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Monday, January 9

Pep Guardiola: A Mad Man

An essay examining the parallels between Don Draper from AMC's 'Mad Men' and FC Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola.

A FRIENDLY NOTE -- Tread carefully if you haven't-yet but desire-to watch 'Mad Men', for SPOILERS exist below. 

* * *


* * *

Impeccably dressed.  Dapper, even.  Tailored suits at or near the zenith of contemporary fashion.

An unimpeachable adherence to a way of doing things.  A right way, above everything else, even if it invites difficulty or outright failure.

An assured and earned bravado.  The type of brazen bred not just from accomplishment but also hardship.  Far more than a mere chip on the shoulder.

Inspires a destructive, corrupting obsession in his competition.  Has so thoroughly earned respect from those he manages he has no need to demand even an ounce of it.

This, of course, describes Don Draper, the main character of creator Matthew Weiner's consistently incredible 'Mad Men'.

Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm
Portrayed without flaw by Jon Hamm, Draper flourishes in the 1960s world of advertising in New York on Madison Avenue, favouring ad campaigns which emotionally resonate with the consumer in lieu of lowest-common-denominator appeals.  Other competing goods and services can offer just the same as his products, but Draper aims to show how his product satiates or creates a need in the customer, not their price pointIt's an idealistic, unorthodox and often romantic approach in a cynical business, and while Draper isn't quit of cynicism himself, his professional work garners industry-wide attention, acclaim and awards.  Draper is the top of the food chain: he knows it, he relishes it, he is without peer.

Without peer in the 'Mad Men' universe, that is.  A proper analogue exists, but only in the world of football starting almost three decades later.

* * *

In 1990, Josep "Pep" Guardiola, all of nineteen-years-old, debuted for FC Barcelona under legendary manager Johan Cruyff.  At twenty, Guardiola became a fixture in Barça's first team, playing the most-recessed -- or "pivot" -- role in midfield for Cruyff's chosen 4-3-3 formation.  While not the strongest or fastest of players, any physical deficiencies of Guardiola's were more than made up for by his wholly superior intellect and elite technical acumen.  Forgoing the chase of goal-scoring glory or superfluous flair, Guardiola entrenched himself as a stabilizing force, the bond between attack and defense, the initiator of attacks, the controller of Barça's faucet, a true, deep-lying playmaker.

FC Barcelona Manager Pep Guardiola
Guardiola's debut season finished with what would become Cruyff's Dream Team wining La Liga, Spanish football's top league.  The following season, Barça didn't just repeat as La Liga champions, they won the European Cup -- forebear to today's Champions League, the highest prize in club football.  And, in international play for Spain, Guardiola captained an under-23 squad to Olympic gold during the 1992 Summer Games held in Barcelona.  It was nothing short of a sensational beginning to a professional club and international career, and Guardiola soon found himself deservedly promoted to Spain's senior side, ultimately making forty-seven appearances for La Furia Roja.

It didn't all come up aces for Guardiola, however.  While his Barça squad also finished atop the La Liga table in 92-93 and 93-94, making it four consecutive domestic championships, they were also decidedly thrashed in the 1994 Champions League Final 4-0 by Italian juggernauts AC Milan.  Barça wouldn't win another La Liga championship until the 97-98 campaign, a campaign that saw very little of Guardiola due to a severe calf injury, an injury that saw to Guardiola missing the 1998 World Cup altogether after already missing Euro 1996 from falling out of then-Spain manager Javier Clemente's favour.  Barça would again win La Liga in 98-99, but the winning of which was the last piece of silverware collected by the Catalan side before Guardiola's exit from the club in 2001, a year which also saw his last appearance for Spain's national team.

* * *

          INT. CONFERENCE ROOM, STERLING-COOPER OFFICES -- DAY

          SAINT JOHN [pronounced 'Sin-jin') POWELL, a partner in the
          advertising firm purchasing Sterling-Cooper, has just
          announced to the Sterling-Cooper partners (ROGER STERLING,
          BERT COOPER and Draper) that HERMAN "DUCK" PHILLIPS, Draper's
          chief adversary (besides himself, of course) will be the
          new president of Sterling-Cooper.

                              DUCK PHILLIPS
                         (standing)
                    I find myself a little unprepared
                    here, but I know this- I'd like to
                    bring this company into financial
                    maturity.  The last two years,
                    we've been held back.  Good
                    creative is important, but it can't
                    be running the show.  Our business
                    is about buying time and space, and
                    right now that means television.
                    The bigger we are, the cheaper we
                    can get.

