Pep Guardiola – The Conductor
A detailed look into Pep Guardiola’s journey from a footballer to a genius manager empowering every team that was fortunate enough to be managed by him.
It is difficult to quantify force. Sure, Mass times Acceleration, I know, I have received schooling (if not an education). But what about the force of personality, force of idea, force of thought and innovation, force of pioneering and more aptly – force of genius. It is a word that has always been used rather generously, especially in sport, ‘genius’. Magnus Carlsen, World Champion at 23, ‘boy-genius’. Roger Federer rolling back the years at 35, must be ‘genius’. Floyd Mayweather’s 50 for 50, ‘If that’s not genius I don’t know what is’. Fans of Swimming and Athletics (and the Jamaican way of life per say) will throw in Phelps and Bolt. Racing fans will scream Senna, ‘Come on, are you kidding me? Senna was ‘Genius’ bar none’. I hear you. Now, hear me
To understand genius, we need to also understand another word thrown around in any cursory conversation of football these days – ‘philosophy’. Any decent manager hired by any decent club today must have philosophy on his resume. Does he prefer possession football or play on the counter, three at the back versus four versus five versus Tony Pulis? Fullbacks versus inverted fullbacks, how do his wingers swap flanks, how often do they swap, does the striker fall back to defend corners, do they press as team, press in zones, mark the same man, mark zonally, the list is endless but the philosophy is well defined. These ideas have been well understood and frequently discussed among the coaching community for some time now. But since when did we, the fans, start caring and why did we suddenly question Craig Levin in 2011, (Scotland manager at the time), when he employed a ‘striker less’ 4-6-0 formation against the Czech Republic in a Euro 2012 qualifier. And why did we laud the Kingsley ‘Del Bosque’ for using the same 4-6-0 to guide Spain to the Euro 2012, less than a year later. Tactics had officially gone off the coaching manual and finally entered the pre-game pub discussion.
Pep Guardiola’s reputation, at Barcelona, as a player is secure. He was an integral member of the Dream Team of 1992 and, until his departure in 2001, lifted 16 trophies with the Blaugrana. An industrious midfielder under club icon ‘Johan Cruyff’, he didn’t have it as easy as some would like to believe. Cryuff regularly demanded more of Pep, whether it be during training sessions or on the pitch. He demanded, that the youth team manager move the teenage Guardiola to a central role halfway through a league game. Pep didn’t disappoint. He didn’t disappoint a few years later during the last European Cup (before the christening of the Champions League), when Barcelona defeated Sampdoria 1-0 after a piledriver of a free kick, scored by the now Everton gaffer, Ronald Koeman. Five years later, he completed his professional journey after being named the captain of the first team by new manager Louis Van Gaal. A catalan leading the biggest club in Catalunya was a story too good to be true. Unfortunately, that is as good as it got. Pep’s career faded away in Italy, Qatar and Mexico, and his International career with ‘La Roja’ never took off with quarterfinal exits in the ’94 World Cup and ’00 Euros punctuated by a fallout with the national team manager and a career-threatening injury in between.
Towards the end of his career, especially after his departure from Barcelona, Pep increasingly began to immerse himself in understanding the game from a manager’s perspective. Being a naturally thoughtful and obsessive person, he realized that there lay a life in football for him after his playing days were over. Now that the burden of the Nou Camp had been lifted from his shoulders, Pep embarked on a remarkable journey that first took him first to Brescia and later to Roma in Italy. At Roma, he had the privilege of working under Fabio Capello, whose Milan had so admirably humbled the Dream Team at the 1994 Champions League Final. After moving back to Brescia, followed by a paid vacation to Qatar, Guardiola decided to move to Dorados in Mexico to further his education. At Dorados, Pep learned the importance of match preparation from his longtime friend Juan Manuel Lillo. The pair would stay awake into the wee hours of the morning, discussing their ideas and philosophies around the game and what they thought was the right way to play. He then went on a trip to Argentina and met Marcelo Bielsa, in Rosario, a man he considers to be one of the most influential figures in his life. Bielsa, fondly known as ‘El loco’, was already gaining mythical status among the new crop of managers at the time. Renowned for his obsessive attention to detail, and manic analysis of video footage, he demanded exhausting levels of contribution from his players – both during the game as well as in training. The pressing ideology powered by the constant running employed by so many managers today, have their seeds in Bielsa’s four core principles: concentration, permanent focus, rotation and improvisation. These four principles are the foundations of Pep’s philosophy. Even if Bielsa was bunkered in a crater on the moon, Pep would find a way to meet him, such was the sheer aura of his intellect and more pertinently for our discussion, the force of his genius.
The title of the ‘Greatest Influence on the Career of Pep Guardiola’ though, must be conceded by all, even Bielsa, to the most irresistibly innovative man in the history of the game, Johan Cryuff. He runs through every throbbing vein of the club, its every beating heart. Last year, at the launch of Cruyff’s autobiography in London, Guardiola expressed no doubt when he said he knew nothing about football before he met the great man. Back in the day, a young Pep, making his first start in the senior team, received a severely harsh assessment of his performance from Cruyff at halftime. The manager barked “You were slower than my granny!”. He didn’t start the second half and had to wait nearly 18 months before playing another game for the first team. Little did he know at that time, that Cruyff had a unique way protecting the people whom he demanded the most of. The words have stuck with him to this day ‘You were slower than my granny’. Pep imagined never playing for his boyhood club again but Cruyff knew better. He defied convention by deploying a lanky teenager in front of the back four who would be the originating source for everything the team did moving forward, the point of confluence between attack and defense, the one man without whom the show would never get on the road, in Pep Guardiola, Johan Cryuff had his conductor.
