May 1, 2009. Late night at the Cuitat Esportiva Joan Gamper training complex, FC Barcelona Head Coach Pep Guardiola is sitting in his office when a gentle knock at the door is barely heard over the cogs ticking in the Catalan coach’s eminent mind that has been working in overdrive for the past 3 hours, viewing videos of his team’s opponents of the following day, Real Madrid.
A 21-year old, shaggy-haired Lionel Messi pops his head inside the door to be greeted by his manager who rushed the Argentine into a chair by the screen that lay before them. Pep had called the left-footed wonderkid 30-minutes prior and requested him to come by for a quick chat.
The coach paused the video to point out an empty space infront of the Madrid backline.
“Tomorrow in Madrid I want you to start on the wing as usual, but the minute I give you a sign I want you to move away from the midfielders and into the space I just showed you. The moment Xavi or Iniesta break between the lines and give you the ball I want you to head straight for Casillas’ goal. This will now be known as ‘The Messi Zone’”
Barcelona ran out 6-2 winners in what was a famous victory for the Catalan club in the back garden of their fiercest rivals where the number 10 that stands at 5 foot and 7 inches tall left Los Blancos startled, scoring twice and laying on another for Thierry Henry whilst repeatedly popping up in empty pockets of space to destroy Juande Ramos’ men. Following an intense opening 10 minutes, Pep gave the signal for Messi and central striker Samuel Eto’o to change roles, with his manager’s words from the night before still in his head, the Argentine knew the plot (that had been a secret between the two until moments before the game when Guardiola’s assistant Tito Vilanova was advised and Xavi and Andres Iniesta were given the key to defeat the reigning champions of Spain in their Santiago Bernabeu Stadium) and dropped into areas 10-yards deeper than his Cameroonian colleague took up previously.
Fabio Cannavaro and Christoph Metzelder made up the central-defensive duo of Madrid and neither of the two will forget the nightmare of an evening that was handed to them via the mind of Guardiola and the feet of Messi. The German defender recently admitted “Fabio and I looked at each other. ‘What do we do? Do we follow him to the midfield or stay deep?’ We didn’t have a clue.” The experienced partnership didn’t know whether to stick or twist and found themselves at sixes-and-sevens all night long.
“The False 9” had landed, and there couldn’t have been a bigger stage for its arrival than El Clasico.
Nine months before the footballing demolition in the Capital, a series of events took place that made both board members and players alike sit up to take notice of Guardiola and his ways. Immediately after his promotion from the B team manager post, Pep took the first team squad to Edinburgh, Scotland to complete a pre-season camp. Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi were a few of the multiple young, impressionable talents that the Catalan coach saw as the future of the club and Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta were the two that Pep pushed into the leading hotseats following the departures of several stars that Guardiola saw as dead wood – “I recall saying to Iniesta that we’d better hop on this train or it will pass us by.” said Xavi – Pep had recently shook the footballing world by controversially ridding his squad of the previous Balon d’Or winner and club legend Ronaldinho as well as Deco, who had also won several trophies with the Catalan giants.
The two Brazilians were seen as distractions and bad influences by the new man in charge and he wasn’t willing to take a chance on either of them as he was more than aware of the commotions caused in the previous 18-months, seeing their decline in form and lack of professionalism as a huge reason for his predecessor Frank Rijkaard being released from his duties following two exasperatingly bad trophyless seasons for the club that Guardiola loved so dearly.
The idea of the Scottish tour was to bring togetherness and fitness to his squad (many of which returning from the Spanish national team’s 2008 European Championship win) after a grueling summer. However, “togetherness” was not the feeling in the air when the typically subdued and reserved Lionel Messi flung to his feet to square-up-to Rafael Marquez after the Mexican had clumsily left ‘Leo’ sprawling on the St. Andrews turf with a late challenge from behind. Teammates jumped inbetween the two and the new, protective coach pulled the irate Argentine to one side, asking “What’s the problem? You have been miserably moping around all week with a bad temper”, Messi shrugged and replied “nothing” whilst looking at the ground in the way that an adolescent teenage boy would to his father’s accusations.
