Pep Guardiola: the thinker who reinvented the modern game

Pep Guardiola: the thinker who reinvented the modern game

This feature is part of The Masterminds

More than anything else, a football manager thinks about winning. It’s the source of their happiness, their confidence and, ultimately, keeps them in employment. No manager can quite match Pep Guardiola in this regard. There is nothing more important the current Manchester City boss than winning a football match. The thought never leaves his mind.

For Pep, who has, over the past eight years, been unofficially anointed the ‘all knowing’ football coach, winning supersedes everything. He coaches to win, not to entertain (although he manages that in enormous quantities), not to facilitate tactical innovations or even show off his astonishingly adept ability at moulding a squad, just to win.

It’s no secret that Guardiola’s philosophy and understanding of the game came from Johan Cruyff. Guardiola has often been quoted as saying that the Dutch legend was his biggest idol and a mentor he had nothing but respect for. Cruyff’s influence on the young Guardiola is almost incalculable, learning from his coach’s every move. However, from the moment the Dutchman handed Guardiola his Barcelona debut against Cádiz in December 1990, the apprentice began his path to surpassing his mentor.

More senior members of that fabled Barcelona squad helped Guardiola develop and introduced him to the unforgiving rigours of elite football. Guardiola was 19, lacked a great physique and wasn’t blessed with electrifying pace – but he had an insatiable appetite for learning. And winning.

Guardiola began his education from the moment of his inception in the Barcelona squad. However, the crucial difference between Guardiola and other burgeoning talents was that he was always looking for ways to make the team better, not just himself. From the very outset, he had an unshakable winning mentality and understanding of team chemistry, something that characterised his years as Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager. Even from his earliest days of playing, the seeds were being sown and the tree was growing in one of the most astute minds in modern football history.

Guardiola would often quiz Ronald Koeman about Ajax’s youth academy, their principles and their philosophy. He wasn’t arrogant and he didn’t overstep – he just wanted to learn.

From the beginning of his illustrious career with Barcelona, he was both Guardiola the player and Guardiola the student. While it’s become the norm to see the Premier League’s highest-earners descending on the flashiest clubs in London and Manchester, sporting ridiculous leather jackets and unveiling the latest ‘supercar’ from Bugatti or Ferrari, the Catalan press would never have such a story on Guardiola. He drove a Volkswagen Golf and, after training, he cared not for hitting the town, but going back to his flat and studying key players in opposition teams that Barcelona were due to face in the coming weeks.

During his six years playing under Cruyff at Camp Nou, Guardiola became increasingly infatuated with the Dutchman’s absolute preparation for a match. Under him, Guardiola learnt that a football match could be decided in thousands of ways. Despite the immense presence of Cruyff though, it’s down to Pep, the individual, as a student of the game and of his tactical school, to maintain the legacy, to adopt, adapt and advance his principles and visions. That has influenced Guardiola’s mindset of never switching off.

1313598297_extras_mosaico_noticia_1_g_0Cruyff and Guardiola

The Spaniard possesses a fascinating footballing brain. Not only is he naturally intelligent and hard working, he is relentless in the pursuit of improvement, not once appearing brash or as if he is attempting to cultivate an image of self-importance. He is merely trying to become the best Pep Guardiola he can be.

As he developed as a player, Guardiola began to influence more experienced players around him in the Barcelona team. Recognising his natural capacity for leadership, the players responded positively to this as Guardiola operated as Cruyff’s trusted lieutenant as the pivote in midfield. After his move to that position, Guardiola mastered the art of shielding the defence and instigated many of Barcelona’s attacks. In that particular position, Guardiola had plenty of possession, either from winning it back or receiving it from the defenders. Although Cruyff’s team played with intoxicating rumbustiousness, Guardiola became acutely aware of the need for possession, both recovering and retaining – two ideals that form the bedrock of his coaching blueprint.

Cruyff and Guardiola demanded the best from each other and others around them. Guardiola may be the unequivocal modern mastermind, but he was given his first masterclass in understanding football at an advanced level from Cruyff. However, a truly great student learns as much from his teacher’s weaknesses than from his strengths.

Cruyff’s Dream Team at Barcelona was an exhilarating outfit, brimming with attacking talent and a swashbuckling bravura that screamed to the opponent, “we’re going to outscore you”. Guardiola’s creations are somewhat different. While he has followed closely in the tactical footsteps of Cryuff, Guardiola has always pushed for greater discipline and positional awareness. Whilst Cruyff’s teams are symbolised by a thrilling abandon and freedom, Guardiola’s are more robust, methodical and immensely focused on winning over playing entertaining football. That has never been anywhere but at the forefront of Guardiola’s mind.



