The Greatest Teams in Football History Week Seven: Barcelona (2008-2012)

This is the sixth in a series of ten articles, released weekly, counting down the ten greatest teams in the history of football. The teams were selected based on the trophies they won, the cultures they created, and the impact they had on the game of football.

The Countdown:

10. Liverpool (‘75-’84)

9. Bayern Munich (‘67-’76)

8. France (‘98-’00)

7. Manchester United (‘95-01)

6. Real Madrid (‘56-’60)

5. Spain (2008-2012)

FC Barcelona 2008-2012

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After announcing his decision to leave the club in April of 2012, Pep Guardiola said, “Four years at Barcelona is like an eternity.” 

In those four years, Pep Guardiola and his Barcelona side accomplished what many coaches and players could not achieve in three lifetimes. This Barcelona side are the greatest team of the 21st century. They played the most beautiful football. They had the best players. In future decades, fans of the game will look back at this side with sadness, wishing they could see them play just one more time.

When Pep Guardiola took control of Barcelona in 2008 after a season managing the B team, few would have predicted the dominance he was primed to unleash. His pedigree, however, suggests otherwise. 

Stressing the importance of Barcelona’s heritage on his success as a manager, Guardiola said, "I've said many times that we're fortunate to have the legacy of Johan Cruyff and Charlie Rexach. They were the fathers, and we've followed them." 

And Pep is rarely wrong. 

The story of Barcelona is the story of Johan Cruyff. This was the man who defined “total-football” as a player in the Netherlands in the early ‘70s. The man who imported this philosophy to Catalonia, turning Barcelona into a high-pressing, possession dominating team in the early ‘90s. The man who insisted – no demanded – a complete transformation of Barcelona’s youth system into a farmhouse that produces men of talent, discipline, and humility – the creation of La Masia. 

Though Guardiola and Cruyff will forever be linked by their connections to Barcelona and to the dominance they oversaw, their history began at Barcelona’s “Mini” stadium – used by their youth teams – when Guardiola was merely thirteen-years-old. 

Cruyff and Guardiola

Cruyff and Guardiola

Cruyff, who had just arrived at the club as manager, made a surprise appearance at a youth friendly. Wandering into the dug-out before half-time, Cruyff asked his second-in-command Charlie Rexach the identity of a small kid playing on the right side of Barcelona’s midfield. Rexach responded, “Guardiola – good lad.”

Never one to shy away from a tactical change, Cruyff told Rexach to move the young player into the center of midfield to act as a pivot. The position, one rarely used in professional matches, was utterly alien to the young lad. Executing Rexach’s instructions with the determination and technical skill expected of a La Masia product, Guardiola dazzled his Dutch manager. Years later, in 1990, Cruyff promoted Guardiola to the first team, playing the young Spaniard as a pivot. With Guardiola setting the pace of his team in midfield, Cruyff created a Barcelona side that has since been heralded as the “dream team.”  

In 2008, Barcelona announced that Pep Guardiola would be promoted to manage the first team following the departure of Frank Rijkaard. In the next four years, Barcelona would win fourteen of the nineteen competitions they entered. Like a wizard predicting the future, Guardiola told the Barcelona supporters in his very first press conference, “fasten your seatbelts, you’re going to enjoy this ride.” As always, Guardiola’s prediction came true. 

Barcelona won numerous trophies including three La Ligas, two Copa Del Reys, and, most notably, two Champions Leagues. 

Tactically, Guardiola implemented a system that reflected the “total football” he learned under Johan Cruyff. A similar method of play to Sacchi’s Milan and the Ajax and Dutch National Team in which Cruyff played, Barcelona relied on retaining possession high up the field and focused on breaking down their opponents with fast, intricate passing moves. 

Guardiola stressed attacking where previous managers fretted with defensive stability. For context, Luis Aragones and Vincente Del Bosque implemented a “tiki-taka” style of play in the Spanish national team from ‘08-’10. Using many Barcelona players in their squad, Spain dominated possession. The national team, however, won most of their games by a single goal. Relying on their defense to prevent the opposition from scoring, the Spaniards suffocated their opponents, waiting to pounce on the slightest mistake. 

Guardiola, however, was not content to win by slight margins. He was out for total destruction. 

Though his squad was riddled with tireless technicians and clinical finishers, Guardiola relied on three La Masia products to implement his style. 

Andres Iniesta

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Reserved, intelligent, masterful. At Barcelona, no figure embodied the soul of the club quite like Andres Iniesta. A tactical engine, Iniesta made his home next to Xavi in Barcelona’s midfield. In a style of football that demands perfection at every position, Iniesta defined the standard. Iniesta acted with dynamic vision and intelligence, continually scanning the pitch for the opposition's mistakes.

One of his essential qualities was his ability to establish Barcelona’s hold on any match in which he was involved. Always mobile, Iniesta guaranteed security. He rarely lost the ball as he combined with Busquets and Xavi to move the ball up the pitch. 