                              BERT COOPER
                    I don't think I heard the word
                    'client' once.

                              DUCK PHILLIPS
                    Well Bert, when the economy is
                    good, people buy things, and when
                    when it's bad they don't.  There's
                    no reason for us to be tied to
                    creative's fantasies of persuasion.

          Duck takes a seat.

                              SAINT JOHN POWELL
                    Certainly is an ambitious way of
                    thinking about things.

                              BERT COOPER
                         (concerned)
                    Don?

                              DON DRAPER
                    What?  I think it sounds like a
                    great agency.  And I think Duck is
                    the man to run it.  I just don't
                    think I'll be a part of it.

                              SAINT JOHN POWELL
                    You don't want to be a part of it?

                              DON DRAPER
                    If this is the agency you want,
                    Duck is the man for the job.

                              DUCK PHILLIPS
                    This is what I'm talking about,
                    artistic temperament.

                              ROGER STERLING
                    Don, is this really necessary?

                              DUCK PHILLIPS
                    It is.  Because he loves this room
                    and hearing his own voice and
                    saving the day.  Except this time
                    he's got to get with the team.
                    Don, you can either honor your
                    contract or walk out that door with
                    nothing and start selling
                    insurance.

                              DON DRAPER
                    I don't have a contract.

At the close of Mad Men's second season, Draper wasn't content to become just another guy at just another agency.  He wasn't going to let his talents waste away, underutilized, in some paint-by-the-numbers capacity down the totem pole, lower than a second fiddle.  It meant potentially losing around half-a-million dollars, it meant potentially losing a great deal of job security, it meant potentially losing company growth in favour of doing things his way.  There were a host of reasons to nod and smile, to grin and bear it, to grow old, fat and wealthy.

Yet he didn't, and Draper brandishing about his testicles in the Sterling-Cooper conference room worked out for him: the English buyers ousted Duck Phillips, leaving Draper's vision the engine running the company.  Guardiola wasn't so lucky.

* * *

Often times, a top player's exit from a top European side is due to an extended drop in form, a sign his class of ability or physical tools have regressed.  But for Guardiola, a player who never had elite physical gifts, this wasn't quite the case.

                              PEP GUARDIOLA
                    What can you do?  I am not quick, I
                    never had the stamina to run and run
                    for ninety minutes like central-
                    midfielders have to do today.  I am
                    not particularly good in the air, I
                    am not physically strong, I don't
                    dribble past opponents and I am not
                    a good tackler.  But I can pass the
                    ball fairly well.

It is true that Guardiola could never race down a flank as quickly as Gareth Bale does today for Tottenham Hotspur.  It is true that Guardiola wasn't a tireless player like current Barça fullback-cum-midfielder-cum-winger Dani Alves.  He wasn't a Didier Drogba in the embodiment of physical prowess department, nor could he keep the ball glued to his foot while cutting every which way through a defense like Diego Maradona often did.  He couldn't defend a lick like Carles Puyol, Barça's current captain, still can at age thirty-three.

The beauty of Guardiola was that he didn't need to be or do any of those things.  His strength came from his geometric thinking in a linear world.  He played chess not instead of checkers but instead of Cousin Eddie's favourite casino game the children's card game War, a game featuring an oh-why-the-hell-not approach not unlike the very popular -- and still prevalent -- long-ball-and-pray tactics employed by many teams who field a 4-4-2 shape.  He didn't need to run like a race horse or leap like a cheetah because his mind wasn't wild or untamed but evolved.  His instincts weren't driven by instances of emotion or hereditary mechanisms but by an innate understanding of the game, its tactics, and how players moved about like bishops and knights.  And he had more than enough technique to make awe-inspiring use of his cerebral supremacy.  Guardiola knew this, but football went a different way:

                              PEP GUARDIOLA
                    I haven't changed.  My skills haven't
                    declined.  It's just that football now
                    is different.  It's played at a higher
                    pace and it's a lot more physical. 
                    The tactics are different, too.  To
                    play just in front of the back four
                    now, you have to be a ball-winner, a
                    tackler, like Patrick Viera or Edgar
                    Davids.  If you can pass too, well,
                    that's a bonus.  But the emphasis, as
                    far as central midfield players are
                    concerned, is all on defensive work.

