‘The making of the greatest team in the world.’ This is the full title from Graham Hunter’s 2012 book upon which Take the Ball, Pass the Ball is based. Perhaps considered to be a little too ‘on the nose’ to become the title of the documentary itself, it in fact perfectly describes what is about to be seen.
That tag of the ‘greatest team’ refers to the focus of Duncan McMath’s documentary: Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona between 2008 and 2012. His non-linear structure to tell this story begins with the 2011 Champions League final, the point at which many seem to agree a peak in footballing perfection was reached. “No one’s given us a hiding like that,” was the post-match assessment by Sir Alex Ferguson.
While the highlights show the game played in a way possibly not seen since, Take the Ball, Pass the Ball stands out most in telling the two-decade-long journey that took Barcelona to that pinnacle and the installation of a philosophy.
This journey begins with Johan Cruyff and his 1988 appointment as manager. Coaches who worked alongside him at the time talk of the installation of his footballing philosophy, in particular the introduction of El Rondo, the passing drill now common among any side looking to play possession- and pressing-based football. Watching Barcelona in an El Rondo drill during training, McMath then cuts to a match situation in which exactly the same quick passing and movement leaves Real Madrid at a loss.
Guardiola’s 2008 appointment signals a return to this philosophy. However, it is revealed just how close Barcelona were to an alternative appointment, had it not been for a continued belief in the ideals set by Cruyff. This allows for a brief moment to ponder: what if Jose Mourinho had been hired in 2008?
This moment is then instantly forgotten as focus turns to Lionel Messi. He is the third piece of the puzzle that led to Barca’s dominance, and a player produced by La Masia, the youth academy revolutionised by Cruyff’s ideals.
A highlight reel of goals again show El Rondo-inspired build-up play, but this time with the Argentinian on the end of the final pass. Goal after goal after goal is shown, all soundtracked by high-tempo music that reflects the high-tempo of the football being shown.
The link from Cruyff’s Barcelona to Guardiola’s is assertively made, and no better highlighted than in Messi’s goal against Manchester United in that 2011 Champions League final.
A triangular passing shape – learned from El Rondo sessions – is played between Messi, Xavi and Andreas Iniesta. Messi has dropped deep into the false-nine position implemented by Guardiola. Within an instant, Barcelona out-number United in midfield and pass their way behind United’s two defensive-midfielders, ending with a Messi goal to give them a 2-1 lead.
Guardiola would later comment that this goal – scored after 54 minutes – was part of a 20-25 minute spell which was a “perfect illustration of how we wanted to play.”
A host of Barcelona figures from that time guide the viewer through these events. Xavi uses a makeshift tactics board of cups and bowls to explain the mechanics of that 2011 final goal, while Thierry Henry questions if the laws of physics or biology apply to Messi when analysing another of his goals. A more sombre tone is hit when former defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy looks painfully into the camera, having just recounted how he was unable to settle into that Barcelona squad after arriving in 2009.
The stand out performance, however, comes from Dani Alves. McMath shows two sides to the Brazillian: the first, an image more fitting that of the wider public perception, of a joker. Alves’ mischievous grin to camera as he takes glee in reflecting on a victory over Real Madrid perfectly captures this.
The second, and perhaps more real Alves is then fully fleshed out as the documentary focuses on Eric Abidal’s astonishing recovery from cancer, and the sacrifice Alves was willing to make to ensure this recovery. In Graham Hunter’s words, Abidal’s journey in this story “turns this from a great sporting story, to a great human drama.”
While there are many heroes in this drama, Guardiola appears to take special precedence in this role. The Catalan’s influence on his team was made clear throughout. He showed no hesitation in turning his back on Deco, Ronaldinho and Eto’o in favour of Sergio Busquets, Messi and Bojan Krcic upon his arrival; he showed total commitment to playing out from the back – something many scoffed at back in 2008 – regardless of the dangers that came with doing so; and then there was the feud with Mourinho, ending in a rousing, expletive-riddled press conference, summed up perfectly by Sid Lowe’s: “Bloody hell!”
Yet, as the documentary nears it’s close, there is an itch still waiting to be scratched. Praise-filled comments and stories from players – perhaps barring Samuel Eto’o’s contribution – are informative and nostalgic, but it never compares to hearing from the real thing. What exactly did Guardiola make of these four years? How did he do it?
Then, finally, as the credits roll, a hotel room is shown, and in walks Pep Guardiola – brilliantly kept absent from the documentary until now. Rather than his own achievements from that time, he humbly waxes lyrical about his players.
As the documentary ends, it is easy to feel as though guiding Xavi, Messi, Iniesta, et al. to the peak of modern football is but a mean feat. Just “take the ball, pass the ball.”
However, when reflecting on the events of the previous 110 minutes, that facade quickly fades. The decades of tradition instilled into the club are recalled, as is the tactical ingenuity imposed by Guardiola, and the generational talent present in the Barcelona class of 2008 to 2012. The true scope of their achievements is fully appreciated.
In a time in which football is absent, this documentary provides a temporary footballing-fix, bringing with it the nostalgia from those four incredible years in which Barcelona became the greatest team in the world.