Examining the genius of Pep Guardiola and his greatest tactical legacy

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It is difficult to remember a time before Barcelona was an all-conquering force, and Pep Guardiola was hailed as a messiah amongst managers. The Catalan team has changed soccer as we know it both in terms of the way that they play, and the way that opponents need to play to stop them. Teams have been built from the ground up specifically with the idea of stopping Barcelona (Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid), academies have been set-up specifically to imitate La Masia (Manchester City), and their tactical formations have caught the eye of countless teams (Luis Enrique’s Roma, Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea City and early Liverpool teams, just to name a few).

This is in no way a eulogy, Barcelona is still the best team on the planet and will probably be so for many seasons (until England figures out how to use its economic clout). But Barca has changed. This is through necessity, one cannot keep expecting Messi and Iniesta, Xavi, and Busquets to roll off the academy production line in batches. And if you buy players, even great players such as Luis Suarez and Neymar, styles will have to be altered to accommodate them.

Barcelona now do not have any sort of sterile dominance, the pointless possession that was highlighted as perhaps their only flaw under Pep Guardiola. They move the ball quickly, hitting the feet of their magical South American forward line or sending balls behind the defense for somebody to run onto.

Of course, as the juggernaut kept rolling, people started to understand the point of what Pep’s “sterile” dominance really was, as much a defensive strategy as an offensive one. If you have the ball, you are the only person that can score, it’s a fundamental truth of the game. Why work on a defensive shape when your offensive shape is your defense?

But it is neither the tiki-taka passing nor the famous diagonal from Xavi to Dani Alves that is the greatest legacy of Pep. I would argue that it’s not the 4-3-3 either, teams have long known that the way to control possession is to outnumber the opposition in midfield. At this point the Barcelona academy is basically an intrinsic resource, even their top coaches can’t replicate the success at other clubs with greater resources (ask City). No, Guardiola’s greatest achievement has to be the reinvention of the three-man backline, even when he used a four man backline.

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