Guardiola could win European cups and lead his country to Olympic glory at twenty, but at thirty, playing the same way, he may as well have been a dinosaur.  Being able to intercept a pass from the opposition wasn't as important as winning the ball with a hard tackle.  Being able to unlock a packed-in defense wasn't as important as rampaging forward how a wrecking ball might to knock it down.

In 2001, instead of miring away as a mere squad player in the Premier League, Guardiola chose to ply his craft at Brescia Calcao in Serie A, Italy's top league, also rebuffing offers to be a small cog in the machine for one of the Milanese sides.  Guardiola in Italy, however, wasn't meant to be, and after totaling only seventy-one games between Brescia and Roma, he went to Al-Ahli of the Qatar Stars League in 2003.

It, truly, was as if the world stopped caring about Mozart and the only place that valued the composer enough was a rundown monk sanctuary for drifting vagrants.  Or if all it took to go from The Beatles to Nickelback was two generations.  [Editor's note: I just made myself sad.]  In 2006, instead of taking token offers from the Manchester squads and Chelsea, Guardiola finished his playing career in Mexico with a six-month spell at Dorados de Sinaloa, having been recruited out of managerial school in nearby Axocopan, Atlixco, Puebla.

At 35, with more than viable technique and intelligence, Guardiola's playing career was over.  Even still, his greatest impact on football was yet to come.

* * *

Guardiola and Draper share a certain... photogenic appeal for those interested in men as romantic companions.  Both are ruggedly handsome yet suave and fond of pocket squares for their suits, among other aesthetically pleasing characteristics.  Secretaries of Draper's agency and strangers alike fall over themselves for him, while Guardiola is merely the most desired man in all of Spain.

  
'Mad Men' Seasons 1 and 2 on DVD and Blu-ray

Draper uses the opposite sex's affinity for him to live the life of a regular cocksman, wantonly cheating on his wife with a cadre of women: beatnick painters, department store heiresses, managers of comedians with weird eyebrows, his daughter's grade school teacher.  A sort of James Bond without the Walther PPK, only far more prone to actually caring about the women he beds than the thorn in SPECTRE's side.  Conversely, Guardiola is happily married, preferring to use his je ne sais quoi only to poke lightly at his players, saying about Isaac Cuenca, "physically speaking, he might not be popular with the ladies".

* * *

Major League Baseball has a minor league system supplemented by college baseball for the development of its players.  The National Basketball Association has the National Basketball Developmental League, a half-hearted façade constructed to obscure the league's utter reliance on college basketball to both reduce player development costs and limit the number of young players in the available player pool.  The National Football League doesn't even pretend to care about development, with teams only able to draft players once they are three years removed from their high school graduating classes after, presumably, playing college football.

The football played outside of America does things differently: teams are free to establish a sort of boarding school for players in their teens or even younger, educating the youngsters on the pitch instead of relying upon the traditional school or athletic club system to handle their sporting development.  As the players age and develop, they either advance up the ladder of youth teams each club has, "transfer" to another club's developmental system or, unfortunately, give up on the dream of being a professional footballer.  It's a hyper-competitive system, but it's a system that nevertheless can generate great loyalty within a homegrown player, to say nothing of bettering the lives of children, young adults and their families.

And, with their La Masia academy, no football club in the world does development better than Barcelona.  In the finals of their recent Champions League-winning campaigns in 08-09 and 10-11, both Barça squads featured seven homegrown players in their starting-elevens with an eighth coming on as a substitute.  In fact, so dominant is the Barça brand of football -- a total football, tiki-taka approach defined by short passes, free-flowing movement from all outfield players and keeping possession so much that it's also a premiere defensive tactic -- that seven of Spain's 2010 World Cup-winning roster were graduates of La Masia: six started in the final, one of them -- Andrés Iniesta -- scored the winning goal and the seventh -- Cesc Fàbregas -- came off the bench to assist the decider.  It's almost after the fact to note that the three finalists for the 2010 FIFA Ballon d'Or, football's "World Player of the Year" award, were all La Masia graduates and current Barça players: Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and, the winner, Lionel Messi.

It made sense, then, that Guardiola's first job as a manager was for Barcelona B, the reserve team for Barça, the highest level in La Masia's hierarchy.  Who better to polish the stones forged by years of the club's philosophy than perhaps the best individual example of it?

