Andres Iniesta is probably the greatest midfielder of his generation, one of the best central midfielders of all time and possibly Spain’s greatest ever footballer. He’s been blessed with so much natural talent, his rise to the top was almost inevitable.
Yet as remarkably good as the little Catalunyan is, his career hasn’t unfolded without a little bit of luck. The fortunate circumstances which led Iniesta on the path to footballing stardom began in 1988 – the day Johan Cruyff was appointed Barcelona manager.
The Cruyff era
After Cruyff's appointment, Barcelona’s identity changed: they had always been a massive club, but Cruyff gave them a clear way of playing. Passing in triangles, interchanging positions and a freedom of movement were drilled into the academy players from a very young age.
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Barca became synonymous with fluid football, culminating in 4 straight league titles and a Champions League win during Cruyff’s stewardship.
The total football introduced by the outspoken Dutchman was paramount in their journey to the status they achieved in the Guardiola era; becoming arguably the greatest club team football has ever seen.
Fluid football aside, the main tactical adjustment by Cruyff, however, was the implementing of the 4-3-3 formation – this is where Iniesta comes into it.
The importance of 4-3-3
I know this is very hard to imagine, but let’s imagine Barcelona have always played a standard 4-4-2 formation – would Iniesta be the player he is now? There’s no doubting his ability, but in a flat midfield four, it’s hard to see where Iniesta would have slotted in.
Xavi and Busquets would have likely filled the two central positions; maybe Iniesta would have fitted in left midfield but would he be the player he is now? It’s unlikely.
The only position that perfectly suits Iniesta and his wonderful array of talents, is the position that’s been afforded to him throughout his career – the left of a midfield three. If he grew up in a team that played any other formation, his career could have gone very differently.
Why there's no English Iniesta
There are several reasons why there's no English player resembling Iniesta: the insistence on physicality in the English game, fewer coaches who are willing, or capable, to coach technique to a high level; but what about the rarity of the 4-3-3 formation?
Up until the late noughties, clubs in England would rarely adopt a 4-3-3; the vast majority of teams, even the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal, would line up in a 4-4-2. If the first teams aren’t playing with a central midfield three, what are the chances that youth teams are?
The obsession with the 4-4-2 up until relatively recently, has potentially discarded several players of Iniesta’s ilk to the footballing scrapheap.
It's a sorry but blatant reality that if an English version of Iniesta came through the ranks at a club like West Brom - where Pulis generally sticks to a rigid 4-4-2 - then they would be dropped in favour of someone like James Morrison.
Too much impetus on hard work and a lack of focus on skill and technique will continue to stunt the development of creative English midfielders, and people wonder why they continue to fail at International level.
Is Andres Iniesta the greatest midfielder in world football right now? Have your say in the comments section below!