In May of 1988, Johan Cruyff was announced as Barcelona coach, amidst a terrible time in the history of the club, having won just a single title in 14 years. However, fast forward eight years and the club had now won 11 trophies.
The team or the “dream team” that Cruyff built was built on two aspects of the club. Firstly it was the style or the way the team conducted itself on the pitch. Secondly it was the philosophy and how the club behaved off it.
In recent Barcelona have not played the same kind of football as it did during Pep Guardiola’s era which was the most decorated period in its history, neither on the pitch or off it.
However, two clubs are continuing the tradition of Barcelona and they are Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli and Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham and it is their style and philosophy that Barcelona should look to for inspiration.
Napoli may not won much in the last couple of years but what makes them great is the way they play on the pitch. Their style is almost reminiscent of Pep’s well-drilled Barca side that conquered all before them.
Like Barca, they line up in a 4-3-3 formation which transitions into a 4-5-1 in defence. They play an extremely high defensive line that complements their “hungry” press that wins them possession almost as soon as they lose it.
Their sweeper keeper in Pepe Reina is similar to the role Victor Valdes played at Barca where special significance was placed on the ability of the goalkeeper to build from the back while making incisive passes under pressure.
Their defensive powerhouse in Kalidou Koulibaly is similar to the role Carles Puyol played at Barcelona, making sure that shape was maintained and a group of technical gifted midfielders such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets at Barca and Amadou Diawara, Allan and Marek Hamšík at Napoli are supported by the strength of their centre back.
Raúl Albiol is similar to Gerard Piqué in terms of being the distributing centre-back in the system and one of the cogs in the machine, keeping the game flowing.
Napoli’s attacking trident of Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens and Jose Callejón is one that is admirable to say the least. Neither are particularly strong or physically intimidating but what they do have is an extremely high footballing IQ.
Even after losing their primary goal-scoring threat in Gonzalo Higuaín, just as when Barca let go of Ronaldinho, they have not lost their touch and their unwavering chemistry is surpassed by their intelligence in the interchanging of positions.
Their comparison lies in the style of Lionel Messi, Pedro and David Villa and also an earlier version of the trident of Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o.
Last season, Sarri’s Napoli scored over two goals per game and played an extremely attractive style of football, marginally losing out on the title to Juventus.
However the primary similarity between Pep’s Barca and Sarri’s Napoli is the significance placed on possession. Napoli look to form triangular options throughout the 90 minutes and count on the playmaking ability of their midfielders to pounce on the opportunity to make an incisive pass whenever possible.
This is similar to Xavi and Iniesta’s ability to keep possession and look for triangles but breaking through a defence when one of the forwards cut behind the opposition’s defensive line.
Napoli’s style of possession is, however, more similar to early Pep’s style of passing faster and building faster than they did later on during his tenure. It is however more effective as Napoli can compete with the contemporary faster pace of football than the “Tiki Taka” era. Johan Cruyff once famously said “I much prefer to win 5-4 than 1-0.” If one team personifies that statement now, it’s the new Napoli and if Barcelona should look to get their style back, they should look here.
Pochettino’s Spurs are similar to Napoli in the sense that they too lack the silverware to back up their modern re-incarnation but the true significance of this young-blooded team lies in the way their management and the club as a whole adheres to a philosophy similar to the one instilled in Barcelona’s enriched history.
When Pochettino took over Spurs in 2014 replacing Tim Sherwood, the first decision he made was to build around the youth. He developed raw, often-loaned, talents such as Harry Kane and high potential players like Christian Eriksen and gave them more chances in the first team.
Meanwhile, players such as Eric Dier and Dele Alli were bought to complement the youth set-up that the team decided to focus on which also helped attract younger players to the academy.
Moreover another similarity between Pep’s Barca and modern Spurs is the way the entire club, including the board and all tiers of management believe in the philosophy of the manager.
Pochettino’s belief is that in order to play in a responsible manner on the pitch, the players have to adhere to a system and the best way to inculcate that system into the fabric of the club is to introduce it through the youth system.
When Pep promoted through Barca B players such as Busquets and Pedro, they followed the same principles taught at the club but most of all believed in Pep’s ideas.
Meanwhile, Tottenham have also been quick to ditch players who didn’t fit the system were let go, such as Michael Dawson, Emmanuel Adebayor and Sandro backing Pochettino’s philosophy just as Ronaldinho, Deco and Gianluca Zambrotta were let go by Pep with complete backing from the management in all decisions off the pitch.
Another philosophy that has inspired Spurs to rejuvenate themselves is the bench itself. Most contemporary clubs believe that a strong bench is what keeps a good team afloat over the season and another off the pitch decision that Pochettino took was to buy players such as Victor Wanyama, Son Heung-min and Ben Davies and fill the reserve squad with the youth academy products such as Josh Onomah (currently on loan at Aston Villa).
It is this philosophy that Pep brought through when he was in charge at Barca by filling the bench with a variety of players such as Javier Mascherano and Yaya Toure. However the key difference between most other clubs and these clubs is most clubs opt for two different squads and play both depending on the difficulty and the status of the match in question.
Spurs and Barca, however, believe in rotation which keeps most players happy, in-form and makes the best of the players they have. Spurs’ hard stance ont the sale of players is also admirable where a player is only sold when there is a replacement ready and the club is willing to do so. This is something that Joan Laporta firmly recognized as a priority and this helped create a glorious era in Barca football.
Both Napoli and Spurs have a long way to go until they reach the status of being in the better half of the discussion of elite clubs in Europe but it is their style and philosophy that is turning heads and their modern rejuvenations are something the current Barcelona management at all levels can appreciate and even try to imitate.