Guardiola was more than wise to the heated altercation taking place between the Argentine Football Federation and FC Barcelona Club President Joan Laporte over Messi being permitted to play in the 2008 Olympics in China. As the player that he intended to build his team around was in complete disarray, Pep risked his job right away by going against the club’s orders, (of keeping their Argentine superstar intact by having him under the club’s supervision at all times) telling the prodigy “I understand the importance of representing your country at an Olympics, I won gold for Spain in 1992 and it’s one of the greatest memories of my life. Go to Beijing, play for your country and come back as the leader of this group that supports you. I will deal with the President.”
“La Pulga” (“The Flea” – a nickname given to Messi by his older brothers and used by Argentine teammates) was on a flight heading east the following morning and returned to Europe a fortnight later with a gold medal around his neck, smile on his face and complete faith and adoration for his new manager.
Having a strong-minded Lionel Messi onside was everything to Pep Guardiola. He demanded that the club ‘Socios’ respected his decision and remained patient – winning the trust of the star was of huge importance to Guardiola’s plans. Pep allowed the number 10 to play freely without shackles when in possession and the boy from Rosario went on to notch an incredible 38 goals that term, landing himself the Balon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year trophies for 2009 as the focal point in Guardiola’s Barcelona side that ran out as La Liga, Copa Del Rey and Champions League winners to complete a treble in the manager’s first season at the helm.
Josep Guardiola Sala was born to parents Dolors and Valenti in the small town of Santpedor, Catalonia and picked up by FC Barcelona at the age of 13 whilst playing for his school team. Though he found his early days in ‘La Masia’ difficult due to his homesickness, the gangly teen soon settled and his vision, reading and control of games saw him fly through the ranks, captaining youth teams and making his B team debut in 1990 against Cadiz CF.
A compelling figure in Pep’s life is Johan Cruyff; who once turned up unannounced to the Mini Estadi to view a B team fixture and wandered down to the home team’s dug-out, asking Charly Rexach, the youth team manager at the time, the name of the young lad playing on the right hand side. “Guardiola – good lad” was the response that the Dutch great ignored, demanding that the then 19-year old Pep was moved into the middle as a ‘pivot’ for the second half. The number 4 spent the rest of his playing career in the said role and went on to become a first team regular under Cruyff the following season, playing a key role in the 1991-92 season that saw Barça lift the La Liga trophy alongside the European Cup.
Following Cruyff’s sacking by President Josep Lluis Nunez in 1997 after two seasons without silverware, Pep remained a central act in the midfield and went on to play under 2 more extremely strong-minded managers in Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal, however the famous Dutch legend is the one that captured Guardiola’s heart and imagination, molding his thinking style and innovative tactical exploits over future years.
During the 1974 World Cup held in West Germany, the great Cruyff led a Netherlands squad labelled as “The greatest team to never lift the World Cup” to the brink of success, only to lose desperately in the final to the hosts. The tournament launched a brand new concept of football into the world’s eyes and captured both the imagination and the hearts of onlookers. The “Orange Machine” played a captivating style where the ball rarely left the ground, all players were technically comfortable and skill and ability were prioritised in a time where speed and physical strength were often preferred.
Amongst the short passing and patient build-up play, there was something else that was completely unheard of; using the full-backs as a key part of the attacking game plan. Across the world, left and right backs were all so often the last positions to be filled. However, Ruud Krol (left back) and Wim Suurbier (right back) were seen gallivanting down the wings to provide support to the Netherlands wide men Rob Rensenbrink and Johnny Rep. They were key figures in the attacking moves and philosophies of coaches Rinus Michels and Ernst Happel. This became a fad for many teams across the world, especially in South America. Guardiola played for Cruyff’s Barcelona in a role that is known in Spain simply as the “Number 6”.
As years have gone by, it has become more and more common to hear of the position just in front of the defence and behind the midfield: the holding midfielder. Though much of Barça’s play commenced through Guardiola’s pin-point passing, he was predominantly there to break up counter attacks and offer support to the defensive-line so that the full-backs Juan Carlos (left back) and Eusebio (right back) could have the freedom to offer an addition to attacking solutions and create from wide areas.
If the Dutchman laid the foundations, then Pep Guardiola most definitely built upon them and his system at Barça was certainly redolent of the flavour instilled in the club by Cruyff.
Pep spent many successful years representing his boyhood club, playing at the heart of the Blaugrana midfield until the age of 30, playing out the remainder of his days with various stints in Italy, Qatar and Mexico. His first coaching role was with FC Barcelona’s B team and through his visionary thinking he made huge changes that were initially questioned by the club hierarchy and young players alike. As well as training times and structures being altered, nutrition and diet regimes were put in place, sleeping patterns were changed and he often gathered his budding squad together for tactical chats whilst showing videos that the Catalan had collected from his scouts. These were all brand new approaches to day-to-day work, alien to the players.
