sunday, Barça edged it, 51 percent to 49.
Against all odds, Madrid started the game in much better shape than Barça. Madrid is a team that feels much more comfortable going back and forth, and the team almost seemed surprised at how much space it was able to find. In the past, the Clásico script was a familiar one: Barça would enjoy suffocating control, with Madrid looking to claw a goal in an isolated play on a counter or set piece.
On Sunday, the roles were somewhat reversed. Both of Barcelona’s goals came on isolated plays in moments where Madrid was playing best. Jérémy Mathieu’s goal came minutes after Cristiano Ronaldo hit the bar after a long string of passes that would’ve made Pep Guardiola proud. Suárez’s goal came minutes after I tweeted this.
So far the results are justifying Luis Enrique’s strategy. But when Barcelona plays now, I don’t get the same feeling of dominance – the sense that the team is in total and complete control, and that the opponent can only hope to sneak a goal during a momentary lapse in concentration. I see them as vulnerable, almost ordinary; like any other team. That isn’t the feeling I’ve had over the past 10 years, where I’ve seen Barça as almost competing in a different sport than everybody else.
Javier Mascherano was the starting central midfielder for Barcelona on Sunday, something that Guardiola would surely have never done. His comments after the match were telling: “We respect Barca’s model, but football is not only possession”.
Johan Cruyff must be crying somewhere, watching as the empire he built fades away, one pyrrhic victory at a time.