This autumn Frank Rijkaard’s stock has fallen more spectacularly than some Icelandic banks’. As Barcelona have smashed six past Atletico Madrid and Valladolid alike, commentators have been quick to praise new manager Josep Guardiola, and contrast his hands-on approach to Rijkaard’s laissez faire style. “It’s because they have a coach now” said Sid Lowe explaining Barca’s recent form on Football Weekly in between his editor’s ropey puns (after 19:30 here).
It is true that last season was shambolic for Barcelona with Ronaldinho disinterested, Messi often injured, Henry uninspired, and the team a disappointing third in La Liga. Their Dutch manager seemed powerless to change the club’s direction. That it was right to let him go is not in question; his legacy and coaching ability are.
Rijkaard struggled during his first months at the club in 2003 and, with Barcelona hovering perilously close to the relegation zone, he was close to being sacked. Barca turned it around spectacularly, though, eventually finishing second that season. This form continued into the next season with the Catalans winning La Liga, and in the 2005-06 season they achieved immortality, winning the Treble of the Champions League (for only the second time in their history), La Liga and Copa del Rey.
With a front four of Eto’o, Ronaldinho, Deco and Messi (or Giuly) Barcelona had an attack that could tear opponents to shreds. It showcased an awesome combination of speed, strength, technique and vision. In the Treble winning season they scored 80 goals, many of them of outstanding quality, in a 38 match campaign.
There was graft allied to this style though. Carlos Puyol may look like the Catalan Worzel Gummidge, and there is definitely something agricultural about his style of play, but his courage and defensive abilities are beyond debate. Together with the Brazilian holding midfielder Edmilson, he provided the graft and heart to accompany the front four’s terrific ability.
With this combination Barca won big matches in style. The peak of their 2005-06 domestic campaign was the 3-0 win at the Bernabeu over arch-rivals Real Madrid with Ronaldinho settling proceedings with a classic goal. And they did this abroad as well, winning a crucial Champions League match 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, showing both substance and style by playing attractive football.
In London two of England’s best teams couldn’t match Barcelona during this time. Jose Mournho’s Chelsea won trophies but few friends with their plodding style; Arsenal had the purists purring but left Highbury’s silver polishers underemployed. Barca, on the other hand, produced the ultimate combination of the beautiful and the effective, winning major trophies but in a style that inspired and entertained in equal measure. It was as close to footballing perfection as I have seen.
So, whilst congratulating Guardiola on Barca’s current form and accepting that Rijkaard had to go, let’s remember the years in the middle of this decade where Rijkaard’s management allowed his team to flourish and be true to that otherwise so demanding of mottos: “More than a club”.