When Guardiola took over Barça B for the 07-08 season, the team was in turmoil, having just been relegated to the fourth division of Spanish football -- the highest a reserve team can play is one level below their club's first team -- meaning the developing young players would not be facing the best competition possible, a potential stunt to their growth.  As shrewd as Guardiola was on the pitch, so too was he with the custodial duties of a manager: he convinced then-Barça president Joan Laporta to upgrade the reserve side's training facilities, and his restructuring of the team's core into "pearls" -- players aged under twenty-one -- and "backbones" -- players from twenty-one to twenty-six allowed only two years with the team to ensure continued room in the squad for younger players -- gave the team better class on the pitch and better in-house competition for playing time.  At the close of his first season, Barça B earned a promotion back to the third level of Spanish football, and with Barça's first team then having a managerial vacancy, Guardiola was deservedly promoted to the side he played an integral role for in the winning of four consecutive La Liga crowns in the early 90s.

* * * 

The finale of Mad Men's third season saw Draper, after learning about yet another pending sale of his firm that attempted to yet again make him just another guy in a suit at another advertising shop, orchestrate his and his fellow partners' firing to set up a new agency with Layne Price, the complicit-in-scheming British caretaker of his firm.  Draper was now exploring two frontiers: a new, eager-to-rise company in Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price, and life after marriage, having been freshly divorced.

The world of the single life wasn't all that different for Draper, but the role as leader of an upstart/underdog was alien to him.  Yes, Draper had finagled his way from selling cars and women's dresses to writing advertising copy, but the running of a new company on tenuous footing with employees handpicked for their abilities and loyalty where he was the focal point?  To say there were only mere stumbling blocks would be akin to peeing on someone's leg and telling them it's raining:

Their biggest client, Lucky Strike Cigarettes, unceremoniously sacked them, as too-big-to-fail of an account they had.

A defense contractor, North American Aviation, had to be dumped by junior-partner Peter Campbell Peter Dyckman Campbell to protect a secret of Draper's.

Cash flow dried up to the point of having to turn off the office heat in the death of winter.

A secretary died, albeit with a delightfully hysterical aftermath.

'Mad Men' Seasons 3 and 4 on DVD and Blu-ray

Things got to the point where potential customers, while enamored with Draper's work, would turn his services down out of fear the new agency would be out of business within half a year's time.  It was a mettle-tester, with Draper being constantly reminded by those close to him that he had plenty of outs, that even if the company went under, he'd catch on somewhere else.

Draper flatly rejected any notion of giving up.  After losing the Lucky Strike account, Draper purchased a full-page ad in the New York Times declaring he would never be party to selling as harmful of a product again.  After North American Aviation snowballed into a lack of cash flow, Draper covered Campbell's capital injection himself, not wanting to further burden the already financially-stretched husband of a wife of child.  With the vultures circling, a clever gambit made in pursuit of Honda made a similarly cash-strapped -- and obsessed with -- opponent of Draper outspend his means in a losing effort.

Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price ends Season 4 on a high note: earning new business from Topaz, a pantyhose company, brought in by Draper's prized and personally-groomed pupil, Peggy Olson.

* * *

The ink and electrons dedicated to praising Barça under Guardiola are immense in both number and suppliers, but to solely credit Guardiola with the entirety of their success and style would be disingenuous: his system is one obviously inspired and derived from Johan Cruyff's teachings, and Guardiola inherited the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, three of the best players of the current era.  But these acknowledgements do not mean Barça is without Guardiola's brand or influence.

Immediately upon becoming manager before the 08-09 season, Guardiola sought to offload diminishing stars  and promote to the first-team pearls from Barça B who helped secure the reserve-squad a promotion just the season aft. Gone was the former repeat FIFA World Player of the Year Ronaldinho and his hypnotizing but burdensome flair, in for fourteen matches was Pedro Rodriguez and his stable, grounded and unrelenting efforts from the wings.  Out went the able-but-aging Deco, replaced by Sergio Busquets, a not-so-strong, not-so-fast, not-so-physically-gifted but technically and tactically sound holding midfielder.  In the transfer market, Guardiola bought back La Masia-graduate Gerard Piqué from Manchester United for five million pounds, a sum which turned out to be an enormous steal for the Catalan outfit.  Also brought in, notably, were Dani Alves and Seydou Keita, players with the ability and flexibility to man any number of positions, a flexibility demanded by Guardiola's imagining of total football.