The young team raced to promotion to the Segunda division under Guardiola and Laporta was quick to promote Pep to the manager’s position of the first team at only 36-years of age. Alongside the Canary Island born Pedro Rogriguez, Sergio Busquets made the move across the road to the Camp Nou with Guardiola and was thrown into a crucial role immediately. New faces, new style and most crucially, new visions were in place at Barça. The Number 6 from Badia, Catalonia showed footwork that saw Culés rise to their feet in approval and a range of passing that can start an attacking move from nothing. ‘Busi’ has the reading of the game and football mind that led Guardiola to quote “If I could come back and play as any player, it would be Sergio Busquets.”
The security of Busquets retreating into a central defensive role from midfield not only gave full-backs Dani Alves and Éric Abidal licenses to maraud down the flanks, but also Xavi and Iniesta had the assurance of an intelligent, physical player behind them that could link-up play and assist as well as any midfielder across the globe.
With a full-throttle 4-3-3 formation that his successors have been using ever since, Guardiola became the club’s most successful manager of all time by winning a stupendous 15 titles in only 4 seasons to surpass his idol Johan Cruyff’s record of 11 trophies. The world was set alight by Pep’s every move, his team’s constant pressing that suffocated opponents and the mezmerizing passing game that became known by the footballing public as “Tiki-Taka” – a phrase that the coach actually despises.
Playing with extreme width at all times, whether it be the attack-minded full-backs (known as “Laterales” and a hugely vital part of Pep’s game-plan) or the wide forwards, there was always an outlet. All 11 players were comfortable with the ball – including Victor Valdes in goal – and opponents would be sucked into tight areas as passes were zipped around in hypnotizing, one-touch passing moves before any given player would spring out and away from the defenders (which were absorbed to the ball) and switch play, often creating an 1-against-1 for the player in space before a teammate could apply the support to double up on the compunctious opponents.
The services of Cesc Fàbregas were re-appointed from Arsenal in the summer of 2011 and his arrival resulted in the ever-evolving Guardiola adjusting to a 3-4-3 formation with the new signing in an attacking midfield role infront of Busquets – the formation was used to great effect by Cruyff during his most successful days at the club. On one occasion in a 5-0 victory over Villarreal CF, Pep raised eyebrows by not naming a single defender in his XI as Argentine defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano accompanied Busquets and Seydou Keita in the back three.
Far from a disciplinarian, but a man that has respect as his number one request from his peers, the coach is a head-strong individual that demands his players put the team’s needs before their personal ones. Thierry Henry tells the story: “Pep demands a lot from his players. If you were late for training then you didn’t train. The Boss explained how important it is to stay in our positions and trust our teammates to do their jobs, as they will trust you to be in your place and do yours. There was one occasion where 30 minutes had passed and I wasn’t getting much of the ball. I took it upon myself to switch wings, going over to the right where all the action was. I scored one and assisted another in the last 15 minutes of the first period. The Manager brought me off at half time. I knew why.”
Pep has an edge to him and the media and (the then Real Madrid manager) Jose Mourinho felt the full brunt of it in April 2011. As Rijkaard was sacked by the club, both Guardiola and the Portuguese coach interviewed for the job.
The pair’s relationship goes back to the 90’s when Mourinho assisted Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal at Barcelona whilst Pep was still playing there. Due to league and cup competitions, El Clasico was a fixture played out 4 times in the space of 16 days and in the hours leading upto a Champions League semi-final between the two, the Madrid boss threw personal jabs in the direction of the Catalan and a number of his players.
It is claimed that many of the board of directors at FC Barcelona preferred Mourinho out of the two coaches, however the outspoken manager couldn’t make the promise of remaining respectful to opposition coaches and officials – this is a vital part of the ‘Mes Que Un Club’ image at the Camp Nou and Guardiola was the chosen candidate. As the players and coaching staffwatched Guardiola’s interview the day before the game, not one of them can claim to have been unmoved by their boss’ response to the questions poked at him by the Madrid press, quoting the comments of Los Blancos boss and prompting Pep to finally lose his cool, years after constantly remaining silent whilst taking criticism weekly from the Capital in a war of words as one-sided as you’ll see.