Also, just as Iniesta displayed his clutch gene against the Netherlands in 2010, the Spaniard continually rescued his Barcelona teammates from defeat.

His most notable moment of brilliance came in the ’08-’09 Champions League. Down 1-0 in the second leg of the semi-final and facing Guus Hiddink’s defensively impenetrable Chelsea, Barcelona struggled for chances. John Terry, Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, Michael Ballack, and Frank Lampard refused to let “tiki-taka” invade their goal for ninety minutes. With two minutes remaining in added time, however, Barcelona found themselves with one final chance. Messi collected a John Terry defensive header just inside the Chelsea box, dribbled towards the penalty spot and rolled the ball back to Iniesta. Without hesitation, Iniesta sprung onto the ball, spanking the ball off of the outside of his right foot and beyond the fully extended Cech. 

Iniesta tore off his bright yellow away kit and slid into the corner flag. On the sidelines, Guardiola nearly tore off his own shirt but instead sprinted down the entire length of the Chelsea half towards his celebrating players. 

With a single strike, Iniesta broke tens of thousands of Chelsea hearts and sent Barcelona through to the final. In a moment where “total-football” faltered, Iniesta’s brilliance carried Barcelona over the line. 

Xavi Hernandez

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Whereas Guardiola played pivot for Cruyff, Xavi orchestrated his teammates for Guardiola. Guardiola used Xavi as his ambassador on the field, trusting him to corral the team and direct them toward greatness. 

Though Xavi was instrumental for Guardiola’s philosophy, his vital role came in the dressing room. As Captain, Xavi led his teammates to adopt the correct attitude of respect and concentration. Under his leadership, younger players like Messi and Iniesta thrived – never placing their ego above the team. 

Guardiola admired Xavi’s critical role in his squad, saying, “"Xavi will be a tough player to replace. Not just because of what he contributes on the park and how reliable he is, but also because of the respect he commands in the dressing room."

Do not, however, think Xavi will be remembered merely for captaining the squad. Xavi will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the greatest midfielders of all time. Possessing an unparalleled intelligence, Xavi had a supernatural ability to read the game. 

In the halls of football glory, Xavi will go down as the greatest dictator and dominator football has ever seen. His brotherly understanding with Iniesta allowed Barcelona always to have the upper hand. With two geniuses playing side by side, there was no defense they could not unlock. 

Lionel Messi 

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Now regarded as the greatest player of all time, Lionel Messi was just a young wonderkid when Guardiola entered the Barcelona locker room in 2008. Though Messi’s potential was evident, Guardiola foresaw a method of sending Messi to the peak of world football at the age of 21. 

A few minutes into a match against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on May 2nd, 2009, Guardiola signaled to Eto’o and Messi. His instruction – the players were to swap position. Eto’o would take up position to the right of Messi who would act as a center forward or false nine.

In the film room the day before the match, Guardiola noticed a tendency for Real Madrid’s central defenders to sit extremely deep while their central midfielders pressed Barcelona’s Yaya Toure and Xavi. This tactic gouged large gaps between Madrid’s lines that were begging to be exploited.  

Moving into the center of midfield, Messi would be able to tear through Real Madrid, picking up steam as he barreled down on goal through acres of open space. 

The “Messi Zone”

The “Messi Zone”

Pep’s breakthrough was so profound, he picked up his phone and dialed Messi's number - it was 10pm the night before the match.  He said, “Leo, it's Pep. I've just seen something important. Really important. Why don't you come over. Now, please.”

Nicknaming Messi’s new position the “Messi zone,” Guardiola and his little Argentine developed a plan. Pep told him, "Tomorrow in Madrid I want you to start on the wing as usual, but the minute I give you a sign I want you to move away from the midfielders, and into the space, I just showed you. The minute Xavi or Andrés Iniesta break between the lines and give you the ball I want you to head straight for Casillas' goal."

The next morning, as the team began to arrive, Pep pulled Iniesta and Xavi to the side and gave them the details of the secret operation. 

Finally, kickoff arrived and, shortly into the game Pep gave his signal. Immediately, Real Madrid was overwhelmed. The strategy worked to perfection, resulting in Barcelona trouncing Real Madrid 6-2. Messi scored two goals himself, proving once again, that he was the future of football. 

It was his performance against Real Madrid that caused the game’s most legendary figure to anoint Messi with the highest praise. In an interview later that season, Diego Maradona told reporters, “I already know the player who will take my place in football, and his name is Lionel Messi.”

In all of their successes, none were sweeter than their victories in the Champions League in the ’08-’09 and ’10-’11 seasons. 

On May 27th, 2009, at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Barcelona dominated Manchester United. Executing the false nine formation which had obliterated Real Madrid earlier that month, Barcelona played the role of Boa Constrictor, overwhelming and suffocating the United players for 90 minutes. In the course of the match, there was nothing Sir Alex Ferguson or Cristiano Ronaldo could do to reverse their fate, Barcelona were going to win.

