Visionary Pep Guardiola still has something new to say
Style and substance the mark of a coach who has guided Man City to the cusp of the title
Pep Guardiola: is on the cusp of winning a seventh league title in three countries. Photograph: Richard Sellers/PA Wire
Thursday morning, Manchester City: as he surveyed the shock and awe, the red mist and the critical hiss from the previous evening in Liverpool – plus the dagger scoreline – Pep Guardiola may have stared at his office door and wished one footballer more than any other would knock on it – Andres Iniesta.
It would have returned Guardiola to an earlier, formative time of discomfort and comfort. Because, for all the silverware and praise he has accumulated over the past decade as arguably the world’s most influential coach, in the beginning there was doubt about Pep Guardiola.
He was 37 on May 8th 2008 when Barcelona announced he would be their next manager in succession to Frank Rijkaard.
Guardiola had been coaching Barca B for one season at that point and, as far as his formal managerial experience went, that was that. The institution that is FCB were taking a risk and they knew it.
But the club was souring. The day before, Barcelona had been beaten 4-1 at Real Madrid. Real would go on to be champions of La Liga while Barcelona finished third, 10 points adrift of Villarreal. The week before that, Barca had been knocked out of the Champions League at Manchester United.
It was a trophy-less season at Camp Nou and the hierarchy expressed its apologies. Hard, loud questions were being asked by the socios and among them were some about Guardiola’s readiness for office.
When Barcelona then began La Liga with a 1-0 defeat at minnows Numancia, the volume rose. When the next match was a 1-1 draw against Racing Santander secured via a Lionel Messi penalty-kick, it rose again.
Visible evidence of Catalan concern could be seen in the attendance at Camp Nou, which was half-full.
That was better than how Guardiola was feeling as he retreated to his windowless bunker of an office in the vast stadium’s concrete basement.
“Eighty-six per cent of people didn’t believe in me,” he was to say, referring to one local poll. “Lots of people wanted Mourinho.”
As Guardiola agonised over his selections, his methods, support came from two quarters, one expected, one not.
Johan Cruyff, the soul king of Barcelona football, scolded the audience through his newspaper column: “I don’t know what game the rest of you watched.” Cruyff was Guardiola’s mentor. The shock would have been if he too had expressed misgivings.
And then came a gentle knock on Guardiola’s office door. It was Iniesta, a man and footballer not known for gestures.
“Don’t worry, mister,” Iniesta began, using the old English term for manager adopted across Europe. “We’ll win it all. We’re on the right path. Carry on like this, okay? We’re playing brilliantly, we’re enjoying training. Please, don’t change anything.”
Guardiola has recalled how he was simultaneously flabbergasted, and delighted. And inspired. In Barcelona’s next La Liga game, they won 6-1. It was the start of a run of 19 wins in 21 matches – two draws – that would see them at season’s end nine points ahead of Real Madrid and champions again.
More than that, though, and proving Iniesta correct, Barca also won the Spanish Cup and, in Rome against United, one year and 19 days on from his appointment, the Champions League.
Guardiola, the coach from Barca B, had won a treble in his first season. It is worth renewed admiration.
He was an instant coaching sensation. Over the next glorious two seasons at Camp Nou a glowing reputation was burnished with two more La Liga titles, another Spanish Cup and another triumph in the Champions League.
And there was more to it than victory. Barcelona, with Messi, Iniesta and Xavi leading the dance, won with grace and artistic merit. Pep’s Barca made even neutrals swoon.
It is why someone of the calibre of Arrigo Sacchi would later say: “He’s one of the top 10 coaches since the 1950s who have contributed to the evolution of football. [Guardiola] has carried forward total football even more. He is adding to it, making it better. He is a great coach.”
But while others polished his halo, Guardiola never forgot Iniesta and he never forgets the circle of doubt.
“You just can’t get going,” he said in Being Iniesta, “you feel watched and you feel alone and then suddenly, there’s Andres telling me not to worry.
“It’s hard to imagine, because it’s not the kind of thing that happens and because it’s Iniesta we’re talking about, someone who doesn’t find it easy to express his feelings. And after he’d gone, I asked myself: how can people say that coaches should be cold when they make decisions? Impersonal? That’s ridiculous! How can I be cold, distant, removed with Andres? Sorry, no way.”
In those last lines are an indication of the emotional personality not shown by Guardiola at Anfield on Wednesday night, either on the touchline or afterwards. During games he can be manic, intense, pointing, cajoling. Then he can be cool and restrained when interviewed. There is a quiet charisma and in his worldview of football, a Blanchflower-like emphasis on style.
Our collective appreciation of Guardiola over 10 years has been underpinned by the reality on the pitch, the sheer quality of the football he produces through his teams. Medals help, but they are not everything.
If there is a geometric precision to his coaching, there is a sweep to his football when it clicks, as it has done at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City. Iniesta, Philipp Lahm, Kevin De Bruyne, each personifies the economy, simplicity and grandeur of Guardiola’s vision.