The Barcelona Coach sat staring into the eyes of the reporter, sipped from his bottle of water, cleared his throat and fired back: “As Mr Jose took the option to refer to me, somebody he once worked alongside and had a friendship with as Mr Pep before accusing me of things that are ultimately rubbish, I’ll too refer to him by his first name. Which one is Mr Jose’s camera? In this room, I cannot and will not compete with him. He has created his own competition in the press-room and he wins everything here. He is the f**king boss in here, nobody comes close to his level so he can have his own Champions League trophy for winning press conferences. However, tomorrow evening at 8:45 my team will go out to the pitch and compete against his players. Football is the only competition that I care for. ”
Pep stood up and walked out of the media room to return to the dining room where his players welcomed him with a standing ovation. Every Culé remembers where they were when they witnessed this Guardiola explosion that has gone down in Barcelona folklore, a favourable memory amongst the many that Pep gave to the fans.
Twenty four hours later, the talking was over with and the football began. There was only one football team in sight as Barça steamrolled over Madrid in a game where Mourinho’s men were left too wound up and made erratic errors that the Blaugrana were more than happy to take advantage of, an inspired Leo Messi display, including an individual goal that dropped jaws, led Barcelona to the Wembley final that they also won comfortably against a Manchester United that were far below the levels to come close to Pep’s men, deemed “The greatest team of all time” following the European victory.
A man of the City that met his wife Cristina whilst shoe shopping when he was an apprentice at La Masia, aged 18 – after 3 years of marriage the pair welcomed Maria, the first of their three children into the world and Màrius and Valentina soon followed. Even as Head Coach of the Champions of Spain and Europe, Guardiola only missed school runs if his team were out of town for a midweek away fixture, taking time to chat with parents and passing locals about day-to-day life, school events and of course football.
In a love affair with the game and having admitted to locking himself away in his house to work on tactical equations and how to gain the next 3 points in a way that was true to his style and beliefs, he was the face of FC Barcelona, attending press conferences regarding political matters (even today, Guardiola regularly attends the city to promote and vote in favour of Independence of Catalonia) and gave his life to the club – until it was all too much.
In April 2012, following FC Barcelona’s exit from the Champions League at the hands of eventual winners Chelsea, Pep Guardiola announced that he would step down from his role in what he described as his “dream job”.
During his press conference in front of the world’s cameras and microphones, his adoring fans listened with despair as their hero used words such as “drained” and “empty” in his list of reasons to resign. This was seen as the end of an era by the football world.
Following a somewhat abrupt end to a spectacularly successful four years in Barcelona, the Catalan decided to take a year’s sabbatical in New York City, away from football and spending more time with his beloved family, learning languages and finding pleasures in day to day life that he wasn’t allowed to do so in Europe with the cameras and press following his every move.
In January 2013, German giants Bayern Munich announced that after 13 months away from the game and the public eye, and having turned down offers from clubs in England and Italy, Pep Guardiola would be taking the reins passed on to him by Jupp Heynckes.
Leading his family into a one in a million culture and way of living in a country where they didn’t speak the language and, all off the back of a treble winning, record breaking season (Heynckes’ Bayern broke or equalled 30 Bundesliga records during the 2012-13 season) was no mean feat and Guardiola arrived refreshed both mentally and physically to take on the daunting challenges that awaited.
Bringing diverse training methods to the Germans was no surprise to anybody. Sessions were tactically and technically driven with a ball used at all times and in the first few weeks the players of the “Munich Machine” would end the 2 hour sessions by requesting to do uphill sprints – all to feel as though they had worked hard after the rondos and passing circuits were completed – Pep stood, hands in pockets and laughed as Bastian Schweinsteiger and Arjen Robben would lead the charge of imposing athletes that raced up and down the banking under the Bavarian sunshine before going inside to shower off.
3-4-3? 4-3-3? 3-1-2-1-3? The man of Santpedor describes formations as “just numbers – phone numbers” and thinks of football as a game of chess, every single movement and thought process is simply a reaction to where opposition, teammates and the ball are. “COLOCAMOS” (We Locate!) and “SITIOS” (Positions) were screams often heard from the snappily suited boss on the Camp Nou touchline.