In the 10th minute, Samuel Eto’o struck first to put Barcelona ahead against the previous year’s champions. Receiving a threaded pass from Andres Iniesta, Eto’o dummied the ball past Vidic before poking the ball past an exasperated Van der Sar. 

For the rest of the match, Barcelona relentlessly attacked the United goal. Henry failed to convert a chance from two feet out, and Xavi struck the post from a free kick. In the 70th minute, however, Barcelona scored their second goal from their most likely scorer but in the most unlikely of ways. Xavi spun a perfectly weighted cross over the 6’3’’ Rio Ferdinand and onto the left side of Lionel Messi’s head. Messi kissed the ball with the slightest of touches, freezing time as he directed his shot towards the back post. 

Messi’s magisterial header.

Messi’s magisterial header.

Ten years after Alex Ferguson completed his own treble with victory over Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final, Pep Guardiola and his Barcelona machine had won a treble of their own. 

Guardiola celebrates the Champions League victory in Rome, 2009.

Guardiola celebrates the Champions League victory in Rome, 2009.

At the age of 38, Guardiola became the youngest manager in history to win the “big-eared” trophy. Barcelona would continue their dominance that season, winning a total of six trophies – the first team to ever accomplish such a feat. Not a bad start to Guardiola’s Barcelona revival. 

Though they were stifled by Jose Mourinho’s defensively impenetrable Inter Milan in the semi-finals of the Champions League the following season, Barcelona were determined to reclaim Europe for themselves. 

In the semi-finals of the ’10-’11 Champions League, Guardiola once again matched up against Jose Mourinho. This time, however, Mourinho was the manager of Real Madrid. A rivalry on the touchline and on the field, both legs became instant classics. Though Jose Mourinho’s men got the best of Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey final weeks earlier – inflicting Pep’s first final loss as a manager – Guardiola was determined to shift momentum back to Catalonia. 

In the first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, Messi scored twice, sending Barcelona back home to defend a convincing lead. Though the reverse fixture proved a battle of conservative defenses stifling cagey offenses, Barcelona escaped with a 1-1 draw. They were heading back to the final. 

Just as they had met two years earlier, Guardiola and Ferguson met once again on the touchline of the Champions League Final. This time at Wembley, Guardiola wanted to prove to the world that his side was one of the best in history.

Barcelona at Wembley ‘11.

Barcelona at Wembley ‘11.

Following the match, Guardiola confessed that the victory in Rome two years earlier did not impress him: “In Italy, we played a ‘good’ game. But this was a better performance than the one we put in to beat United in Rome. Tonight, it was the way in which we won that made me most proud. That is the way we want to play football.” 

In what will go down in history as one of the most dominating performances witnessed in a Champions League final, Barcelona absolutely thrashed Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. 

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Barcelona delivered a complete performance throughout both halves, carving United apart with the intelligence, poise, and determination that built their identity. 

In the twenty-seventh minute, Xavi sent Pedro into the box with a magical flick off the outside of his right boot. Pedro collected the pass, gliding through the box and skipping the ball into the corner of the goal. Scoring the opening goal of a Champions League Final has never looked so easy. 

Though Wayne Rooney injected the game with an ounce of jeopardy, scoring ten minutes before half-time, Barcelona’s second goal was inevitable. As inevitable was the goal’s scorer. 

In the 54th minute, Messi decided it was time to stop playing around. Receiving a horizontal pass from Iniesta eight yards outside of the United box, Messi charged into the space between United’s midfield and defense, whipping a low shot past the once-again hopeless Van der Sar. After scoring with a heat-seeking missile of a left foot, Messi charged the Barcelona supporters, screaming like a rabid dog. His desire and the desire of his teammates for complete domination was on full display. 

The domination continued, once again as a result of Messi’s brilliance, in the 69th minute. Weaving in from the right flank, Messi made fools out of three United defenders. Though his pass to Busquets was deflected, the defensive midfielder collected the ball and delivered to David Villa. The Spanish striker, now waiting at the edge of the box – in the same position from which Messi scored his goal – took a touch and curled a shot into the upper right corner. Barcelona had achieved perfection.

Villa’s goal against United in the UCL final of ‘11.

Villa’s goal against United in the UCL final of ‘11.

In four years, Guardiola, Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi reestablished Barcelona as the greatest club in the world. Their style of play, the quality of their home-grown talent, and their relentless pursuit of victory cemented their place as arguably the greatest club team in the history of world football. 

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After the final whistle rung out through Wembley Arena, even Alex Ferguson could only sit back and applaud the Barcelona players. In his post-match press conference, Ferguson admitted, “They're the best in Europe, no question about that. In my time as a manager, I would say they're the best team we've faced. No one has given us a hiding like that.”