Andres Iniesta, the 33-year-old Barcelona midfielder who is widely considered to be one the greatest players in his position of all time, will leave the club at the end of this season, calling time on an illustrious association between man and team that has propelled both to the heights of football. While Iniesta’s footballing career will continue, there is little doubt that he is indelibly associated not just with the Catalan giants, but also with the style of play that evolved, inspired by Johan Cruyff, then Pep Guardiola, into tiki-taka. As the style evolved, so did the players: Iniesta and fellow La Masia graduates Xavi and Lionel Messi, as well as Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Pedro, and others all became great players as the style was honed and perfected.
Tiki-taka and positional play relies on ball retention, speed of thought and movement, high levels of passing and controlling the ball, especially in tight spaces, and the ability seamlessly to interchange position. Iniesta excelled at each of these facets of the game. Maintaining structure, seeking to make the pitch as large as possible in possession and as tight as possible when seeking to close down the opposition and win back the ball, all the while looking to create superiority between the opposition’s lines of defence, or numerical overloads in the wide, half, or central spaces – these are the conceptual foundations of how the Barcelona of Iniesta and the others played. While a footballer of his quality would have succeeded anywhere, this style played to and exemplified his abilities.Iniesta’s versatility also made him crucial to Barcelona. While he was perhaps at his best in a midfield three alongside Xavi and with Busquets patrolling behind, Iniesta played as a wide inside forward, a conventional attacking central midfielder, a false nine, and, this season, as a wide midfielder in Ernesto Valverde’s 4-4-2. This required intelligence, positional awareness, a willingness to adapt and to subsume personal preference to what the team needed, and a varied skillset that meant he could fulfil functions anywhere across the front five or six of his team.
Of course, Iniesta and his Barcelona team-mates were hugely successful with Spain as well, firstly under Luis Aragones, and then Vicente del Bosque, as the system used at Barcelona was transplanted to the national side, augmented largely by talent from Real Madrid. Iniesta, who scored the winning goal in the World Cup final in 2010, also won the European Championships in 2008 and 2012.
The World Cup and two European Championship wins, four Champions League and nine La Liga titles, and two top-three finishes in the FIFA Ballon d’Or – which led Sergio Ramos to joke that if Iniesta were called Andresinho he would have won two of world football’s most prestigious individual award – is a haul that reflects Iniesta’s achievements as an individual.Football is a team sport, and if anyone exhibited the combination of individual skill and collective understanding that brings real, lasting success, it’s Iniesta and his Barcelona colleagues. His legacy is that in a game of increasing physicality, speed of thought and breadth of understanding can be more important than strength or height or pace. That defence can be a matter of anticipation, positioning, and awareness, rather than muscling people off the ball. It is a breath-taking collection of passes, moments of vision, deft finishes and an almost telepathic awareness of his team-mates’ movement and intentions.
As Samuel Eto’o said in 2010, “When I said Iniesta was the world’s best, you laughed. Now you can see I’m right.”
As he leaves Barcelona after so much success achieved with so much humility, there are many who would agree.
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