Review of Jonathan Wilson’s new book, ‘The Barcelona Inheritance’

Jonathan Wilson has established himself as one of soccer journalism’s most knowledgeable tacticians. Inverting the Pyramid made his already sterling reputation as a tactical analyst firm, and even if there are other writers whose knowledge of modern soccer tactics is better, Wilson writes in a way that is relatable and marketable.

His new book is The Barcelona Inheritance: The Evolution of Winning Soccer Tactics from Cruyff to Guardiola. Wilson takes his tactical knowledge and applies it to a specific coaching tree, albeit one that is quite famous. Johan Cruyff has traditionally been attributed with creating the modern Barcelona style of play. Even today, with every new manager, the questions are asked whether the new man can keep Barcelona playing the same tika taka style while churning out the next great generation of soccer talent every year.

Wilson explores Cruff’s legacy through the men who succeeded him at Barcelona and in the Netherlands. He focuses primarily on Pep Guardiola, who many call his tactical heir, but also looks at his contemporaries with Barca connections like Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, and Ronald Koeman. He uses these men to explain how Cruyff’s vision of perfect soccer has been modified, or adapted depending, in the modern game. Wilson uses his ability to explain tactics in layman’s terms to show how Guardiola modified the possession style of his Dutch predecessor and how van Gaal showed how it could be used pragmatically. Conversely he draws parallels to Mourinho, who spurned by Barcelona early in his career has shaped himself and his tactics to be almost anti-Cruyff.

The scope of this book is ambitious, as it seeks to explain a branch of a coaching tree in detail that shows the differences between managers. Drawing parallels between Pep and Mourinho is easy, but showing why van Gaal both represents and turns away from the Barcelona style simultaneously is a tougher job. In fact, when I first read the description of the book, I had no idea what to expect. It’s own description on its cover and online really doesn’t get to the core of what this book is.

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More honestly, this book is about tactical evolution. A manager famous as a player creates a style of play renowned worldwide, and his former players and assistants take that style and adopt it for their uses. This book is a study on tactical psychology, which to be honest isn’t the most interesting description to put on a back flap. That’s also why I have a hard time recommending this book to everyone, because it’s topic is not universally interesting to every soccer fan. Fans of tactical analysis can go to other authors or Inverting the Pyramid, and fans of the stories behind some of recent soccer history’s greatest clubs will find this book very limiting. Instead, The Barcelona Inheritance is a case study limited to one of the most successful managerial stories in history, and how that spawned its own successes. Those readers looking for something different than the usual soccer book will enjoy this one, but I envision it may have a hard time becoming the success his previous books were.

Written like a long-form Blizzard article, The Barcelona Inheritance is a good edition to soccer canon. As long as the reader comes in with an open mind not preset to expect Inverting the Pyramid or The Manager, they likely will enjoy this book. Not having that preconception though may be hard to achieve based on how this book is presented.

Editor’s note: The Barcelona Inheritance is available from all fine booksellers including Amazon.

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