The 2009-2011 Barcelona team that won it all is arguably the best team of all time. Led by Pep Guardiola, they exhibited some of the best attacking performances ever seen.
After the 2011 Champions League final, where they comprehensively defeated Manchester United, legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson could not fault his team’s performance; he said the team they faced was simply too good.
The lineup assembled by Guardiola was just unbeatable, and no team could compete. But how did this squad fit together so perfectly?
This team was the product of many years of planning, both through the youth system and the transfer market. Sensational academy graduates like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and of course Lionel Messi were combined with some smart acquisitions like David Villa and Javier Mascherano to form a truly unstoppable side.
Looking back at this team, we were blessed with some excellent footballers at the Camp Nou, that is undeniable. We will never see a player quite like Messi ever again, and Xavi and Iniesta are one-of-a-kind players as well.
However, the reason Barcelona have fallen in recent years cannot be attributed to the idea that Guardiola got lucky with the team he had and that his success can never be replicated.
Let’s start with the very obvious changes, mainly the gameplay. Pep’s team was a well-oiled machine. Messi was the ace, the clear star, and the matchwinner, but at the end of the day he was just another piece of the puzzle.
While his impact was palpable, the team still functioned without him, because they had a definitive style of play and an identity. Now, though, Messi is past his prime at 33, and it is still very hard to imagine Barca playing well without him.
That is because recently the focus has shifted to him and him alone, or Messi-dependence, as we call it. The plan has been so centered around Messi, to the point that if he has an off day, because he is human, it becomes very hard to win. Was he always perfect under Guardiola? Of course not, but Pep had the systems put in place to cope with that.
If Messi was off his game, the plan was still the same so goal contributions could be found another way, but with Ernesto Valverde that wasn’t the case, and his defensive mindset did not get the best out of Messi.
For me, the worst example was the Clasico last December, a dull 0-0 draw. The result wasn’t the problem in itself, it was how the result came. Valverde decided to play counter-attacking football. He has the best player of all time on his team, and the only time he could get on the ball forward was in transition.
How could a team like Barca, who has prided itself on attacking football for so many years, resort to playing on the counter? Messi’s frustration with the club this season has been obvious too. He hates the way the club is being run, and much like us, he wants change.
That change comes straight from the top: adequately replacing departing president Josep Maria Bartomeu, who has been largely at fault for the club’s shift in transfer policy and gameplan.
The next president must appoint the right manager who plays the right way, and give him autonomy in the transfer market to sign the right players.
In terms of the style of play, it should be attacking, expansive football, that is a requirement, but the transfer policy is up for interpretation. While a lot more focus must be placed on La Masia, outside purchases are also vital.
Even players that don’t necessarily have that Barca DNA could have a role to play, such as the recent signing of Arturo Vidal. The Chilean brings that drive, energy, and grit that some players on the team just don’t have, and that’s not a bad thing.
While he should undoubtedly not be a starter, he is a great Plan B. Even the most silky-smooth teams have their enforcers, much like Seydou Keita was for Guardiola. Of course, they must also be good technically, but they don’t need to be Xavi or Iniesta.
The problem is the players being signed as starters. For example, Miralem Pjanic is an excellent player, but at the age of 30, does it make sense to bring him to an already packed midfield, with youngsters like Riqui Puig, Carles Alena, and Frenkie de Jong needing those minutes more?
Not to mention players like Monchu, Alex Collado, and even young Ilaix Moriba in the academy, who are capable of breaking into the first team next season. Again, I love Pjanic, but you have to question whether he is the right move going forward.
Guardiola’s side wouldn’t have been successful with this string of short-term signings. Pjanic probably has three years left at the top. Why spend €60m on him when Puig and Alena are free? Long-term investments are key, and the Bosnian isn’t one.
For example, Eric Garcia is rumored to be returning to the Blaugrana, a fantastic signing if true, and Lautaro Martinez is heavily linked as well, although his transfer will be far more difficult. Spending money can be justified, but it needs to be spent on the right personnel.
In an ideal world, my team for next season would see youngsters Ronald Araujo, Garcia (if he returns) Riqui Puig, Carles Alena and Ansu Fati being key first-team players. Alex Collado and Monchu should be promoted from Barca B and at least one of Ivan Rakitic or Vidal sold, preferably the Croatian, as Vidal brings something entirely different to the table.
In attack I believe Lautaro can be signed, especially if Coutinho goes, if not this season then the next. Antoine Griezmann, as good as he is, is not a pure No. 9 like Suarez or Lautaro, so when he plays it will likely be from the wing or in a front two.
On paper, the attack for next season looks frightening: Messi, Suarez, Dembele, Griezmann, Fati, and potentially Lautaro. If they are at their best, you’re looking at the most potent attack in world football.
This is all up to who’s in charge, though, which is why whoever is making the squad decisions is very important in terms of the club’s future.
If the next president hires a manager like Xavi, and puts the system the Barca legend thrived under back in the limelight, not only will it benefit short-term play by making Messi better, but it will also ensure a brighter future.
Unlike some fans may think, it can happen again, because Guardiola’s team wasn’t a miracle, it was a very well-built and smartly balanced side. And with the right people calling the shots, it will happen again.
It’s just a matter of making sure that we don’t see another Bartomeu for six more years, because if so, a post-Messi future looks very scary. However, it could be far less so, but that’s up to the club, and when it boils down to it, it’s up to the fans who will vote in the next election.