By the time he succeeded Frank Rijkaard as Barcelona’s head coach in 2008, Guardiola’s reputation as a gifted tactical mind was already well established. Under him, the Barcelona B team had flourished and played some exceptional, awe-inspiring football, winning the Segunda División B playoffs.

At the press conference to announce Guardiola’s appointment, Barcelona president Joan Laporta gave a brief but apt summation of Pep’s credentials in revitalising the club: “He has the knowledge, the enthusiasm, the self-confidence and the love for the club that are necessary.” Although Guardiola had zero experience in coaching at the highest level, the board had been unanimous in their approval, knowing that they were about to unleash the catalyst for the greatest, most decorated spell in the club’s history.

At the time of his appointment, Barcelona were a shadow of their former selves. Under Rijkaard, they had won the Champions League in 2006, but that was followed by an uncertain spell that brought two trophyless seasons. Guardiola’s first assignment was to win the hearts and minds of the players – and he did so with courtesy, honesty and respect.

At his first training session, in St. Andrew’s in Scotland, Guardiola spoke of coaching Barcelona as the “ultimate honour”. He lived and breathed the football club, from his time as a ball boy and fan to his years at La Masia and his time acting as the heartbeat in midfield. He spoke of a need to restore order and discipline to a side, he viewed, as being somewhat unprofessional at times. They were underachieving, he believed, and they weren’t playing for the badge.

Guardiola has always been a coach that has prioritised the badge and the shirt. He does not berate players for misplacing a pass or making a mistake – although it naturally upsets him – as long as he knows the player has given 100 percent effort. It sounds remarkably simple but, in football, the greatest beauties can sometimes come from the greatest simplicities.

From that moment, Guardiola had won the squad over. Senior players like Xavi immediately responded to Guardiola’s passion and intelligence, as well as his brilliant communication skills, pacing as he walked and locking eye contact with players at certain points to drive home his talk.

Barcelona’s team was bursting with creative and technical talents, but Guardiola refused to be drawn on previous records, natural ability or a player’s status. He demanded intelligence, intuition and rigorous preparation from everyone involved at the club. It is this mantra that explained his decision to sell Ronaldinho and Deco in the summer he arrived. The Brazilian had been a magician who had waved his wand in front of a spellbound Camp Nou for five years, rising to become the most feared, revered and outrageously skilful player on the planet.

However, Ronaldinho’s final season at Barça was a tortured one, plagued by injury and effectively marking the decline of a club great. What didn’t impress Guardiola, though, was a perceived lack of dedication to returning to his best. That shortage of application and an insufficient attitude towards his training and rehabilitation ultimately made Guardiola’s mind up. Having prepared immensely before his appointment, Guardiola knew exactly what shape the Barcelona squad was in, mentally and physically. He knew that Ronaldinho wouldn’t form part of his plans, whereas the lion-hearted Xavi and Carles Puyol would.

Deco was also deemed surplus to requirements and sold to Chelsea. For players like Xavi and Puyol, their careers had been building up towards being led by one extraordinarily intense individual. While Rijkaard had managed them well for a while, the squad had fallen apart under his tutelage and a drastic change was needed. Guardiola’s style and personality was exactly what the players needed. Intelligent, talented footballers don’t win titles. What does, however, is an unerring faith in a particular philosophy introduced by a manager who commands the respect and attention of the players.

The pieces can be there for years without effectively forging a formula for success. It takes a manager of Guardiola’s calibre and nous to bring everything together and get reinvigorate a club like Barcelona. A footballer under Guardiola needs to be prepared for the most intense scrutiny, analysis and observation – Deco and Ronaldinho weren’t prepared for that so they were sacrificed for the good of the team.

Wasting little time in conveying his methods, Guardiola set out a vision for Barcelona that was clear, simple and deadly when executed correctly. “I don’t want you all trying to dribble like Leo Messi – pass it, pass it and pass it again,” he told the team. “Pass precisely, move well, pass again, pass, pass and pass.

“I want every move to be smart, every pass accurate – that’s how we make the difference from the rest of the teams, that’s all I want to see.” It’s clear from these quotes from Graham Hunter’s book, Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, that Guardiola communicated the importance of intelligent football to his squad.


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For Guardiola, embracing a cavalier style where every player tries to emulate the unique dribbling sequences of Messi was close to disaster. He needed control, and he achieved it by introducing a 4-3-3, with Yaya Touré functioning as the pivote reincarnate. Guardiola demanded high pressing and retaining possession, resulting in a balanced system that brought about dizzying success in his maiden managerial voyage.

