It wouldn’t be a mischaracterisation if one was to term the period from 2010 to 2019 as the decade of Pep Guardiola. The impact the Catalan has had in shaping the footballing philosophies in each of the three countries he has managed in — Spain, Germany and England — is quite unprecedented.
But what’s equally noteworthy is the many different counter systems that Guardiola’s style triggered, leading many to call this era a revolutionary one in terms of tactical nous. Ardent fans of Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone, and to an extent Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte, may object, but it’s undeniable that each of these managers’ primary responsibility has been to come up with strategies that could somehow thwart Guardiola.
This hasn’t just played out at the club level. Guardiola’s imprint on the national outfits of Spain and Germany, which swept the two Euros (2008 & 2012) and the two World Cups (2010 & 2014), between them is unmistakable. In contrast to this, the latter half of the decade saw Portugal and France play narrow, rigid football and triumph at the 2016 Euro and 2018 FIFA World Cups respectively.
In a sense, this decade saw a role reversal as compared to the 1970s, when Holland’s Johan Cruyff effected a radical change through ‘Total Football’ and deep-rooted it in the Barcelona psyche. The present era is one where methodologies are first formed at clubs and then allowed to percolate to the national teams.
In fact, the happenings in far away India — by all counts a footballing outback — is instructive of the kind of evangelical effect Guardiola has had. Ill-equipped both in terms of playing personnel and coaching acumen, clubs and players in India have still dreamt of replicating the ‘Guardiola Style.’
The two great Barcelona sides that Guardiola built between 2008 and 2012 is what set the tone for this decade. The first helped re-popularise possession play at a time when football had become very defensive. With it, the 48-year-old won the European Champions League in 2009. But the second was far superior collectively and added a manic pressing strategy to its possession-heavy approach and won the 2011 Champions League.
It was no co-incidence that the Barcelona midfield trio of Andres Iniesta, Sergi Busquets and Xavi Hernandez were pivotal in helping Spain end years of under-performance at the international level and win back-to-back Euros (2008 & 2012) and also clinch the 2010 World Cup.
Guardiola’s nemesis through this period was Mourinho, first as the Inter Milan boss and then as manager at Real Madrid. The Portuguese’s famous victory over the Catalan in the 2010 Champions League with just 19% possession and the wresting of the Spanish La Liga title in Guardiola’s last season (2011-12), courtesy some superb counter-attacking football, provided thrillingly discordant notes.
At about the same time the apex of world football slowly started shifting towards Germany. Where in Spain the high press and absolute control of the ball was prized, German clubs made breathless counter-pressing and rapid transitions from defence to attack paramount. Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund was the pioneer in what came to be known as Gegenpressing and the side duly secured back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2010-11 and 2011-12. And when Bayern Munich demolished Barcelona in the 2012-13 Champions League semifinal and set up an all-German summit clash against Dortmund, Spain’s status as the numero uno no longer held.
In the summer of 2013, Bayern Munich appointed Guardiola as manager to reclaim the domestic bragging rights that it had lost to Klopp’s Dortmund. Over the next three years, the Bavarian giants, despite not winning the Champions League, hit incredible highs under Guardiola in terms of tactical sophistication. The Spaniard, while remaining faithful to his legacy at Barcelona, adapted suitably to quell the counter-attacking threat that many clubs carried. The Germany squad which won the 2014 World Cup was the perfect amalgamation of these two styles.
After Germany, England started occupying centre-stage as Guardiola moved to Manchester City. It led to another confluence of football’s leading brains. In addition to Klopp and Mourinho, the presence of Mauricio Pochettino, Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte — all maverick coaches influenced by the principles of pressing and possession in varied forms — elevated standards.
So much so that at the 2018 World Cup, close to 45% of the players from the teams that had reached the last four (France, Croatia, England and Belgium) were from the Premier League. Even the tactics shy English national team has increasingly moulded itself on Guardiola’s Manchester City and Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur (before the Argentine’s sacking). In fact, in 2018-19 all four finalists in the Europa League and Champions League were English.
Two of the unlikeliest champions of the decade though were Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid (2013-14 La Liga) and Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City (2015-16 Premier League). Atletico was a throwback to the era when defensive organisation was placed on the highest pedestal. Leicester, meanwhile, showed England the mirror by employing the uncomplicated 4-4-2 formation to devastating effect. There was also Real Madrid, led spectacularly by Cristiano Ronaldo, that won four Champions League titles in five years (2014 to 2018), but unlikely to leave behind a lasting legacy.
