Monday's league-opener, the 5-0 thumping of Villareal, is perhaps the greatest proof to date of Pep Guardiola’s genius as the manager of FC Barcelona. With a slough of injuries to his squad’s back line, Pep was forced to improvise. By employing a 3-4-3, he maintained an experienced back line, rested aging superstars, gave minutes to young studs, and fielded one of the most dynamic attacking sides football has ever seen.
It’s been awhile since Puyol, Piqué, Abidal, and Alves have suited up together on Barça’s back line. Javier Mascherano—a signing that many questioned—has bravely filled in as a ferocious and capable center-back, and Busquets has slid back as well, at times looking less than imperious, but performing admirably. On the wings, Maxwell and Adriano have been servicable—the latter showing flashes of attacking ability akin to his unstoppable counterpart, Dani Alves.
One could see, perhaps, why no defensive reinforcement was signed this summer. But heading into the league opener, as Puyol and Maxwell continued their lengthy recoveries, Piqué fell injured, and was followed quickly by Adriano. To make matters worse, Dani Alves was set to serve out a suspension for the five yellow cards he had received the previous campaign. Culés everywhere threw their hands up in dismay. What good were the 70 ‘kilos’ spent on Aléxis and Cesc? I was worried about an inexperienced defense, possibly including youngsters like Fontas or Montoya.
Pep Guardiola kept his cool. He kept his inexperienced youngsters on the bench and put the three men he could trust in the back (Abidal, Busquets, and Mascherano). He decided it would be up to the rest of the squad to support these three. Keita was inserted for extra strength and defensive presence. To complete the eleven, he chose the most beastly six footballers you can imagine, all under the age of 24 (with the exception of Iniesta), all capable of a relentless 90 minutes of pressure, all willing to track back doggedly in defense, and all sharing a fearsome proclivity for tormenting goal-keepers: Messi, Pedro, Aléxis, Thiago, Cesc, and Iniesta. Ok maybe Iniesta isn’t that fearsome,but the rest of these players are absolute beasts.
Villareal was overpowered by a storm of small, sinewy speedsters who came flying from all directions and went for goal like bats out of hell. If they’d taken their time, Barça could have scored ten.
Watching from the bench, resting their golden legs, were Xavi and Villa. And Pep, who celebrated the goals with more fervor than we’re used to. He celebrated the absolute triumph of his philosophy, the validation of his transfers (goals from both Cesc and Aléxis), and the reality that his side—riddled with injuries as it is—is better than ever.
After years of the 4-3-3, in the face of fear and skepticism, and a day after Madrid demolished Zaragoza
6-0, Pep did what all great leaders do: he improvised. If there’s any joker out there that still questions the skill and value of Pep, they need only look to Monday’s match for evidence of what we’ve been saying for awhile: Pep Guardiola is the best manager in football.