With Guardiola's playing career for Barça beginning with a La Liga championship, it was fitting and, perhaps, poetic that his first year as manager saw another ascendancy atop the domestic table for the Blaugranas.  An unnerving opening game loss against newly-promoted Numancia was quickly forgotten as Guardiola's men stormed to first place by way of going unbeaten for over twenty matches, capturing first-place of La Liga after the ninth round of matches and never relinquishing their lead thereafter.  While the never-bested run was an assured delight for culés everywhere, the crowning achievement of Barça's first domestic campaign under Guardiola was, most assuredly, their thrashing of always, now and forever archrival Real Madrid, in Madrid, in early-May's El Clásico.  The 2-6 scoreline left the remainder of La Liga's season void of title drama.


The conclusion of the 08-09 campaign also saw Guardiola's managerial exploits outpace those from his playing career: where it took Guardiola two seasons to win European glory wearing a uniform, it only took one for Barça at his helm to win the Champions League, defeating Manchester United 2-0 in Rome, with seven homegrown players starting, an emphatic, seemingly unapproachable arrival for a manager all of thirty-eight years old.

Barça's defeat of Manchester United had Guardiola without Alves for his back-four, and instead of merely slotting in a positional backup, Guardiola moved defensive stalwart Carles Puyol from centre-back out to Alves' position on the right.  To fill in the resultant gap in the centre of defense, Guardiola deputized Yaya Touré, a deep-lying midfielder, to the centre of defense, leaving room for Busquets to start in midfield. Which is all to say that, not ten years after the game removed him from viability at the highest levels, Guardiola used two players of his kind in a final with the audience of a Super Bowl.  If not another arrival altogether, it was certainly a foretelling of things to come.

* * *

          INT. CONFERENCE ROOM, STERLING-COOPER OFFICES -- DAY

          Draper stands at the head of the table- before him from Kodak
          is a new SLIDE PROJECTOR which the company hopes to call 'The
          Wheel'.  Draper gives his marketing pitch to TWO KODAK
          EXECUTIVES-

                              DON DRAPER
                    Well, technology is a glittering
                    lure.  But- there is a rare
                    occasion when the public can be
                    engaged on a level beyond flash.
                    They have a sentimental bond with
                    the product.  My first job, I was
                    in house at a fur company- this old
                    pro copywriter, a Greek named
                    Teddy.  Teddy told me the most
                    important idea in advertising is
                    'new'.  Creates an itch.  You
                    simply put your product in there as
                    a kind of calamine lotion.  But he
                    also talked about a deeper bond
                    with the product.  Nostalgia.  It's
                    delicate.  But potent.  Sweetheart?

          Draper's last word is gesture enough for the secretary in
          the corner to turn off the lights.  Draper flips on the
          slide projector-

          The slides shown are personal- of him, his children, his
          wife.  Laughing and smiling, playing and caring.  He speaks
          over the images as he goes slide-by-slide-

                              DON DRAPER
                    Teddy told me that in Greek,
                    nostalgia literally means 'the pain
                    from an old wound'.  It's a twinge
                    in your heart, far more powerful
                    than memory alone.  This device
                    isn't a spaceship.  It's a time
                    machine.  It goes backwards,
                    forwards.  It takes us to a place
                    where we ache to go again.  It's
                    not called 'The Wheel'.  It's
                    called 'The Carousel'.  It lets us
                    travel the way a child travels.
                    Around and around and back home
                    again.  To a place where we know we
                    are loved.

          The final slide- Don with his wife, her lifted in his arms,
          on their wedding day.

It's not that Draper is smooth under pressure, though he certainly is.  It's not that Draper is a closer.  It's not that each hair on Draper's head looks the result of effortless but immaculate placement.  It's that Draper gives a damn.  It's that Draper, to his core, believes his way of doing things is the right way.  That profit isn't a goal but a side-effect of a proper process.  That when he's earnest it's not pretension but honesty.  That when he's earnest he speaks with a conviction normally reserved for gods, kings or mathematical proofs.  That's what makes Draper so damn good.

And he for damn sure is not alone.

