When Pep Guardiola lifted the FA Community Shield on Sunday, it was the 29th time he’d held a trophy aloft in his managerial career that has spanned over just 12 years. The Manchester City manager sat down for an in-depth interview with GOL over the summer and discussed his beliefs, tactics and what makes him tick as a serial-winner.
Here’s part 1 of the interview:
Q. If you could give one message to the Pep Guardiola who was just starting at Barcelona B in 2007, what would you say?
A. Great question. I think at the start I had a clear idea, saying “This is what I want to do”. After a few months I realized that the principles must always be in place, but you’ve got to continuously adjust. Different players interpret things in different ways; we must adjust constantly.
Q. Can a football coach take inspiration from other sports?
A. Yes. I love all sports. It’s true that handball has various tactical concepts, for example, defensive set-ups, triangles, how to play around the pivot. Then there’s golf which completely depends on the mental aspects, how they play under such pressure. I find sport at the elite level fascinating; how they recover from losses, bad moments or losing in the last minutes. There’s some players that stand up and say “I’m here”, others disappear. I love to study people’s reactions.
Q. Last season’s Premier League went right to the wire. You won the league against a team that only lost one game out of 38. Was it more satisfying to win in that way?
A. The rival always gives the value to the competition. Liverpool were at an incredible level, the hardest I’ve faced in my life. The leagues in Spain and Germany were tough, but this was especially tough. Klopp’s team had everything; the positional attacks hurt us, but we managed to beat them. Getting 100 points the season before was fantastic, but remember we came back from seven points behind with 14 consecutive wins to claim the ‘back-to-back’ title in a country like England where Liverpool haven’t won the league in 30 years. Just think about that. Spain has Madrid and Barca, England has Manchester United and Liverpool, when you realise the latter haven’t won the title in 30 years it makes you think “wow”.
Q. In England you have many rivals, does this give you the daily stimulation?
A. I need enemies. I love when people hate me and hope I fail. It gives me fire and makes me think “OK, watch this.” It’s a necessity for all athletes, not only coaches. This kept us going and helps us perform every three days. I live for the league titles – though, I’d give a lot to win the Champions League – but remember it’s only seven games. We missed a penalty in the eleventh minute at Spurs and then Aymeric Laporte, the best centre-back in Europe, made his only two mistakes of the year and we were out. But the league is every three days; winter never finishes in England, seriously, it lasts from October until March and conditions are tough. We have to be there everyday.
I love the English, especially the fans; the Premier League is the real competition for them. It’s a great, great league. Big stadiums, big games, and any team can lose against any other. We know that whichever ground we go to, they’re going to compete. It’s so demanding. There’s many conditions that level it out that we can’t control; the weather is one that has a huge influence.
There’s small pitches where it feels like there can be seven goals in 10 minutes. Of course there aren’t really seven goals, but the atmosphere and environment makes it feel that way. I’ve found things that I would never see at Barcelona. For example, when we play Burnley, they work off second balls and set-pieces; hitting the channels and looking for throw-ins. On their pitch, it’s impossible to not concede corners and throw-ins; even though we spent the whole week preparing by saying “don’t make fouls, make the extra-pass to avoid the defensive transition, let’s not concede cheap set-pieces.” With the likes of Kun Agüero, David Silva, Bernardo Silva and İlkay Gündoğan on the pitch, we can’t give them free crosses into our box.
I remember that after just a few weeks in England, I realised that I had arrived to a different planet. I had to change my ways of thinking and train more on defending the second balls. At Barcelona, my assistants supplied information on the counter-attacking traits of Mourinho’s Madrid and we said “we need to be so cautious of losing the ball against these guys”, then in Germany I had to change again as we didn’t have the options of ‘security-passes’ that we had in Barcelona – as it was extremely unlikely that Barca’s midfielders would lose the ball – but in Germany my players didn’t have these specific qualities, they had others; therefore I knew we couldn’t leave 40 metres of space behind us. At Barcelona we knew everyone could play and join in attacks with Leo (Messi) and Andres (Iniesta) left centrally to attract opponents and link play. I had to learn about sacrificing players in attack in order to leave players back with just defending roles when starting in both Germany and England. I couldn’t just turn up and say “Ok, I’m going to play in my own way, get rid of this 15 and give me 15 new players please.”