Guardiola’s Barcelona became peerless at an alarming rate, winning the treble, which included scoring 105 league goals, defeating Real Madrid 6-2 and dethroning Sir Alex Ferguson’s formidable Manchester United as the kings of European football.

That crowning achievement in the Champions League final showed Guardiola’s willingness to adapt and tweak his tactics. Although he is passionate about his over-arching philosophy, he is not uncompromising. As he says in Marti Perarnau’s Pep Confidential, his main mode of preparation is to study the opposition exhaustively and pick his team accordingly: “All I do is look at the footage of our opponents and then try to work out how to demolish them.”

This proactivity drives Guardiola to know, not only his own team, but also the opposing team inside out. As a result, in the clash of the rising star versus the doyen of European club management, Guardiola comfortably outclassed and outthought Ferguson, whom he greatly admired and respected.

After Samuel Eto’o delivered a sucker punch early goal, Barcelona dominated the game with unanswerable authority, stroking the ball around masterfully without response from United, who boasted Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney in the starting line-up. In United’s back line, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić had never been so unsettled and appeared frightened to pass the ball forward, knowing that Guardiola’s troops were inexorable in their pursuit to win possession back high up the pitch.

For that game, Guardiola also shifted Messi from a wide position and deployed him through the centre, which worked beautifully as the diminutive Argentine laid the final nail in United’s coffin with a perfectly placed header beyond Edwin van der Sar. There you had it. If Premier League fans hadn’t genuinely sat down to watch a Guardiola team before that night, they watched English football’s dominant force be blown away in Rome, having chased shadows for 90 minutes.

The post-match celebrations said it all. As soon as the final whistle blew, the players crowded round their jubilant manager and threw him high in the air. Guardiola shared hugs with all of his staff and players, before embracing Messi with particularly striking display of sentiment. Interestingly, Messi had not been overly impressed with Guardiola at the beginning of his tenure. Having sold his friends and mentors in Ronaldinho, Deco and Gianluca Zambrotta, the Argentine took exception to Guardiola’s overhaul.

At the time, Messi was also unhappy with the club’s refusal to let him play in the Olympic Games in Beijing because it clashed with the Champions League qualification process. However, when Guardiola initially reached out to the disgruntled player for counsel, Messi shrugged and said he was fine. What Guardiola realised was that his relationship with Messi would not be built upon constant verbal communication. Training him in the right way would bring about the greatest player the world has ever seen, during which Guardiola would silently act as the player’s mentor. At the end of that first season in charge, Messi and Guardiola’s special relationship has blossomed wonderfully and taken Barcelona to the summit of the world game.

To use an exhausted cliché, getting to the top is easy – staying there is the real challenge. Under Guardiola, Barcelona tightened their grip on Spanish football and ensured that the balance of power between themselves and Real Madrid remained in their favour. Guardiola continued to bring unprecedented levels of success to the club, claiming the La Liga title in 2010 and 2011 to go along with his first success. He also repeated the 2009 defeat of Manchester United with another assertive and thrilling display at Wembley Stadium.

Then, in the fourth season, Madrid finally exacted revenge and reclaimed the Spanish crown. After relinquishing supremacy in the domestic sphere, Guardiola was beleaguered, exhausted and in need of a break. What happened next is truly indicative of Guardiola’s understanding of the game and of himself.

Much to the dismay of the supporters, players and the board, Guardiola announced that he would be stepping down from his position in the summer of 2012. Four years had brought a record haul of 14 trophies and he was hailed consistently as the finest manager on the planet. However, those four years had also brought an immense amount of emotional strain and surrendering the title to Madrid in that final season prompted Guardiola to take a step back from the game.

Perarnau described Guardiola’s behind-the-scenes struggles like “he was the captain of a ponderous ocean liner as he fought to steer the club in one direction as the club pulled in another.” While it baffled some onlookers, it was exactly the right thing for Guardiola. After pouring everything into forming a foundation that would keep Barcelona ticking long after his departure, he was drained. He retreated from the game and took a year-long sabbatical in New York, embracing a different culture and spending lots of his time enjoying other elements of life that had not been possible previously.



After enjoying his time away from football, Guardiola began to do what he does best: analyse. His rigorous schedule of self-evaluation kicked back into overdrive during his time in New York when he felt that appetite for the game creeping back into his psyche. He had conducted a comprehensive breakdown as to why he had failed in his final season in charge of Barcelona, while meticulously planning his next move. That move would be to the Bundesliga, with Bavarian powerhouse Bayern Munich.

