A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time with
"I am not quick, I never had the stamina to run and run for 90 minutes like central midfielders have to do today," he told me. "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. Though I can pass the ball fairly well."
Indeed he could (and, probably still can). He could pass the ball with a regularity and an efficiency and an intelligence which placed him in a class of his own. He was the metronome on
It was stunning to watch:
With such a pedigree -- and with such a debt of gratitude towards Cruyff ("Without him, I would never have played top-flight football") -- it was inevitable that people would draw comparisons between Cruyff's Barça and the version put out by Guardiola, who is in his own rookie season as a manager.
The parallels are tempting.
Tempting, but wrong. This Barcelona side may share a few traits with Cruyff's Dream Team (the emphasis on passing and creativity, the uncanny ability to score lots of goals), but it's a different animal. Cruyff's creation existed in a certain space and time, this side is a modern expression of that ethos which, in itself, means it's different.
For starters, Cruyff's team had no genuine holding midfielder. Guardiola sat in front of the back four, but he was certainly not a defensive stopper (as he admits). This one serves up
The parallel between Xavi and Guardiola is also off the mark. Both are, of course, exceptional passers with an uncanny sense of time and space. But Xavi is a more complete player, a more modern expression of the central midfield playmaker.
That said, Guardiola has done an exceptional job thus far. As a rookie boss -- and one promoted in-house no less -- he had to defer to others in the transfer market and make do with what he was offered. It's an open secret that Barcelona told him that it could only bring in more strikers if it managed to move Henry and
The club failed on both counts -- not for lack of trying -- which meant that Guardiola was told he had to find a way to make it work with the two of them in the lineup, despite the fact that both were coming off lackluster seasons. Henry's desire had been questioned, Eto'o was -- allegedly -- permanently on the verge of picking up another career-threatening injury.
As it happened, both have done their part (in fact, Eto'o's scoring pace is so impressive you have to wonder what the doom-and-gloomers were smoking when they wrote him off), as has Messi. Promoting Busquets as the defensive stopper was a masterstroke, as it freed up Xavi to do more offensively and allowed newly arrived
It's still a work in progress, of course, and questions remain. What happens if Eto'o's bum knee acts up again? How does
There is no question that this team is not the finished product. But it's equally true that Guardiola has given Barça a clear identity and framework within which to grow. And what is most impressive is that he has managed to do it while respecting his footballing heritage