It is not often four years can be considered an era, nor indeed the ‘eternity’ proposed by Pep Guardiola. We are more accustomed to a four-year period representing a cycle – perhaps between World Cups, Olympic tournaments or mayoral elections. Yet, in the case of Guardiola stepping down from his beloved Barcelona, four years has become the most definitive era in modern football history.
The journey began in 2007 when he was presented with the opportunity to manage Barcelona B. Having spent 11 years as a player for the Catalan giants, the Spaniard seemed destined to take over at the Barca helm as soon as his desire to go into coaching became known. Barca president, Joan Laporta, suggested that Guardiola’s passion and dedication was such that he would have even accepted the role without a salary.
In his opening training session, Guardiola immediately told his players how the beautiful game should be played; he shared a quote, as described by Graham Hunter in his biographical book on Barcelona, that foreshadowed four years of technically unplayable football, meticulous attention to detail and thirteen major trophies:
‘Pass it, pass it and pass it again. Pass precisely, move well, pass again, pass, pass, and pass.’
Indeed, this approach was to become the hallmark of a dynasty as Guardiola – appointed coach of the Barcelona first team in 2008 – led his club to unrivalled success, leaving opponents stunned and onlookers claiming that this was simply the best team they had ever laid eyes on.
Tactically, a new precedent had been set: not only were analysts left astonished by the free-roaming nature of a free-scoring team, but they struggled in simply identifying a set formation or way of playing – Barcelona demonstrated versatility and flexibility to no end. At the same time, Guardiola’s players also defied physical limits, working tirelessly in training and replicating this work-rate on the pitch with a stamina that enabled them to dominate possession and immediately press opponents whenever they lost the ball.
The results were impeccable – Barcelona became the first Spanish team to claim the treble of La Liga, the Champions League and the Copa Del Rey, with Guardiola becoming the youngest coach ever to lift the Champions League trophy.
Amidst such a glorious run, individual highlights left Barcelona supporters beaming around the globe. A 20 match unbeaten streak in La Liga exuded colossal superiority, whilst a 6-2 triumph over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu left their arch rivals clutching at their wounds. This historic first season came as just reward not only for Guardiola’s exertive coaching and much-respected philosophy, but also for his sensible and effective decision-making.
When the Spaniard was placed in charge of the first team, Frank Rijkaard’s reign as coach had come to an anti-climactic end and the likes of Ronaldinho, Deco, Edmilson and Gianluca Zambrotta had all passed their footballing peak. The time had come for players to be moved on, and Guardiola oversaw the process poignantly – unlike many before and after him, he was patient, calculated and smooth in transition. Out went the old, in came the likes of Dani Alves, Sedou Keita and Gerard Piqué. Though, notably, Samuel Eto’o stayed and yet another gamble paid off as the Cameroon international scored 44 goals in all competitions, including his strike in the Champions League Final.
The following season, further success came Barca’s way. Though, no man or team is perfect and Guardiola’s attempt at the impossible – defending his Champions League title – fell short at the semi-final stages. Despite lifting the Spanish and European super cups, a second successive La Liga title and Barcelona’s maiden World Club Championship, the 2009-10 season perhaps displayed a significant chink in Guardiola’s armour. In his most high-profile forage into the transfer market, the Spanish tactician invested a huge sum in the purchase of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter Milan, with Samuel Eto’o going in the opposite direction. In the same window, the expensive acquisition of Dmytro Chygrynskiy also arrived at Camp Nou. Neither transfer worked.
As the Champions League was lost to Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan, the gaping hole left by Eto’o’s attacking flair was magnified – especially when Eto’o contributed so proficiently to Inter Milan’s own treble-winning season. Zlatan Ibrahimovic fell some way short as a replacement.
Barcelona are not invincible – they never were; people refused to acknowledge it, they got complacent, but Guardiola was always aware that near-perfection is nearly impossible to sustain. Nonetheless, when his arch nemesis, Mourinho, arrived on the Iberian Peninsula to take over at Real Madrid the following season, Guardiola and Barcelona responded immaculately. Chygrynskiy and Ibrahimovic were shipped out (though Ibrahimovic did not go quietly) and so too were Thierry Henry and Yaya Toure; Adriano, David Villa and Javier Mascherano were the new recruits.
A team now filled with a selection of the world’s finest went on to lift a third successive La Liga title and second Champions League trophy in three years. Guardiola’s side had become feared the world across. It wasn’t just the fact that Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pedro, Sergio Busquets and co. were the best players in the world, it was the fact that Guardiola had taken this already talented group to never-before-seen heights.
That year, Mourinho had to settle for a solitary Copa Del Rey trophy as Guardiola’s Barca trounced his side 5-0 at Camp Nou and came away with a vital Champions League semi-final victory at the Bernabeu. In some ways, payback was secured.
Though, this season has seen the pattern of history continue. There has yet to be a Champions League title defence as Chelsea’s valiant defensive efforts over two semi-final legs seemed to shock the sporting world in knocking Barcelona out. There were those, however, that saw this coming. And in reaction to the tie, Guardiola rather ominously admitted that he could not think of a viable way to break down Chelsea’s backline.
To compound things, three consecutive years of domestic Catalan dominance was ground to a halt, with La Liga also eventually being snatched from Barcelona’s hands by Mourinho (barring three Barcelona victories and a Real Madrid failure to amass two or more points from their remaining fixtures). Though Barca still have a Copa Del Rey final to contest against an Athletic Bilbao side managed by his long-time friend, Marcelo Bielsa, Guardiola has decided that the end of the season presents the best time to call it one pass too many at Camp Nou.
Despite another campaign filled with glory, a lack of depth and alternative style of play has left Barcelona wanting. The pertinence of Guardiola’s decision to sign Cesc Fabregas in the summer of 2011 will always be questioned, whilst a failure to re-enforce a fragile defence and provide a back-up option up front (Alexis Sanchez, also signed in the summer of ’11, has never been an out-and-out striker) has ultimately proved costly. And yet, it comes down once more to that elusive word: perfection. Guardiola and his Catalan legends were/are not perfect, but they have come as close as is perhaps humanly possible.
And so, in such a short space of time, so much has been achieved. Guardiola’s legacy will live on – not just for his success but for the way in which he delivered it. As Gabriel Marcotti points out, since WWII, only two managers have been at Barcelona longer than four years. By leaving once these four years are up, Guardiola has ‘left his legacy intact and untainted.’
He will be remembered forever, whilst his career is far from over. In the here and now, Guardiola’s colleague and companion, Tito Vilanova, will take up the reins at Barcelona, no doubt persisting with the current philosophy and style of play.
As for Guardiola, it truly is the end of an era. Four years; 13 trophies (with a view to one more at the time of writing). One remarkable man; one remarkable club. Football will go on, but it is hard to imagine it ever being as good as this again.