Guardiola’s Bayern team have been seen changing shape upto seven times in a single game, yet the coach feels that formations are a myth as each player will naturally swap and change positions during the game as to disorganise opponents and double up on the strongest side before popping up with an overlapping full-back on the other wing to finish a move. Pep wastes no time and isn’t too proud to change things completely if plans aren’t materialising the way he wished. He has been seen passing notes to players to address ongoings at the opposite side of the field to the dug-out or orchestrating a set-piece.
Under Guardiola, Munich won back to back Bundesliga trophies that will sit prettily on the mantelpiece alongside the independent successes in the DFB-Pokal Cup, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA World Club Cup that the coach boasted in his first 2 seasons in Germany.
A 3-1 defeat in Porto in the 2014/15 Champions League quarter-final shocked the football world and Pep’s tactically versatile brain rocketed his side into the into the 2nd leg of the tie in a 2-3-5 formation – the 5 attackers; 2 wingers, 2 inside forwards and 1 striker – his team sprinted into a 5-0 half time lead, leaving the shell-shocked Portuguese side in their dust. He reverted to a slightly more modest 3-2-1-3-1 shape for the second 45 minutes, Robert Lewandowski spearheading the attack.
On the 4th October 2015, Guardiola’s men faced their old enemy Borussia Dortmund for the first encounter of the season between the two. An Allianz Arena full to the rafters with a 75,000 capacity was roaring and the Bavarian fans were not left disappointed. Another magical afternoon was in store for them as Bayern played a marvelous, patient game, attempting to draw out the BVB defenders as to release wide men Douglas Costa and Mario Götze into spaces behind.
Thomas Müller gave the hosts a 2-1 lead from the penalty spot just before the break and Pep was all too aware that Dortmund Head Coach Thomas Tuchel’s high pressing game would be in full force during the early stages of the second half as they pined for an early equalizer; The German Champions altered their mindset completely and caught the BVB backline out with raking, direct passes from deep, quarter-back style positions – Polish striker Lewandowski bagged two quickfire goals and Götze added a fifth before the 20th minute of the second half as Borussia were caught completely cold.
With the three points all but in the sack in such a high profile game and more crucial fixtures coming thick and fast, Guardiola saw this as a glorious opportunity to do the unthinkable and put alternate tactical shapes and procedures into place during a game situation, spending the final 20 minutes bouncing up and down the touchline whilst screaming instructions to his players to drop, press and switch, all to test diversified strategies. A truly remarkable scene as their famous counterparts in yellow and black chased the ball like men in the middle of a rondo training exercise.
Sky-high ball retention levels are key to Pep’s game plan and his teams are notorious for closing down areas in the final 3rd, choosing to defend dynamically by regaining possession as soon as possible and keeping the ball. Spending hours on end practicing defensive shapes and maneuvers as to allow the central defenders the greatest opportunity available to bring the ball out and play, Guardiola’s side press from the front with an intent wall, and this results in his Goalkeepers being expected to ‘sweep up’ and aslo keen to join in the fun with outfield players behind an always perilously high backline. As the great coach once said; “There is no bigger risk than not taking a risk at all.
As well as shooting the already magical Messi into a galaxy of his own by caressing his instinctive talent and playing through him in his ‘False 9’ role created at Barça, due to his reading of the game and natural dominative attributes, Guardiola injected Munich club captain Philipp Lahm with a new lease of life by sliding him into a ‘number 6’ role – that Pep swears by. The veteran went onto lead his national team to a World Cup victory in 2014 whilst assigned to the role that Guardiola opened the mind of Joachim Löw to.
Pedro Rodriguez and Sergio Busquets were playing third division football in 2008 and only 20 months later – due to Pep’s guidance and protection – they were key figures in Spain’s World Cup winning team of 2010 in South Africa.
Now residing in Manchester, Pep is breaking all the rules and proving thousands wrong by dominating the English game whilst plying his ‘total football’ style.
The Catalan has ‘re-coached’ the majority of the squad and worked wonders in revitalising the careers of Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Fernandinho and of course Fabian Delph who is working as an inverted-fullback (a position invented by Guardiola that was first broadcast to the world at Bayern Munich) in a fascinating back four predominantly made up of three Yorkshiremen.
Manchester City are tearing up the rule book and breaking records weekly in the English Premier League that is deemed by many as ‘the most difficult division in the world’.
In Pep Guardiola, we have a spontaneous revolutionist and tactical innovator with meticulous coaching methods and whoever acquires his services will always embrace a serial winner.