In the summer of 2008, Pep marched into the Camp Nou to rebuild a side that had gone trophy-less in the past two seasons. The magic and flair of Ronaldinho that had catapulted the team to their second European Cup in 2006, had fallen by the wayside and his undisciplined lifestyle finally caught up with the rest of the group. Frank Rijkaard was unable to re-ignite the mojo that had brought them multiple pieces of silverware, both at home and abroad, and the board decided it was time to move the club into the next era. Interestingly, the bookies made Jose Mourinho favorites to be the next man in charge and there were many on the board who were aching for his winning mentality and squad building attributes. But a move for Jose would mean shying away from the club’s principles of long-term planning and in-house talent development. A meeting with Mourinho, now a part of the folklore, did, in fact, take place where the Portuguese was candid about his antics during press conferences and mind wars that he often played before and after games.
Eventually, the knowledge of the meeting was leaked to the press, most likely by a cohort of Mourinho, that turned the tide in favor of Pep, who by then was earning admirers on a weekly basis through his exploits with the Barca B side.
All of Gaurdiola’s education, right from the time of being a graduate at La Masia, to his rise under Cryuff, to Bobby Robson, Van Gaal, Capello, Limo, and Bielsa was now to be put through a test that would be greater than the sum of all his challenges thus far. He built a side around homegrown Catalan players with a Catalan captain in Carles Puyol at the helm. Barcelona employed a revolutionary new style of possession football that demanded defenders be complete attackers, and attackers be capable of being the first line of defense. Guardiola looked to be in control of the game always by demanding constant pressing and tireless running in all areas of the pitch. When his team had possession, he would want to require the player in possession of the ball be in a position to be able to pass to any other player on the pitch. This was a revelation in the modern game that was moving towards strong musclemen in midfield coupled with even stronger men up front, as lone strikers. Managers of the day preferred to pack the midfield with players much like Guardiola, who would be physically adept at shielding the ball and be able to release the ball to the one, at most two, seriously creative players on the pitch. By essentially playing eleven midfielders on the pitch, Pep looked to seize the initiative back from the strongmen in midfield as the opposing team now had to deal with eight or nine world-class passers of the ball instead of two or three.
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Pep has often remarked during his recent managerial career that Cryuff talks to him all the time. Decades before, he had opened a young Gaurdiola’s eyes to the merits of being a smart player instead of being a physically strong player. When it came to aerial balls, he would instruct Pep not to go head to head with a bulkier player in the air, but to position himself accordingly and look for the second ball. This has lived on with Pep. This simple detail has been brought up many times by Pep during his interviews and press conferences. Especially, after joining City, he keeps harping about spending entire training sessions on practicing ‘Second Balls”. He admits it is something very boring, something that doesn’t inspire him but the all controlling and compulsive nature in Pep does not allow this detail to go ignored. To some, it does appear excessive, this need to be in control at all times. He would spend hours studying opposition footage when he was the coach of the Barca B side, something that was unprecedented in the third division. This excessiveness was probably what brought down the curtains to his managerial spell at Barcelona. In the final season, he confessed to his longtime friend Txiki Begiristain, then the Football Director at the club, that he was no longer able to control the situations on the pitch like he used to earlier. He would constantly fight with the fear of knowing that every team was out to beat him.
Pep had seen the pitfalls of being a coach at Barcelona from his time under Cryuff. The politics and the machinations of the board find the devil in everyone and it becomes difficult to not take a position either way and to stay away from it altogether. Presidencies are campaigned for either with the support of the current manager or with the promise of a new one once the elections have been won. In his opinion, Pep was always just a football man and he refused to participate in the gerrymandering that goes on higher up. So, in the spring of 2012, Sandro Rossell (Club President at the time), admitted defeat to the inevitable. Pep by now looked a pale figure, with a near white beard and the complexion of a man who had reached the end of a cycle. In his final press conference at the Camp Nou, a sullen Pep said
“The only reason is time. Four years wears everything out. And it has worn me out. I am empty and I need to be filled again.”
Fortunately for the rest of the football fraternity, Pep had not given up on the game. He clearly wanted to learn more, learn new styles, develop his philosophy further and understand the game in different countries. His time at Bayern was a muted success. Having failed to deliver the Champions league in his three seasons at Bavaria, Pep still managed to transfer his style onto the pitch and win legions of fans across Germany with his strong command over the German Language and by inheriting a fondness towards beer. He seemed happier without the chains that the Barca job brought with it.
So far in England, the conductor in our story has had a mixed start. Pep has admitted trouble in controlling games in England. The strength and depth of the league has also surprised him. Some have criticised his stubbornness in sticking with Claudio Bravo over the course of last season. Some have condemned him to failure already. But by categorizing his legacy in binary terms, we are missing the point wholly. For Pep, this is still part of the education he embarked on, all those years ago. It is unkind of the press to expect him to change English Football. In a recent interview with Gary Lineker, former England forward asked him whether the frenetic, box to box, un-orderly style of play in Premier League was hampering the English National Team’s chances in major tournaments. Pep replied in a way only an ardent and humble student of the game could. He said “It is difficult to change what is in your blood, what is in your body and all the history that comes with playing that way. And change it for what? For one guy (referring to himself) who comes from another country, who has had success in the past. It is stupid.” With those words, he made it amply clear that no matter how good he supposedly may be, Pep Guardiola is not bigger than the game, bigger than the history of its traditions and styles and tactics and philosophies. He doesn’t wish to own English football the same way he refuses to own possession football. His genius comes from his knowledge of all the things he cannot change and all the rules he cannot bend. Pep Guardiola wants to keep learning, innovating, experimenting, theorizing and executing the processes that he believes will make this game we love, even better. To the conductor, his process is everything, winning is merely an afterthought.