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How long will this great Barcelona team last?

Great teams come and go, as do managers, players, directors and coaches. Football, like life, is one big evolutional cycle where things are constantly changing and nothing lasts forever. 

What has been described as probably one of the greatest teams (if not the best) in history is the current Barcelona side.

They have been able to mix success with playing a brand of football that has been mesmerising, and they do it so well. They have dominated Spanish and European football in the process; as well as being the envy of most teams throughout the world of football.

At the moment they are showing no signs of letting up, and the question that seems to be circulating in football is for how long can this team continue to play the kind of football they have made famous, and also to keep enjoying the success that is represented in the trophies they have won recently.

That success has come frequently since the appointment of Pep Guardiola as manager - 12 trophies in three years is a statistic that speaks for itself.

Surprising - at the time

The appointment of Guardiola as manager in 2008 was seen by many as surprising at the time. Among the many names linked with the job was Jose Mourinho, the current Real Madrid manager.

The previous Barca manager, Frank Rijkaard, seemed to be running out of ideas, and the club needed someone new, with a different perspective, to regain the title back from Real Madrid, who won it in what was to be Rijkaard's last season in charge.

Guardiola was given the task after managing the club's B team, in what proved to be a short but successful stint. If anyone epitomises Barcelona it is Guardiola. He ticks all the boxes - Catalan, Catalan speaker, learned his football in the famous 'Masia', played through all the ranks at the club, played most of his career with Barcelona and was captain for most of this time. He even lifted the European Cup for the club, the first in their history. 

Those collective factors seemed to be a key influence on the decision of the then board, which included ex-president Joan Laporta, to appoint him - he also understood the values of the club and football ideals that were put in place by Johan Cruyff, and based on the famous Dutch method of 'Total Football'.

Since the days of Cruyff, who successfully won the European Cup in 1992 with the Barca 'dream team', the club have been famous for its constant use of the 4-3-3 system - a system that has been used on a regular basis throughout the years by various managers.

Short, passing football

The formation is popular because it is based on playing short, passing football with lots of movement - and the possibility for players to change positions without having a detrimental impact on the style of the team. 

The simple, effective, and draining effect that this style of play has on teams, with teams having to put all their energies into trying to recuperate the ball, has been a joy to watch for football purists and those who don’t have much of a know-how to the game.

In turn this style has attracted new fans of the game, and being given the chance to watch football in its most purest form. This 'tiki-taka' Barca style is an evolution of Cruyff's total football brand.

Guardiola has achieved what all aspiring coaches in the game should do, he has used his in-depth knowledge of this brand of football and created his own style, by making minor tweaks in certain places, which have added a new dimension to the style. 

After he took over at Barcelona, and before he could impose his view of how he wanted the team to play, he had to bring in those players who he thought were appropriate and could fit in easily and do the job he would ask of them. He also had to get rid of those who he thought were not up to the task.

Shown the door

Some big names were shown the door in that first summer in charge for Guardiola. Ronaldinho and Deco were among those who were out, with Danny Alves, Pedro and Pique coming in.

These new signings, along with the addition of players from the B team, allowed Barca to build on the total football concept and combine other elements into their play.

Barcelona’s style of play is all about passing and movement - but there is one aspect of their tactics which has become almost as important as this. This is pressurising the opposing team high up in their own half of the field so as to deny them space to get the ball down and play football. 

This tactic is based on the aspect of forcing the opposition into making a mistake. Barca can then win possession and move the ball quickly so that the opposing team has no time to make the transition from attack to defence, and this is something that Barcelona are able to do with devastating impact.

The wide men don’t track back, so if possession is lost there is always an outlet, especially if one of the opposing full backs decides to go forward and join in the attack.

Defensive midfielder

In modern football, and particularly in the last 10 or so years, there has been great emphasis on a defensive midfielder to break up attacks. Sergio Busquets performs this task very well. He has the ability to start attacks and give the ball quickly to the attacking players. He can regularly interchange with Xavi and Iniesta as Barca look to move the ball quickly with pace and precision.

Xavi and Iniesta are widely regarded as the most influential central midfield partnership in world football. With the flexibility that the Barca formation allows them, to drift and take up positions all over the pitch, there are always players available to pass the ball to. 

The opposition can spend long periods of time chasing the ball and wasting lots of energy, which has been to Barca's advantage of later on in games.

This all means that Barcelona play like a well-oiled machine in every game, with full backs encouraged to join in in attacks and centre backs able to step out with the ball.

This would all be problematic enough for opponents, but when you add world player of the year Lionel Messi to the equation, you have the icing on the cake.

Most successful in their history

With Messi scoring an average of more than 30 goals and countless assists per season, it is no surprise that the last few years at Barcelona have been the most successful in their history. Many see them as the best team in the world at the moment - and probably in the history of the game.

But Real Madrid remain a threat to Barca's supremacy, particularly since the arrival of Mourinho (who spent time at Barcelona as coach and translator to ex manager Bobby Robson).

Real Madrid have evolved into an effective team, something missing through previous managers, and this season have started to impress more because of their results and style of play. 

Last season, at times, they played spectacular football, but sometimes looked to have lots more in reserve with Mourinho seeming to hold back and play for results. But in a team with as rich a history as Real Madrid, the fans seemed to be growing a little disgruntled with the style of football that their side were playing. 

This season is a different story though. The tentative style that was encouraged last season seems to be a thing of the past and the team has played a mix of pretty, effective and stylish football, with an emphasis of pressing high up the pitch when without the ball, very similar to the Barcelona style of play. 

Domination

Historically, Mourinho’s teams tend to play better in their second year under his guidance. Could this be the season for the former Chelsea manager to put a stop to Barcelona’s domination in Spain and Europe?

Can Real Madrid really stop them? And if not Mourinho's men, who else can? Madrid seem to be the only side in Spain capable of overhauling Barca, as no other Spainish clubs appear to have the players or resources to compete. 

Elsewhere in Europe, England could provide the biggest hurdle to Barca's continued dominance, with the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea with the capabilities to threaten Barcelona's grip on the Champions League.

United still seem to be the main contenders but, as has been seen in two finals in the space of three years between the teams, Barcelona have had no real problems with United or any other English teams in the competition in recent years. 

With the 'big two' in Italy apparently in meltdown this season, Real Madrid could still be the strongest challengers to Barca's dominance at home and in Europe.

Much depends on the continued desire of Guardiola but, with his roots firmly embedded at Barcelona and the club's current dominance, it is unthinkable that he could seek employment elsewhere any time soon. 

For now, Guardiola's men are the world's best team and the side that all others aspire to emulate.

By Rodney Ballantine


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