          INT. PRESS ROOM, ESTADIO SANTIAGO BERNABéU -- NIGHT


          The eve of the first leg of the 2010-11 Champions League 
          semi-final between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

          After being prodded in the media throughout the lead-up by
          Madrid manager José Mourinho, after being told he should
          feel embarrassed for his Champions League trophy, after
          having his words twisted by the Madrid media, Guardiola
          finally addresses the Mourinho-made media maelstrom-

                              PEP GUARDIOLA
                    Tomorrow, we'll face each other on
                    the pitch at 20.45.  Off the field,
                    here, he has already won.  He has
                    won through the entire season and
                    he will keep winning in the
                    future.  I'll give him his personal
                    Champions League title for this.
                    Just take it home and enjoy it.  In
                    this press room, he is the fucking
                    boss.  The fucking master.  He
                    knows more of it than any other.  I
                    do not even want to compete with
                    him on this.  I just want to remind
                    you that we have been together in
                    this for about four years now.  He
                    knows me and I know him.  But if he
                    wants to consider my supposed
                    statements after the Cup final, the
                    ones that were highlighted by the
                    press from Madrid, friends of
                    Florentino Perez, and listen to
                    them rather than me or my
                    statements directly, he can do it.
                    He can keep reading Alberto's
                    words, or keep reading the friends
                    of Florentino Perez, the ones from
                    the central lechera that you all
                    know perfectly well here in
                    Madrid.  He can decide whatever he
                    wants regarding who he is listening
                    to.  I will not justify myself or
                    what I said.

          LATER, addressing Mourinho's words about Madrid having
          players sent off-

                              PEP GUARDIOLA
                    Maybe Madrid will finish with ten
                    men, but we will start with
                    eleven.  I'm confident with the
                    players we have.  We are coming
                    here proud to defend our style of
                    play, with twelve homegrown
                    players and set to face a team in
                    the semi-finals who have nine
                    European Cups and seven great
                    forwards.

          LATER-

                              PEP GUARDIOLA
                    Here at Barça, we make a lot of
                    mistakes.  A lot.  We try to do our
                    best to compete.  But we try to
                    compete by playing good football.
                    He knows that because we helped him
                    to become the coach he is now.

          LATER, on the decisions of referees-

                              PEP GUARDIOLA
                    I had just said that the referee
                    was extremely focused and
                    attentive, because that offside [a
                    disallowed goal from Pedro] was
                    called over one or two
                    centimetres.  In plays like that,
                    sometimes history has shown us that
                    a ball like that can be called
                    right or wrong.  The reflection I
                    make is that sometimes we judge
                    victory and defeat over small
                    things.

          INT. LOBBY, HOTEL -- LATER

          Guardiola returns to the team's hotel from the press
          conference.  He strides through the lobby...

          ...where his team has assembled, waiting for him.  They greet
          Guardiola with A STANDING OVATION.


* * *

On the pitch, a normal centre-forward or striker, a number-9, has a few different objectives: score goals, occupy the opposition's centre-backs, cut-in behind the defense to receive a perfectly threaded pass, get a head on the end of crosses, "hold-up" play with their back to goal to keep possession and allow support to arrive.  This player is partly-or-entirely an amalgamation of different attributes: physically imposing enough to battle with strong defenders, fleet of foot enough to create a blink of space when needed, clinical enough of a finisher to make the most of goal-scoring opportunities, fast or quick enough to punish a defensive cheating up the field by running behind them.  Historically, this player is either one of the tallest players, or one of the strongest players, or both.

Lionel Messi is five-feet-six-inches (1.69 m) tall.  He's, maybe, 150 pounds (68 kg).  Tall, he is not.  Physically imposing, he is not.  What he is, though, is a FIFA Ballon d'Or finalist for 2011, an award that, if he were to win it, would mark the third year in a row he's been named World Player of the Year.  And in the 08-09 Champions League Final, a game that featured Barça playing an additional midfielder in defense, Guardiola also moved Lionel Messi inside from his usual position as a right-winger to centre-forward.

Barça's Preferred Lineup from 2010-11
In theory, it's a silly idea.  Messi isn't strong enough to battle either with centre-backs or through traffic in the penalty area, and he certainly isn't tall enough to be anything approaching a consistent target man.  Guardiola, however, didn't employ him as a traditional number-9.  He employed Messi as a false-9.  Instead of holding up play at or outside the box with the ball, Messi would drop deep, often times to midfield, to pick up possession or assist his midfielders in the build up of an attack.  Instead of flying after cross after cross after cross, Messi sought space between United's defensive and midfield lines, looking to pull them out of shape or begin one of his trademark mazy-slaloms through defense.  Messi's role caught United with their pants down, completely unaware of any reasonable method to deal with him.

It was, simply, a masterstroke from Guardiola, and what was an alternate role for the diminutive Argentine became his standard, a role that has seen Messi go from runner-up World Player of the Year to a potential three-in-a-row winner.

