Today, four time Champions League winners and present holder, Barca play AC Milan, one of the most stories clubs themselves in international competition with seven CL titles.
A mouthwatering feast that will pit Zlatan Ibrahimovic against his former club and Thiago, who might be wearing the colours of the Blaugrana next season. But for those neutrals who just love the way Barca play but don't quite know how they do it, here is a post by Simon Kuper that deconstructs their success. It's an easy bullet point by bullet point analysis of the underpinnings of Barca's system.
Pep Guardiola inherited Johan Cruiff's totalvoetball or "total football" philosophy which originated in Rinus Michel's Ajax of the 1970s, a temporal and spatial system of possession that saw supremely fit team mates filling in space vacated by another. Space was sacred, there was no concept of "dead space."
Such an overlapping and fluid system meant there was no player "hierarchies" or nomenclatures like defender, striker, or attacking midfielder. The player with the ball and the best information was the planner and executor of that movement. Cruiff's emphasis was on attack which Barca successfully adopted through the 80s and 90s with further refinement provided by Louis Van Gaal, another proponent of the Dutch system, when he joined the Catalunyans.
Guardiola transformed it to include defense with his exposure to Italian football and Valeriy Lobanovskyi's "pressing" tactics, i.e., the art and science of winning back the ball the instant you lose it. Lobanovskyi as coach of Dynamo Kyiv co-wrote an influential book on the different types of pressing. An excellent article by Jonathan Wilson sheds light on the influence of his tactics on Guardiola's thinking.
Most Americans will relate to this when they see basketball teams execute a full court press, swarming their opponents the minute they inbound a pass on resumption of play. The tactic eats precious seconds off a 24 second clock rushing the shooter into a low percentage shot or better still leading to a turnover and an easy bucket. It's harder and more exhausting to do this in a space as large as a football pitch but that is what Barca do when they want to possess the ball back. The tactic ensures a 70% possession rate and Barca when it wants to kill a game off in a winning position simply pass the ball around in the opponents half.
A corollary to this is that this system needs rigour and very early exposure for successful adoption. Barca relies on a farm system of homegrown players to perpetuate this approach. This explains why for all their stunning success, their forays into the transfer market haven't been as fulfilling. Zlatan, Thierry Henry, and David Villa are the notables. This is another reason why Guardiola may never leave Barca. There are few clubs who have the patience and the resources to start bottom up with a new philosophy.
H/t to Mo for providing Simon Kuper's link.