We at Vital Manchester City continue with the Pep Guardiola profile series.
Part One can be found here.
Part 4.1- Playing football the Guardiola way.
Barcelona – the evolution of a philosophy.
Just what is Pep Guardiola’s secret? Given that he began his coaching career aged 37, how has he achieved so much, so soon?
In no small part it is that from the day he arrived at the club he spent 24 years preparing himself for the job. It was Johan Cruyff who laid the foundations for Guardiola’s subsequent success. In Guardiola Cruyff saw an avid learner & the Dutch master never had a more attentive pupil. Cruyff plucked him from the club’s youth ranks and gave him his opportunity in the first team & Cruyff’s core message remains Guardiola’s today: keep possession of the ball. An absurdly simple philosophy, but watch any game of the English Premier League and it is clear to see how difficult it is to put into practice.
This philosophy – to keep the ball, to defend by denying it to your opponents and to create more opportunities than them to score – you need skill, self-possession and intelligence.
Cruyff saw these qualities in his young pupil. He played Guardiola at number four, just in front of the defence, the link man with the attack. This in itself may offer a clue perhaps to why this role has become such a critical feature of the teams that he had built. Don’t be surprised if it isn’t one of the key components of the changes he makes at City – perhaps the role envisaged for Gundogan, allegedly the first signing through the door at the Etihad during this transfer window. The young Pep was far from being regarded as a complete footballer – apparently not being strong in the tackle, having little pace and not being blessed with great dribbling skills – but he could see the game around him and he was to become the axis around which Cruyff`s team revolved.
The Dutch philosophy of ‘total football’ – everybody is comfortable on the ball, everybody attacks – was employed by Cruyff at Barcelona, and Guardiola became its chief craftsman on the pitch. The young acolyte absorbed everything. In a habit that extended beyond his football world he processed every game in his mind, every training session, every lesson Cruyff imparted. Unusually for a player, he read books and took an interest in film, music and politics. As his football experience grew so did he – but not just in one dimension.
He was appointed the coach of the Barcelona B team in 2007 at a time when things were not all rosy in the garden. The team had just gone down to the third division and the football anything other than glorious – the task he was set was to promote them immediately back to the second. Against the advice of some of his football associates he took the job on, transformed a demoralised team and, as required, won them promotion.
At this time the first team, after initial success under Frank Rijkaard winning the league twice in 2005 & 2006 and the European Cup in 2006. But it was now the spring of 2008 and the team had faded, winning nothing in two seasons. Rijkaard, it was felt, had lost control of the dressing room.
Pressure began to emerge from club members for José Mourinho to be appointed in his place. He was perceived as just the man to cut big egos down to size and restore drive to a rudderless team given his authoritarian style and approach. It seems that after board members were dispatched to Portugal to sound him out Mourinho gave them a detailed PowerPoint presentation of what he would do to turn Barcelona around. However his PowerPoint skills were wasted as the Board chose to promote Pep Guardiola – an upstart with no track record in charge of senior teams. Some regard Mourinho’s subsequent ‘frustrations’, after he became coach of Barcelona’s bitter ancestral enemy, Real Madrid, two years later, had their genesis in this ‘painful blow to his pride’. He seems one to bear grudges and I suspect that this rankle still & I expect it emerge as the season approaches.
Guardiola’s appointment was not overwhelmingly popular and after a rousing introductory speech at a preseason gala before a packed Camp Nou stadium where he promised the faithful that ‘you’re going to have fun!’ Barcelona proceeded to lose their first league match to a tiny club called Numancia and then drew against scarcely much bigger Racing de Santander. The sceptics were feeling vindicated but Guardiola did not waver. In public he declared that he would remain faithful to his “idol”. The playing style would not change and the results would come.
What is that idea? Simply that that possession is nine-tenths of the law. If you lose it the team fights to get it back like a pack of indignant dogs. If you monopolise the ball you will minimise the treacherous random factor inherent in football and you will also enjoy yourself. All the fun is in having the ball at your feet – just like in the school playground. The misery lies in not having it. Let the other team feel that.