Messi continued his evolution into a false-9 through the 10-11 season, another Champions League winning campaign, and the 4-3-3 formation Guardiola utilized was exceptionally fluid.  Wingers David Villa and the now-established Pedro cut-in from the sides so often they routinely switched flanks.  Messi dropping into midfield ensured Barça numbers superiority in the centre of the pitch, leading them to averaging well over sixty percent of possession in all games played.  The also-established Busquets' ability to drop into defense allowed Alves to make marauding runs down the right flank and Eric Abidal to provide support down the left.  It was total football.

The current campaign, however, has seen an accelerated tactical evolution from Guardiola, with an impetus perhaps as fascinating as the change itself.


* * *

          INT. CONFERENCE ROOM, STERLING-COOPER-DRAPER-PRICE OFFICES
          -- DAY

          Draper unveils a two-piece swimsuit ad to Jansen executives
          JIM HARTSDALE and BOB FINLEY, with Sterling and PETE
          CAMPBELL also in attendence.

          THE AD- a woman, alone on a beach, in a two-piece, only her
          top is covered by a rectangular box which reads-

                              DON DRAPER
                    So well built, we can't show you
                    the second floor.

          An unsure silence.

                              BOB FINLEY
                    I think that's a little suggestive.

                              DON DRAPER
                    Good, that's what I was going for.
                    A wink, but it's not a leer.

                              BOB FINLEY
                    We don't want a wink.  I think I
                    explained, our product is for
                    modest people.

                              DON DRAPER
                    Modest people want to be
                    stimulated, too.  This draws them
                    in in a way that will make your
                    competitors seem crude and
                    obvious.  Plus, they'll be dying to
                    see the suit.

                              JIM HARTSDALE
                    And they'll be dying to see the
                    girl.

                              BOB FINLEY
                    And for all we know she's not even
                    wearing a top.

                              DON DRAPER
                    You'll get them into the store.
                    Isn't that the point?

                              BOB FINLEY
                    It's not wholesome.  It's not-

          Frustrated, Draper rolls his eyes with his entire body.

                              BOB FINLEY
                    Did I tell you we're a family
                    company?

                              DON DRAPER
                    I think I know what you're looking
                    for.  A couple of women bouncing a
                    beach ball, a little girl in front
                    of them building a sand castle.

          Jim and Bob look at each other.

                              DON DRAPER
                    Your competitors are going to keep
                    killing you because you're too
                    scared of the skin that your
                    two-piece was designed to show off.

                              BOB FINLEY
                    Well... it's somehow dirtier not
                    seeing anything.

                              DON DRAPER
                    You need to decide what kind of
                    company you want to be.
                    Comfortable and dead or risky and
                    possibly rich.

                              JIM HARTSDALE
                    All I know is we don't want that.

                              DON DRAPER
                    Well, gentlemen, you were wondering
                    what a creative agency looks like?
                    There you have it.  Hope you
                    enjoyed looking in the window.

          Draper storms out.

                              ROGER STERLING
                    Give me a minute.

          Sterling follows him...

          OUTSIDE

                              ROGER STERLING
                    Where are you going?

          Sterling grabs Draper by the arm-

                              ROGER STERLING
                    Control yourself.  And cool off.
                    And hopefully Campbell can talk
                    them into a hearing a few more
                    ideas in a week or so.

                              DON DRAPER
                         (incredulous)
                    What?   No.  That's not the point.

          Draper heads back...

          INSIDE

          ...and stays in the doorway.

                              DON DRAPER
                    Out.  Get out.

                              PETE CAMPBELL
                    Don-

                              JIM HARTSDALE
                    Excuse me?

                              DON DRAPER
                    Get your things and get out of my
                    office!  Now.  Come on, let's go.

          Draper SNAPS HIS FINGERS at them.

There's a word for that: bravado.


* * *

                              JOHAN CRUYFF
                    Playing with three defenders
                    depends on the quality to do it and
                    the courage to consider it.
                    Without Pep, it wouldn't be easy.

After buying La Masia graduate Cesc Fàbregas from Arsenal -- and promoting youngster Thiago Alcântara -- Guardiola had himself an embarrassment of homegrown riches in midfield, with speculation coming from all corners of the football world about how he would integrate Arsenal's former captain.  With Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets entrenched at their positions, would Guardiola use Fàbregas as a super-sub like Spain coach Vincente del Bosque did during the 2010 World Cup? Would Guardiola keep a strict rotation, keeping his injury-prone midfield on the freshest of legs possible?

Guardiola rejected that binary: he removed a defender to add Fàbregas to his midfield.