And his vision is one of scale. He may adhere to the manager’s ritual that it is all about the next 90 minutes, but when Guardiola steps back from a canvas it feels like he has left something larger than a whiteboard presentation. He is about more than winning the next game. There is a big picture, and he wants to make it bigger.
As he said of Cruyff: “Before he came we didn’t have a cathedral of football, this beautiful church, at Barcelona. We needed something new. And . . creating something new is the difficult part. To make it and build it and get everyone to follow? Amazing.”
Players line up to say how Guardiola stretches them – “he has taken my football brain to another level” said John Stones this season – just as he wants to stretch the pitch, the opposition, the imagination.
The definition of a small artist said GK Chesterton is one “content with art” whereas a great artist is “content with nothing except everything”.
In those manic touchline moments with his fidgeting hands roaming over his bald head, Guardiola strikes one as more mad professor content with nothing, than elegant artist getting the full picture.
An engineer is perhaps a more suitable analogy. Guardiola’s tactical planning is essentially a numbers game revolving around set positions with the aim always to be numerically superior in midfield.
It is why he places such importance on his goalkeeper. When a Guardiola team lines up there are 11 footballers, the opponent has 10 footballers and a keeper. One up already.
So the game begins in defence, the origin, maybe, in Mexico.
In his last posting as a player, aged 35, in 2006 Guardiola went to Mexico to play for Dorados. The coach was Juan Manuel Lillo, a Spaniard who Guardiola admired. The same year, at the World Cup in Germany, Guardiola wrote a column for El Pais on the Mexican national team coached by Ricardo La Volpe.
Guardiola was seriously impressed by Mexico’s daring play from the back, writing: “The Mexicans, playing their defenders in this way, know the risk they run. Lost possession from where they play the ball out from could be terrible. But not only do they know it, everyone knows it. That’s why everyone avoids doing the same as the Mexicans.
“The world chooses one way, the Mexicans another.”
La Volpe explained his thinking: “Playing out from the back isn’t the goalkeeper giving it to the centre-back and the centre-back passing it just for the sake of it. The job is to get the ball into midfield with numeric superiority, with a man spare.”
Once done, the attacking team is on the front foot. The consequences, as City’s 88 Premier League goals in 31 matches demonstrate, can be thrilling and devastating. They have also hit the woodwork 16 times.
But there is risk, as Guardiola saw with Mexico. To mitigate it, there is a core structure which Thierry Henry has described from his Barcelona season under Guardiola. “When Pep has a plan,” Henry said, “respect the plan.”
There were three Ps – play, possession and position and, Henry said, “the most important was position – you have to stay in your position and trust your teammates.”
To de-risk the plan, Guardiola promoted Sergi Busquets at Barcelona, switched Lahm at Bayern and retained faith in Fernandinho at City. They are the protectors of the adventure from the back.
“Defensive organisation is the cornerstone of everything else I want to achieve in my football,” Guardiola has said.
It is a bold concept, that your order will prove so formidable it will cause disorder but then “insolence and power” is a phrase Guardiola used as a young player.
And on numerous occasions, in three countries, it has worked. On Saturday night, when City host rivals United, it is expected to be ratified with City clinching the Premier League title. Even if they have to wait a week, the Catalan will be collecting a 14th major trophy as a manager.
But once again there is doubt, scepticism. Wednesday at Anfield refreshed the opinion that City and Guardiola are hyped, while there is always the rumbling undercurrent as to why such a creative figure has gone from Barcelona to Bayern Munich to Manchester City. At Barca, there was Messi, at Bayern there was corporate domestic dominance and at City there is always a cash solution.
It is unlikely to have shaken the man himself. He is not unfamiliar with doubt, as the Iniesta story reveals, and it is notable that both Cruyff and Guardiola’s biographer/collaborator, Marti Perarnau, both see his dauntless view of the game rooted in early self-doubt about his physique.
“Guardiola’s Achilles heel is his anxiety,” wrote Perarnau. “He carries with him a deep fear of coming under attack, which was probably born during his playing career . . Pep found he could cope with his fear by playing with a touch of audacity.”
The story goes that when Cruyff first went to see the teenager play for Barca B, Guardiola was on the bench, deemed too fragile even for un-English Spanish football. Charlie Chaplin, one coach called him.
But Guardiola persevered and made it under Cruyff. In a team containing Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup and Hristo Stoichkov, it requires luminous confidence and self-awareness to do so, and intelligence.
Fabio Capello, who was briefly his manager at Roma – Guardiola left for Italy after Barcelona – said: “He’s one of the few intellectuals I have come across in a dressing room, intellectual in the sense he thinks about a lot of things. A lot about football, of course, but also about literature and other cultural things.”
This is a man who took a sabbatical in New York after managing Barcelona, where he would play chess with Garry Kasparov and throw himself into learning German before landing in Munich. In Manchester he lives centrally with his wife Cristina and three children; his younger brother Pere is an agent, with Luis Suarez among his clients.
Even as a teenager, Guardiola’s antennae meant he understood he was in the process of receiving a unique education under Cruyff. As he said a couple of years ago of his young, eager self and his master: “This is not the same as being hungry to make it. We all feel that hunger in football.