And that was exactly what came to pass. Barcelona’s rivals chased shadows – mesmerised bulls before a matador, their legs finally gave way and they were put lethally, gracefully to the sword. Guardiola’s poor start proved to be a chimera. From his third game on, he led a victory parade & the doubts receded.
Guardiola has always acknowledged his debt to Cruyff, but it was he who delivered the finished product, who took ‘total football’ to another level. The difference lay in the thoroughness of Guardiola’s preparation and in his greater attention to the proletarian task of defending, which he had studied in his playing days among the Italians, the masters of the art. Guardiola’s players were artists but they were harder workers too. His approach in terms of tactics, of motivation, of every single facet required in a coach was regarded as outstanding. All manner of intricately geometrical attacking patterns were practiced in training, his players pinging the ball about with billiard-ball precision at high speed. Juan Carlos Unzué, the team`s goalkeeping coach for three of the four years Guardiola coached Barcelona said ‘Pep had the rare satisfaction of seeing the players apply those same moves against the toughest rivals on the field of play, as if they had been copied and pasted.’
However the young coach was not dependent upon the individual skill or collective work ethic alone. Guardiola stressed from the very beginning the central importance of team spirit. Guardiola’s notion of esprit de corps went beyond the players and extended to ancillary staff, the physios, the doctors, those in charge of the balls, boots and players’ kit. Unzué relates that one Saturday morning in November 2008, barely five months after Guardiola’s arrival as coach, Unzué’s father abruptly died. That evening the team played a league match, won and immediately afterwards Guardiola ordered a charter flight to take the entire sporting staff, star players not excluded, to Pamplona for the funeral the next morning. Unzué, who will be forever grateful to Guardiola, is cold-eyed enough to see that behind his generosity lay a deeper purpose. ‘He sent out a message that day to all of us that we’d be together as a team in bad times and good. On the field that translates into a spirit of fierce solidarity. Eleven players attack and 11 players defend.’
This was no ordinary 11, either – not players easy to win over. Between them they had won a host of trophies both domestic and international (eight of the team’s players would feature in the World Cup final win against Holland in 2010.). Some very rich young men, with very big global reputations. They came to see that acting on his instructions was the recipe for victory. Unzué said, there was another thing: ‘Practically all the players confessed it to me that Pep had made them better.’ Even Lionel Messi, who is on record as acknowledging he would not be the player he has become without Guardiola’s help.
His handling of Messi indicate show deeply Guardiola thinks and what he is prepared to do to fix a problem. After the successes of the first season under the new coach where Messi played on the right wing the player suffered a rare loss of form. For three games in a row he went missing in action. The third, a disappointing 1-1 draw in the Champions League against Stuttgart, saw Messi more ineffectual than ever. Eschewing the standard approach of blaming the player and giving him a wake-up call by dropping him for the next match, Pep thought hard about where he was going wrong. He saw he was wasting Messi’s talent playing him out wide and played him up front through the middle. Guardiola also said, as Messi would later recall, ‘Now you`re going to score three or four goals a game.’
Messi had always been regarded, unquestioningly, as a winger, but Guardiola suddenly saw that he had to be positioned where he would receive more of the ball and have the greatest possible impact. Three weeks later, in the return game against Stuttgart, Barcelona won 4-0 and Messi scored two goals, setting up another. His scoring rate soared. In his first season with Guardiola, Messi scored 38 times; in his fourth, he scored 73. Messi is an incomparable talent but there is little doubt that he – as with any other massively talented player – cannot win games on their own all the time. Just look how Kinkladze performed when surrounded by average journeyman players in City’s teams of the mid 1990s. Messi could not have been given the platform for his talent to shine without the foundation provided by his team mates, their abilities, their collective term ethic, work rate and self-belief and the backing and support of his coach.
The easy response to Guardiola’s success is the refuge of most outsiders who want him to fail – ‘Anyone could succeed with those players’. But as has been testified by the players themselves – their coach was fundamentally behind their successes. Could he repeat this outside the comfort zone of the Catalan club?
The next instalment of this VMC profile will look at Guardiola’s time at Bayern Munich.
Was he just lucky or could he continue to deliver success outside the comfort zone of the club where he had spent so much of his footballing life?
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