The origins of Barcelona’s first legendary attacking trident
After the long, painful journey the Catalan club went through after the first era of Louis Van Gaal, four trophyless seasons and a fifth that was building up, with elections in between, the institution was turned upside down with the arrival of a new board, new sporting direction, new coach and a new key player, Ronaldinho Gaúcho.
A move that started the “virtuous circle,” Ronaldinho seemed predestined for the role of ace of the Canarinha that previously had Romário, Ronaldo and Rivaldo, since in 1999 his performances in the lower categories of Brazil’s National Team directed the spotlights on Ronaldinho. That summer, for the first time, his name was linked to FC Barcelona, and it would happen again a year later after the Sydney Olympics, but a few years (along with a stop in Paris) before the blaugrana could meet the crack with the eternal smile.
Knocked out of the Champions League and with coffers containing a cobweb or two, the decay Barça suffered in the previous years precluded a quick renovation. But in his first season, Ronaldinho, his illusion and fantasy, captivated a Camp Nou that was almost as wounded by the lack of happiness as much as silver.
The winter loan of Edgar Davids helped order and reposition all the pieces, like a perfect line of dominoes. Rijkaard was moving on to 4-3-3, Xavi moved forward to central midfielder, a position at which he would become eternal and Ronaldinho, playmaker at the time, moved to the left. From there, able to receive the ball with his right foot facing the entire field as well as an advantage in one-on-one situations, he became the best player on the team. Now it was time to improve the pieces around him.
In one of the most effective transfer markets anyone could recall at Barcelona, that summer, in addition to incorporating Sylvinho to add rotation at the left back, Reiziger was replaced by Belletti, Cocu by Edmilson, Luis García by Giuly, Davids by Deco, Kluivert by Larsson and Saviola by Eto’o.
The arrival of the forward from Cameroon gave the Brazilian No. 10 his perfect center forward. The best at getting open, for the best passer. “You just run, and the ball will come to you.” As a duo, they won the first Liga championship of that short cycle and marked the identity of the club that turned the tables.
When the ball got to Ronaldinho in his winger position, Eto’o, Giuly and even the full backs – in 04-05 the resident of the right side was Belletti – ran deep, asking for the through pass, something the number 10, with the perfect precision of his right foot or even with his heel (when Gio van Bronckhorst ran behind him), could provide.
The incisiveness of Eto’o’s off-the-ball movement and hunger for goal if he managed to get face-to-face with the keeper, made the two defensive lines of the rivals fall back into their own box, so that even if the through ball didn’t happen, Barça maintained the advantage, as the interiors – especially Deco – found a favorable stage to win the clearance and start the play.
The first La Liga title of Rijkaard came with 25 goals for the Cameroonian and nine for the Brazilian, a year that was also the season of Leo Messi’s official debut. It was at Montjuïc when there was not much left of the match, but the Trident didn’t come together. Even when Messi came in for Deco, Eto’o had already gone to the bench.
The Trident missed out the next week also because the one that was subbed by Messi was Ronaldinho, but third time against Malaga at Camp Nou was the charm. Although these appearances come with an asterisk, because in none of the little moments the trio played together that year, did they share the three forward positions. The Trident had to wait until the 2005-06 season, inaugurated uproariously by Messi in the Joan Gamper tournament as Barcelona faced Juventus. Some might say that if it weren’t for that performance, Messi was facing a loan. But the way he was grinding the gears of Pessotto, Vieira, Cannavaro and Chiellini earned him a place in the first team but also reserved for Messi an important spot in Rijkaard’s plans.
The Dutch coach managed the issue by dividing the right wing – the only open slot in the team of Ronaldinho and Eto’o – between a Messi that still wore the number 30 (intentional sum of the numbers of Eto’o and Ronaldinho), and the diligent starter of the previous campaign, Ludovic Giuly.
The key moment came in Matchday 12, when Barcelona played away at the Santiago Bernabéu, and Rijkaard included Messi in the starting eleven of the first big match of that season. With the cameras looking for any bad gesture from Giuly on the bench, on the field Messi, Eto’o and Ronaldinho rolled over Vanderlei Luxemburgo’s Real Madrid with a historic 0-3. On that night, Eto’o opened and Ronaldinho closed the scoring with two goals and an ovation from the Madrid fans. Messi was the loose end who started to unbalance the merengue squad that was focused in defending Ronaldinho and Eto’o
Like Madrid that night, with Ronaldinho on the other wing and Eto’o threatening from deep, opponents couldn’t send helping hands to the defender who was marking the player who was, back then, a foolproof dribbler. Messi, along with the good form of his two partners, made Barça’s forward line something almost impossible to defend.
Tactically, the trio’s behavior changed, because the Argentinian was nothing like Giuly. In that 05-06 season, Rijkaard’s guys won whenever they stepped out with their three stars, except for the draw with Mourinho’s Chelsea that, nevertheless, allowed Barça to advance to the Champions League’s round of 16. In the first leg a teenage Leo Messi was key, punishing an isolated Asier Del Horno.
Messi’s recurrent injuries limited the times the three of them would play together dragging Messi away from the Final in Paris in which the blaugrana team would achieve its second European Cup.
In the new season, it seemed like it could only get better. Messi, fully recovered, was already the undisputed inhabitant of the ring wing, and the spectacular victories in the Spanish Supercup, and the Joan Gamper Trophy match (against Bayern Munich), foretold great things for the culér offensive trident. But the disappointment of the Germany World Cup had changed something in Ronaldinho, and an early, serious injury for Eto’o left the Brazilian without his other half.
The substitute for Eto’o, Gudjohnsen, couldn’t offer the off-the-ball galloping of the Cameroonian. And as Messi had completely replaced Giuly, Rijkaard’s team was running out of its offensive security mechanism: Ronaldinho’s deep pass to a teammate.
To the absence of the No. 9 and the quality difference of his substitute, one could add the abdication of the 10 role, and a still-conflicting relationship of Messi with injury, the loss of tactical support combined with a loss of form by the three forwards. Rivals learned how to defend them, the system kept on discomposing and when Eto’o returned, there was not enough time left to mend it. Despite the power transition that was starting to happen between Ronaldinho and Messi, one that had the Argentine’s hat trick in the Clásico as its most definitive display, the season ended, after two years of success, with no important trophies to lift.
To get back on track, the following season the club incorporated none other than Thierry Henry. After a year of settling in, the French forward came to complete what, at the time, was known as the Fantastic Four, a squad of cracks that, like in the Dream Team, had to compete for the three offensive spots. In reality, none of the four had a very happy year. Eto’o was injured in late August and missed a great part of the first part, Henry’s adaptation was not easy and Leo was suffering his traditional siege of injuries to the point of breaking down in tears against Celtic, due to his umpteenth relapse.
Meanwhile, Ronaldinho kept going down, disappearing from the line-ups after Matchday 27 in league, and finally leaving the club at the express desire of the new coach, Pep Guardiola. Without Ronaldinho, the quartet was a trident once again, which is a story for another time.
Translator: Mark Coyle