“With Cruyff it was different. He deepened and changed the hunger so you became conscious of why you are getting better.”
That ‘why’ mattered. As Gerard Pique has said: “Pep doesn’t just give you orders, he also explains why.”
A further measure of Guardiola’s awareness and understanding of who he was, where he was and his place in the scheme of things could be seen in his reaction to the Barca ‘Dream Team’ European Cup win in 1992.
This was an historic moment for Catalonia as well as Barcelona, who had not won the biggest cup of all before. Real Madrid had done so six times by then.
In 1977 the exiled Catalan leader Josep Tarradellas had returned to Barcelona after over two decades in France while General Franco ruled Spain. From a balcony in Placa de Sant Jaume, Tarradellas declared: “Citizens of Catalonia, here I am.”
Fifteen years later, when it was Josep Guardiola’s turn to salute the crowd and raise the famous European trophy, he said: “Citizens of Catalonia, here it is.”
All present understood the nuance. Guardiola was 21.
Although he has been officially reprimanded for the wearing of a yellow ribbon on matchdays in Catalan solidarity, Guardiola will be unchanging. His Catalan politics are sincere.
In 2000, shortly before he left Barcelona – club and city – he wrote a piece for Time magazine.
“There is a special relationship between Catalans and this team we call Barça,” he said. “Catalonia was repressed for many years, culturally and in the use of its own language. That makes you love these things more and want to defend them at the national and international level.”
Some have wondered how Guardiola’s passion for Catalonian democracy can be reconciled with his Qatar connections. He played in Doha before his last move to Mexico and was an ambassador for Qatar 2022. At Manchester City, his employers stem from Abu Dhabi.
Those questions bleed into why he chose to manage Bayern, then the modern City. (A reported annual salary of €16m-ish may aid explanation.)
Those clubs’ economic power cuts into respect for trophies won, if not his methods. The €40m signing of Ederson from Benfica, for instance, has been praised – understandably – but it is just another big-money signing at City. At 13 other Premier League clubs it would be their record signing.
This is not Maine Road Manchester City. It is a different entity. Guardiola will receive recognition and applause for his football but there will not be the same deep appreciation for, say, the reinvention of Manchester United under Ferguson or of Liverpool under Shankly. Guardiola is not taking provincial outsiders such as Clough’s Nottingham Forest – or Mourinho’s Porto or Hitzfeld’s Dortmund – to Europe’s pinnacle.
But there are other criteria by which to assess significance and after around 130 years of professional football, Pep Guardiola continues to have something new to say. Not many do.
He is on the cusp of winning a seventh league title in a third country. Guardiola brings risk, doubt and brilliance and a brand of football like the man himself: radical, tactical, visionary, glorious, vainglorious and, occasionally, vulnerable.
Pep Guardiola factfile
Name: Josep Guardiola Sala
Date of birth: January 18th 1971 (Age 47).
Born: Santpedor, Catalonia, Spain
Position: Defensive midfielder
1990-01 FC Barcelona
2002-03 AS Roma
2003-05 Al-Ahli (Qatar)
2005-06 Dorados (Mexico)
1992-01 Spain (47 caps)
Barcelona – La Liga x6, Copa Del Rey x2, Supercopa de Espana x4, European Cup x1, Uefa Cup Winners Cup x1, Uefa Super Cup x2
Spain: 1992 Olympic Games gold medal
2007-08 Barcelona B
Honours: Tercera Division 2007-08
Money spent: €500,000
2008-2012 FC Barcelona
Honours: La Liga x3 (2008-09, 2009-10, 2010-11), Champions League x2 (2009, 2011), Copa Del Rey x2 (2008-09, 2011-12), Supercopa de Espana x3(2009, 2010, 2011), Uefa Super Cup x2 (2009, 2011), Fifa Club World Cup x2 (2009, 2011)
Money spent: €352m
Guardiola spent a year in New York in between jobs after leaving Barcelona.
2013-2016 FC Bayern Munich
Honours: Bundesliga x3 (2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16), DFB-Pokal x2 (2013-14, 2015-16), Uefa Super Cup x1 (2013), Fifa Club World Cup x1 (2013)
Best Champions League finish: Semi-finals (2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16)
Money spent: €207m
2016-Present Manchester City
Honours: League Cup x1 (2017-18)
Best Champions League finish: Quarter-finals (2017-18)
Money spent: €542m
Total major honours: 20
Total money spent = €1bn
Guardiola was a product of the Barcelona La Maisa academy, which he joined aged 13, and he made his first team debut in 1990. He was a key part of the side which won the club’s maiden European Cup in 1992 and played at the Camp Nou until 2001, when he left for Italy. While at Brescia he was banned for four months for testing positive for nandrolone – before being cleared of the offence in 2009. Guardiola moved into management with Barcelona and aided by the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Iniesta oversaw the most successful spell in the club’s history. After a sabbatical in New York – where he reportedly spent time learning German, as well as indulging his love of art – he took over at Bayern Munich, before joining Manchester City. He is married with three children, and is a staunch supporter of the Catalan independence movement. – Compiled by Patrick Madden