A class apart
Johan Cruyff believes that Pep Guardiola's team have defined their era
Johan Cruyff has declared that the Barcelona team who take the field against Arsenal tonight are revolutionising the game, that they are the 21st century 'total football' masters -- but can they now also be called the best club side in history?
Comparisons between teams of different eras are invidious, and others top Pep Guardiola's team on the extent of their dominance, the longevity of their pre-eminence, the sheer volume of silverware won and on cold, boring, winning statistics.
But it is possible to make a convincing case that, in an era when players have never been fitter and faster, when time and space on the field has never been more constricted, and when speed of thought and vision has never had to be more instant, we are seeing the game being elevated to, and executed on, a thrilling new plane of skill.
Barcelona cannot yet compare with a dynasty like, say, Real Madrid of the 1960s, with their five straight European Cups, Ajax of the early 1970s, with three in a row, Liverpool of the late 1970s/early 1980s, with four in eight years, or AC Milan of the late 1980s/early 1990s, who were the last outfit to successfully defend the ultimate club prize.
As for invincibility? Forget it. Inter outplayed them in Milan last year. So you will not find anyone at Barca making outlandish claims just yet. Guardiola, the enemy of self-satisfaction, suggests the question is asked in 10 years.
But Barcelona are playing a game of transcendent, trigonometric brilliance, a game founded on almost instant, telepathic understanding, built on years of the 'receive, pass, offer' mantra being imprinted on young minds.
It is a game of high intensity, high pressure and yet high art, built on endless possession, patience and precision, designed to torment, tire and demoralise opponents; a game played on the floor, the ball whizzed around like an ice hockey puck at electrifying speed. We have not seen its like before.
When watching them fillet Jose Mourinho's then unbeaten Real Madrid 5-0, Francesco Totti declared breathlessly: "They are unbeatable, devastating, the best ever." Even Pele, who never misses a chance to sell his 1970 Brazilians as the measure for all teams, says: "Barca are playing a brand of football which is equal."
Didier Deschamps played for a grand Juventus side once described by Roy Keane as the best "by a distance" he had ever faced. Yet his face lights up when the subject of Barcelona is raised.
Where were they in the pantheon? "At the top. Undoubtedly the best I've ever seen," France's World Cup-winning captain says. "Watching this Barcelona is a treat, it is spectacular, they score in profusion but it is the enchanting style with which they play too. It's as if you're seeing football played on a PlayStation."
But don't Barcelona have to prove themselves again and again in Europe to live up to the grandiose claims? No, according to Cruyff, a man who played for two of the best teams ever and managed another. Why? Because they have already reinvented the game.
"Can you define an era without always winning? I believe so," said Cruyff. "The term 'total football' comes from that team, in which defenders attacked and attackers also defended.
"Total football is what this Barca team is too, where we can see the No 10 playing as a nine, playing on the right as a winger and he's also as good as your team's best left-back.
"A 21st century version of total football? Better than my version.
"Central defenders (Pique, Eric Abidal) who can play the ball forward better than most midfielders. Size XS (extra small) midfielders (Xavi, Andres Iniesta) with exquisite techniques who can play perfectly together. Forwards (Pedro, David Villa, Messi) who can interchange as a nine, seven or 11 and also be the first line of defence. This is a revolution in football. And revolutions, in football's history, are few."
Indeed, Cruyff suggests he can think of only two comparable "reinventions": the 1960s Real Madrid of Di Stefano and Puskas, and his own 1971-73 Ajax side, who also made up the nucleus of the 1974 Clockwork Oranje.
Like those two, he believes, this Barca revolution has arisen through a perfect confluence of circumstance and talent that materialises maybe once in a generation. Deschamps believes the alchemy is unique. "It's almost impossible for anyone else to play like them because it's the result of years of hard work, of young players all receiving the same footballing philosophy and education."
Still, it would not work without the finest ingredients; two visionary creators, Xavi and Iniesta, allied to pure force of nature, Messi, guided by a modern, bold coach in Guardiola who, along with them and six other supremely gifted players, have all been fashioned at the club's academy. Chuck in a world-beating striker, Villa, and stir.
Of course, they are not perfect. They have rare off days, like Saturday's 1-1 draw at Gijón with a reshuffled side which hinted at weaknesses in depth, particularly in defence. And, in the Champions League, such a lapse against a side as fine as Arsenal could be fatal.
"There's something greater than the result, more lasting. A legacy," says Xavi.
"Nonsense, there is nothing greater than the result," say the pragmatists. The point is, says Deschamps, when Barcelona get both right, they are "beautiful and untouchable".
On Saturday, when for once the alchemy failed, there was still a moment of exquisite skill when Villa chipped a late equaliser. That is why Barcelona seize the breath. The best ever? Think of it as a privilege to keep watching and marvelling as they try to persuade you too. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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