Why Is Barcelona's Style of Play So Successful for Pep Guardiola?
It's a silly sounding phrase, isn't it? Those four syllables hardly evoke visions of grandeur, of trophy cases littered with championship plunder both foreign and domestic.
That is, unless you're Barcelona and you've collected 13 trinkets in four seasons under Josep "Pep" Guardiola.
And you're on pace to add at least two more pieces of silverware to your stash before the summer.
Dollars and Sense
Now, it'd be easy to credit the Blaugrana's stunning success, especially with Pep on the touchline, to the club's vast riches—according to Deloitte, Barca generated €450.7 million in revenue in 2010-11, second only to La Liga rival Real Madrid.
Wealth and resources of that magnitude hardly guarantees elite success. Just ask Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool of the English Premier League or Inter Milan of Italy's Serie A, both of whom have struggled in various competitions this season despite spending lavishly on world-class players in recent years.
It's not as important to simply "splash the cash" as it is to allocate properly over time, to build a club rather than buy one. For example, Real Madrid have done quite well to bring in elite talent in recent years, big names like Cristiano Ronaldo, Sami Khedira, Karim Benzema and Fabio Coentrao.
And yet, Los Blancos still find themselves flustered by Barca's brilliance, year in and year out.
Much of the praise for said dominance belongs to a first-team squad comprised of stars like Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Thiago and Cesc Fabregas, all of whom are brilliant footballers in their own right but who play together so well in large part because of their shared training in Barcelona's youth system.
Not that transfers like Alexis Sanchez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Javier Mascherano haven't helped along the way.
But it's how they've helped that matters most, which brings us back (roundaboutly enough) to tiki-taka. In essence, tiki-taka is merely a form of possession football, wherein the best defence lies in an attack that can move the ball up the field aggressively with crisp, short passes through a number of channels, playing "keep away" all the while.
This, as opposed to the more traditional counter-attacking style employed most famously in the EPL and by Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, wherein clubs look to move quickly from defense to offense on a "break," not unlike a fast break in basketball.
Guardiola's particular brand of tiki-taka, which he learned during his days as a player at Barca under the great Johan Cruyff, also employs the use of a high back line and a pressing defence when out of possession so as to retake control of the ball.
This season, in particular, Pep has opted for a 3-4-3 alignment, with Fabregas as the attacking midfielder, Xavi and Iniesta directing traffic just behind him, and Sergio Busquets or Javier Mascherano as the midfield pivot. Pep's arrangement of small but technically gifted midfielders has allowed Barca to dominate possession and funnel the ball toward the fleet feet of Messi, who's not only the best player in the world, but also the best player to lead Barca's attack, with his quickness and creativity.
No Easy Feet
Perhaps what's most remarkable about Barca's employment of tiki-taka, though, is that they're able to put it into practice at all, much less to the awesome effect that they do. To put together a club that can successfully complete touch passes time and again while limiting possession requires careful planning at all levels of an organization, from its board on down to its academy.
As mentioned previously, the bulk of the Blaugrana's attack have come up together through the lower levels, giving them a sort of built-in rapport that allows them to anticipate each other's every step with greater accuracy and acuity.
Tiki-taka isn't something that can be done well overnight. Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has tried to implement Barca's brand at The Emirates but has found only occasional success in doing so.
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The Catalans, on the other hand, seem to have it down pat. In fact, Pep's Barcelona squads may be the only ones to have ever taken tiki-taka to the top of the club football world, and the only side of any sort other than the Spanish national team to hoist any trophies whatsoever.
It's no coincidence, either, that the Blaugrana and La Roja share many of the same players along with their similar tactics. Both have overcome the steep barrier to entry to tiki-taka brilliance and appear poised to ride this wave of strategic success for as long as possible.
Because as silly as tiki-taka may sound, it's Barcelona who always seem to laugh last.
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