For a team already enjoying the spoils of an overwhelming amount of possession with a three-man-plus-Messi midfield, conventional thought would lead to an assumption of diminishing returns.  To a point, that's true: it's not as if averaging ninety-percent of possession is possible.  But the link-up play between Messi and Fàbregas has been not one hair short of prodigious: of Barça's fifty-one goals in La Liga, twenty-six have come from the pair.

Barça's Tactics vs Madrid
Fàbregas has played behind Messi as a false-10.  Where a false-9 is a centre-forward who drops deep, a false-10 would be a nominal playmaker who either exploits the space ahead left by the false-9 or attacks the net himself.  With the two moving as a tandem, complementing each other, defenders find themselves unsure who to mark, leaving space around them and doubt to slow them.

But then a funny thing happened in December against Real Madrid during the first El Clásico of the La Liga campaign: Messi played as a midfielder.  With Villa and Pedro out of form, Guardiola played the Chilean Alexis Sánchez, another offseason transfer, at centre-forward.  To accomodate Sánchez, Iniesta moved out wide to the left, Fàbregas went to the centre of midfield and Messi played so recessed he spent the majority of the time in deep-lying positions looking to go forward.  An early -- as in less than thirty seconds early -- blunder from Victor Valdes gifted Madrid a 1-0 lead, but Barça would hold Madrid scoreless the rest of the way, ultimately defeating Los Blancos 1-3.

It's not enough to say Guardiola, against Barça's most heated of rivals, had five passing midfielders in his starting lineup, all of whom have admitted to being inspired by Guardiola during his playing days for Barça.  It's not enough to say Guardiola, a decade removed from having his deep-lying, passing role eradicated from the game, started five passing midfielders.  What must be said is Guardiola dictated the evolution of Lionel Messi, determinating him from being one of the most dangerous wingers in the game to being one of the most dangerous players of any era, as complete of a midfielder as he is a centre-forward as he is a right-winger.

Guardiola even snapped his fingers at Madrid: up two goals, on the road, when any other coach alive would've brought on a midfielder for Sánchez for their first substitution in an attempt to add defensive stability, Guardiola brought Seydou Keita on for Fàbregas.  The football equivalent of a matador flashing his teeth at a charging bull.

Light: Passing, Centre-Midfielders
And the evolution didn't stop there.  The FIFA Club World Cup final saw six passing midfielders start for Guardiola.  And, even yet, there's the capacity to put even more passing midfielders on the pitch:

Busquets and Javier Mascherano, holding midfielders by trade, both can and do play in the back-line.  So adept is Mascherano at this that his primary role for Barça is now removed from playing in midfield.  The two starting in the back-line would bring Eric Abidal and Carles Puyol to the bench.

As a result of the back-line shuffling, Seydou Keita would take Busquets place in midfield, a role he's played countless times for Barça under Guardiola.

With Thiago playing wide and Iniesta in the centre of mid-field, Fàbregas, as he's done for Spain and Barça, can play ahead of Messi, or the prolific tandem can switch.

This arrangement lets Barça field eight passing midfielders, and the positions of each are all positions they've played in this season.  Moreover, given Gerard Piqué's ability with the ball at his feet and Daniel Alves being able to play anywhere down the right flank and his being more than capable both offensively and defensively, it is not flagrantly wrong to suggest Guardiola could field a side with nothing but ten midfielders as his outfield players.

* * *

Almost eleven years later after football threw him aside with nary in the way of skill regression, Pep Guardiola finds himself with the last word.  By playing a hypnotic and romantic brand of football which accommodates players similar to himself, Guardiola has led his former team to towering heights, winning three consecutive La Liga championships and two of the last three Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup titles.  While a few contemporaries do exist who can match or exceed his trophy case, so rigid is his commitment to beautiful football and his methodology that his only true, encompassing peer is from the world of fiction.  His truth isn't stranger than fiction.

It's worth aspiring to.

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SPECIAL THANKS:
Michael Cox of zonalmarking.net, for uploading the 2004 Gabriele Marcotti column and seemingly single-handedly bringing writing about football tactics to the internet.

Total Barça, for the Pep Guardiola press conference video.

@barcastuff, for the Johan Cruyff quote.



3 comments:

  1. Brilliant comparison. Why haven't you been hired by Grantland yet?

    ReplyDelete
  2. i never , ever in my life, read such article, i'm.......amazed

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for the nice words. I had a lot of fun writing this piece.

    ReplyDelete