"The third year," the great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann always said, "is fatal." If a manager stays at a club more than that, he said, his players tend to become bored and/or complacent and opponents start to work out counter-strategies. There are occasional exceptions, especially in weaker leagues, but at the highest level it seems to hold true that great teams last a maximum of three years – which is why Barcelona's draw against Espanyol on Saturday may be more significant than just two dropped points. This, after all, is Pep Guardiola's fourth season as a manager at the Camp Nou.Now right off the bat, there is a problem with Wilson’s analogy. Guttmann said that the third year is fatal, but in year three under Guardiola, Barca won the two biggest prizes available to it: the Spanish Primera and the Champions League. It’s only if you modify Guttmann’s concept to “every year after the first three is fatal” that is has applicability here. Additionally, Guardiola is a disciple of Johan Cruyff and Cruyff’s version of the theory is that a great team has a four-year shelf life. This makes sense from Cruyff’s personal experience because his Barca Dream Team won four straight La Liga titles in the early 90s, as well as the club’s first European Cup, and then declined.* Guttmann could make a side function at a top level for two years, so he thinks that that is the statute of limitations. Cruyff’s team lasted for four, so he thinks that that is the limit. There is a danger here of assuming that one’s personal experience is universal.
* – Cruyff suggested that Barca should have broken its 2006 Champions League-winning side apart because it was coming to the end of its cycle, although that team had really only been together for three years. The bottom really fell out in year five when the Blaugrana finished third in La Liga and suffered the ultimate humiliation of forming a Pasillo for Real Madrid after Los Merengues clinched the league. Samuel Eto’o and Deco both got cards intentionally in the preceding match so they would not have to participate, which is a major reason that both were ultimately drummed out of the club.
Wilson’s article got me thinking about American sports and whether a three- or four-year rule applies there. One could make a good argument that it applies in the NBA. Because basketball requires more natural teamwork than baseball or football,* it would seem to be a proper candidate. Look at recent NBA history. The Bulls won three titles, then Michael Jordan went away. They won three more, then Jerry Krause broke the team apart. The Lakers won three in a row, then Shaq and Kobe could no longer co-exist. Once a team gets to the top, it seems that it has a three-year statute of limitations before the combination of egos and pressure create an untenable situation. Phil Jackson, did you ever know that your intellectual forefather was a Hungarian nomad?
* – Football obviously involves players working together, but to do so, they are often following instructions in the form of a play. Basketball, because it is less controlled by the coaches, requires organic cooperation from its players.
In addressing whether Barca can be an exception to the three-year rule, Wilson points out a distinction that would not apply to NBA teams:
Yet in many ways, Barcelona are a side set up to endure. Like Ferguson, who reflected last week on how those who have been brought up at a club have more instinctive loyalty, Guardiola has a stock of homegrown talent. The impression is that most players play for Barcelona because they want to rather than because it's a convenient way of paying for the cars and clothes and rounds of Jaegerbombs.The Lakers and Bulls didn't build their teams by signing players when they were twelve and then teaching those players over the course of years how to play in a certain style. With the exception of Dani Alves, Barca's current core comes from the La Masia cocoon. These players grew up together, were taught how to play together, matured together, and have now won a room full of trophies together. That experience is simply different than what the NBA's dynastic teams experience.
I'm currently reading Soccer Men, which is Simon Kuper's attempt to explain what modern soccer* stars are really like. One of the themes of the book is that players don't feel the same way that we do about teams and matches because for them, it's a job. For instance, Bernd Holzenbein, one of the starters on the team that won the 1974 World Cup in a famous final against the Netherlands, recalls West Germany's win in 1954 with greater fondness. As he describes his feelings, he was a fan in 1954 and a professional in 1974. The chapter on Fernando Torres is also interesting, as it explains that Torres was an Atletico Madrid fan almost from birth, but had no problem moving to Liverpool because it was a better opportunity for him. We want to think that the players we love feel the same way about the clubs that we love, but that usually isn't true. On one end of the spectrum, we expect that LeBron, Wade, and Bosh don't feel any strong connection to the Miami Heat as an institution. On the other end, it will be interesting to learn how strong the connection is between Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi and Futbol Club Barcelona.
* - Kuper explains in the book that soccer is actually a British term and the sport was referred to by that title instead of football until the 70s. I am going to be more comfortable using the term and not worrying that I come off as too American.