The Barça coach's first foray in the Champions League against Ajax will display how far his adaptation of pass-and-move has developed. But this will still be a celebration of a way of playing
In 1872 a decision was taken that changed football forever, and that would have a major bearing on Wednesday's Champions League meeting between Barcelona and Ajax. The Scotland team, all of whom were drawn from the Queen's Park club, looked at the England side they were about to meet in the first ever football international and, realising their opponents were on average over a stone a man heavier than they were, resolved not to engage in the dribbling and charging game that had been prevalent until then, but to pass the ball and keep it away from the English. The tactic was a resounding success: Scotland had the better of a goalless draw and the possession game was born.
Passing slowly spread, but Queen's Park remained its epicentre, its players schooled in pass-and-move. Then, in 1901, the forward RS McColl – or Toffee Bob as he was known because of the chain of newsagents he ran with his brother – took the philosophy to Newcastle United as he turned professional. Newcastle at the time were a direct side, but McColl soon persuaded them of the advantages of holding possession. One of the keenest converts was the wing-half Peter McWilliam who, in 1912, was appointed manager of Tottenham.
He promoted the same passing principles there, not only among the first team but almost among the reserves and the youth sides, even buying the non-league side Northfleet Town to use as a nursery side.
Although McWilliam left in 1927, when Middlesbrough made him the best-paid manager in the game, he returned in 1938 to reap the benefits of the philosophy he had instilled, inheriting a side that included Arthur Rowe, Bill Nicholson and Vic Buckingham.
All three would become exceptional managers in their own right. Rowe led Spurs to promotion and then the title while Nicholson took them to the double. Buckingham remains West Brom's longest-serving manager, and had a profound influence on Bobby Robson there. He left the Hawthorns for Ajax, returned to England with Sheffield Wednesday and then went back to Ajax in 1964. There he found players eager to put his pass-and-move ideas into practice. He gave a debut to Johan Cruyff and prepared the ground for Rinus Michels before moving to Fulham.
After a brief stint at Ethnikos, he took charge at Barcelona in 1970 and began to instil the ethos that Michels, succeeding him again, would bring to full fruition.
It was Michels, of course, who inspired Cruyff, and Cruyff who plucked Pep Guardiola from the youth team. Guardiola may say that the biggest influence on his tactical thinking was Louis van Gaal, but he is another figure who links the clubs, having coached both – as well as helping to shape the modern Bayern Munich. It's true that Cruyff despises him and affects to hate his style of football, but they are like two elderly Marxist theorists squabbling over doctrinal minutiae: Cruyff, Van Gaal and Guardiola are all born of the same philosophical line.
Gerardo Martino, who will return to Argentina for his father's funeral after the game, is still feeling his way as Barcelona coach, but he too is of the same school, albeit the South American branch established by Marcelo Bielsa, a huge admirer of Van Gaal, at Newell's Old Boys in the early nineties. He is not as idealistic as Bielsa, perhaps not even as idealistic as Guardiola and already, his more pragmatic nature has begun to emerge: he does not simply try to pass teams to death as his predecessors have; he is not, as Gerard Piqué put it in an interview in Gazzetta dello Sport last week, "a slave to tiki-taka".
"The idea of football hasn't changed, we simply are trying to have more options now," said Piqué. "If we're being pressed, hitting a few long balls isn't being negative. It gives us oxygen, it gives us an out ball and forces the opponents to adjust." The occasional long ball prevents an opponent blindly packing the centre, makes them wary of pushing too high for fear of a ball played in behind them. Barça's use of Neymar, similarly, stretches the play, as he stays wide left, cutting infield only occasionally – something that has the added advantage of keeping him out of the way of Lionel Messi, who tends to drift right.
Back-to-back 3-2 wins, over Valencia and Sevilla, have highlighted the defensive weaknesses that still exist, particularly from set plays and Martino – who, like Neymar, is approaching his first Champions League game – was critical of his team's thought processes on Saturday. "We try to get the players to make different decisions, to weigh up whether to attack more or less," he said on Monday. "We practise that in training sessions. The other day against Sevilla, in the last 15 minutes we shouldn't have put the match at risk. Everything needs a period of adaptation. We need to adapt now that this competition has started."
Ajax lie only fourth after six games of the Eredivisie season and probably represent a lesser challenge this season than they would have done last season. The creative midfielder Christian Eriksen and the defender Toby Alderweireld have left, meaning increased responsibility for the 23-year-old South African Thulani Serero. There will be an expectation that Eriksen's compatriot Viktor Fischer, still only 19, takes on more of the creative burden, although he operates on the left rather than through the middle, while on the right Ajax have the former Barça prodigy Bojan Krkic, on loan from Roma. Frank de Boer, though, another who has played for both Barça and Ajax, remains as coach, ensuring continuity of philosophy.
But in a sense, as much as a match, this is a celebration of a way of playing. It's the Buckingham derby, the clash of two avatars of the principles that began their journey across Europe when Toffee Bob McColl left Glasgow in 1901.