Thus far the whole discussion has been limited to Europe. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise, for, South America, football’s other nerve-centre, has steadily declined. The exception was the Marcelo Bielsa-coached Chile, which captured the world’s imagination in the early part of the decade with its full throttle attacking football. In fact, Lionel Messi’s status as this decade’s best player and Brazilian Neymar long being considered among the three outstanding stars (Portugal’s Ronaldo being the other) have only masked this distressing truth.
What perhaps best represents the slide of South American football is the 7-1 humiliation of Brazil at the hands of Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinals. Four years later in Russia, there wasn’t a single South American representative in the last four. If they go without the trophy in Qatar 2022, they will have endured five consecutive tournaments sans a victory. For perspective, consider the fact that between the World War II and 2002 they never went more than one tournament winless.
Argentina, in particular, has felt the pain acutely. The past decade should have ideally seen its golden generation end a title drought that stretched back to the early 1990s. The likes of Messi and Carlos Tevez, as part of the junior teams, won two Olympic golds (2004 and 2008). Argentina also won five Under-20 World Cups (between 1995 and 2007), and helped by a battery of intelligent coaches it was expected to replicate this success at the highest levels.
But in a tragedy of sorts, the senior team has regressed beyond belief and the nation has been without a title for 26 years now. But for the appearance in the 2014 World Cup final, the Messi-led Argentina had no other notable success. As it steps into the next decade, Argentina has quite a task at hand, with its talent pool running dry and Messi in the last leg of his career. Brazil, in contrast, can boast of an incredible array of footballers, but its struggles lie in getting the prodigiously gifted but slightly individualistic kids to buy into a collective idea.
Even as football has evolved for the better on the pitch, there has been a strong feeling that the sport has lost a chunk of its moral capital. Racism abounds across nations and FIFA, the world governing body, seems perennially troubled by corruption scandals. The game is now awash with more money than ever before and has become a billion-dollar industry. That in itself may not be a bad thing, but for the dubious sources of that wealth and their concentration in the hands of a very few.
The richest clubs in the respective countries have invariably seen the most amount of success. Bayern Munich has won seven Bundesliga crowns in a row in Germany, Juventus eight Scudettos in a row in Italy and Paris Saint-Germain six of the last seven Ligue 1 titles in France. With this, success and failure have become more difficult to judge. It’s eminently possible for managers to perform poorly with an elite side and still win the title, and for managers to perform superbly with a lesser team and still get nowhere.
England is a slight outlier in this respect because the wealth is more equitably distributed. In the latest Forbes rankings for the wealthiest clubs, England has nine representatives in the top-20. That perhaps explains why four different sides have won the title in the last 10 years and even a mid-table club like Everton can dream by bringing in as legendary a manager as Carlo Ancelotti.
Thousands of miles away, the millennial population in India has consumed all of this and even more quite religiously. The generation that grew up watching the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona on television, associated more readily with English and Spanish teams than their local ones.
It was this sentiment that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) wanted to tap into when it launched the glitzy Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014 to shake up Indian football from the coma it had slipped into. ISL promised international appeal and drew stars like Robert Pires and Roberto Carlos, albeit when they were clearly over the hill. But fans flocked to the stadium to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars and match attendances soared in the first two years.
However, five years since its start, the jury is still out on whether the ISL has been a blessing or a curse. India tried to replicate a model similar to Japan’s in the early 1990s. Japan’s J League, like the ISL, was a top-down model, but unlike India it managed to intertwine the goals of the league with those of the national team. Both fed off each other and by 1998 Japan had qualified for the World Cup.
But in India, there still isn’t a properly structured league with the legacy I-League and upstart ISL jostling for space. A unified set-up is proposed to take shape only in 2023, leaving a generation of footballers and clubs with very little motivation to play. In 2016, protesting the lack of vision, Dempo FC, Salgaocar FC and Sporting Clube de Goa — three Goan clubs with rich history — even pulled out of the I-League and haven’t returned till date.
The nation has also lagged behind in improving the sport at the grassroots. Till it won the right to host the U-17 World Cup, youth development was non-existent; U-18, U-15 and U-13 national leagues have sprung up only in the recent past.
During this phase, the Indian national team’s form has been patchy at best. For around two-and-a-half years starting 2016, under Englishman Stephen Constantine, India shot up to World No. 96 from a lowly 173. Since then it has slipped back outside 100 and as the recent Qatar World Cup qualifiers have shown, the country has miles to go before it can even catch the best in Asia, let alone the world.