I arrived and had the likes of Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and others who didn’t have this ability to keep the ball. I had great dribblers and other types of players, but none with the qualities to play how I did in Barcelona. In the third year I knew the players better and we also had Xabi Alonso and Philipp Lahm playing centrally; we played with more distinct. When I arrived to Manchester, the people said “Oh, you have to win in your first year!”…no, I need time! I need to know the players, I need to know the league, I need to know what works and doesn’t work against certain teams and then adjust. Adjust to the long balls, adjust to the teams playing off second balls and adjust to referees not awarding the fouls; it’s not imitable. I still need time to adapt to the referees – when a player pushes through the back of an opponent to then take the ball, it’s not a foul – the English referees won’t change – so I need to adjust.
We have to look at the opponents. If they’re tall then we need to play as far away from our goal as possible. If we’re deep, we have real difficulties against these teams. We have players who’re short in height but play with extreme technical quality. So when I came, I immediately signed Claudio Bravo so that we could play out from the back and create 2v1s all over the pitch. This is what I learned as a kid at Barcelona’s academy, and I carried the belief as a player and now as a manager, coaching it in different countries.
Q. The World Cup in Russia showed many physical teams playing in a low block against more technically gifted opponents who circulated the ball expecting the opposition to tire but the teams were so well organised and in good physical condition to survive. This past season in Spain saw winning teams also have a lot less possession. Has there been a change in football or is it just a coincidence?
A. Firstly, it’s extremely difficult to work on a process of attack in the three or four weeks that a national team have at a tournament as that stuff takes a lot of time. It’s far simpler to play in a 4-4-2, defending and counter-attacking as it takes less time to perfect. To play with positional football and attack spall spaces is so complicated; each player has so many individual roles.
Q. But Spain won consecutive trophies playing with the ball and then Germany won in 2014. Then Portugal and France won with a contrasting philosophy. Look at Real Betis last season, they had more possession than anyone else in La Liga but didn’t even qualify for Europe.
A. Yes, but it depends where you have the ball. Are you creating chances? You need to be decisive and ruthless in the final third. At City we had the record for the most passes in the Champions League last season, but 80% of them were between the two centre-backs; these numbers are nothing, they count for nothing, there’s no point in them. This isn’t possession!
If you do nothing with the ball then what’s the point?! Everyone in the world knows when you’re playing with meaning or when you’re just playing because you like having the ball. If your possession doesn’t have motion, it’s like living without a life; it’s more dangerous to play like that. I may as well just sit down with my legs crossed on the bench, waiting for the opposition to counter attack. As both a person and coach I love to have the initiative, that means playing higher up the pitch, in-and-around the final third and creating chances on goal.
Q. Is this why you prefer quicker passing, playing in a high press and having players with personality who can beat players, make things happen and score? Do they need to think like individuals in the final third?
A. Of course, you can’t control everything from the bench. Like if I shout for them to play wide but they don’t see the full-back overlapping or we don’t have an overload there, they may see a better option centrally. It’s impossible to control everything. You need every kind of player in football, it’s not black and white. We need physically strong players, players who move well without the ball, players who can defend with 40 metres behind them, people who know when and where to pass to the free player.
What is good football from my point of view? It’s in studying the movements of the opponents and making the right decision. If I have a centre-back with the ball, my winger moves forward to attract the opponent, then I play to my full-back who now has more space. If I’m a centre-back and the opponent’s centre forward is closing me down, my fellow centre-back has more time and space so I give it to him. If I’m a centre-back and my attacking midfielder drops in deep to unbalance the opposition midfield then I give it to my other midfielder who is now in the space. The process of positional football is to move the opponents, then they make your decisions for you and from there we play.
Here’s part 3:
Here’s part 4:
Translated by Alex Clapham