There had been rumours of a dream appointment for Chelsea or Manchester City, but Guardiola had chosen the greatest challenge of them all, succeeding Jupp Heynckes’ all-conquering treble-winning Bayern side in 2013. Guardiola was to become the next chief conductor in the Bavarian quest for utter dominance. In Guardiola, Bayern saw the ideal candidate to keep them at the vanguard of European football. Guardiola was the custodian of Bayern’s third phase. Louis van Gaal had overseen phase one, while Heynckes had executed phase two with unremitting brilliance.

Bayern represented another immense challenge for Guardiola, but it was a completely different beast than Barcelona. At Barça, he breathed new life into an underachieving and deflated squad. At Bayern, he somehow had to surpass expectations. His task was unenviable, being expected to simultaneously respect the groundwork laid by Heynckes whilst forging a Bayern of his own identity and character.

Van Gaal had managed the first phase well, bringing a domestic double in his first season while also reaching the Champions League final, where he was defeated by José Mourinho’s Inter Milan. However, there had been some reservations over the Dutchman’s style of play. Heynckes alleviated such worries, introducing a high-speed game which produced insane amounts of goals and was characterised by a constant fluid movement of the attacking players. Heynckes had claimed the treble in dominant fashion, dropping only two points in the entire second half of the Bundesliga season, while winning 14 consecutive matches from January onwards and being confirmed as champions on 6 April 2013 – the earliest a team had ever won the Bundesliga.

Heynckes’ machine broke several other records during that season, including most points in a season (91), highest league winning points margin (25), most wins in a season (29), longest winning streak in a season (14), most clean sheets in a season (21), best goal difference in a season (+80) and fewest goals conceded in a season (18). The team scored in every match and suffered only one defeat. What an act to follow. But if there was going to be one to tackle the challenge, it was going to be Pep.

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It wasn’t going to be the easiest of transitions. Bayern’s players would have to adapt and so to would their manager. However, given his voracious appetite for learning and preparation, Guardiola arrived at the Säbener Straße with a clear vision of how he was going to take this super club and make it his own. In order to do that, Guardiola was required to introduce his style of play. Although he was open to embracing certain Germanic culture and qualities, the tram would have to be recreated in his image.

He dramatically altered training to fit his vision, focusing primarily on ball work and training exercises that honed the technical skills of the players. Although the likes of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry and Philipp Lahm were already proficient with the ball at their feet, Pep took it to another level. There was a video that went viral in December 2014, showing Bayern in the midst of training. It showed seven of the first-team players in a circle, with two in the middle, simply conducting the one-touch exercise.

As it was an open training session, fans watched in amazement as they kept the rhythm and fluidity of passing going for more than 30 seconds. It served as a snapshot of how Bayern had evolved under Pep.

Compare that to when Guardiola first took over, as per Perarnau’s account: “The players are divided into three groups. In each group, six players form a circle. Their aim is to pass the ball to each other as quickly as possible whilst their two teammates inside the circle try to stop them. Today the Bayern players are much less fluid than their Barcelona counterparts who have been doing this since they were kids. In fact, the champions of Europe appear a little slow and clumsy as they struggle through the exercise. Pep scratches his head. Apparently his players have come here expecting athletics training and here they are kicking a ball about.”

The development and progression under Operation Guardiola was evident. They had become his creation. Guardiola harnessed the immense pressure admirably, too. Karl-Heinz Rumenigge and Uli Hoeness had both instructed Guardiola that Bayern had a long tradition of suffering from complacency and were desperate to maintain the success achieved under Heynckes. However, under Pep, that trend ceased. He claimed the Bundesliga title at a canter, somehow managing to claim it earlier than Heynckes 12 months earlier.

On 25 March, in Pep’s first season in charge, they were the champions again. Nobody had come close to toppling Guardiola’s Bayern. Nobody in the league, that is. Of course, that season is memorable for also bringing about the biggest humiliation in Guardiola’s career. Bayern’s demolition at the hands of a ruthlessly brilliant Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final sent shockwaves through European football. Bombastic headlines claimed it was the end of Pep. Thousands of column inches were dedicated to the systemic destruction of Pep’s Munich at the hands of an old foe. The critics were hard, but nobody offered a more brutal assessment of the 5-0 aggregate loss to Carlo Ancelotti’s side than Guardiola.

After the procession of the Bundesliga title, Guardiola had watched his side take the foot off the accelerator at a time when they should have been gearing up for a supremely gifted Madrid side. Bayern had lost to Augsburg and Borussia Dortmund in the weeks prior and, after the 0-4 loss at the Allianz Arena in arguably Bayern’s darkest night in European competition, Guardiola was furious at himself.

“I got it wrong. I got it totally wrong. It’s a monumental fuck-up, a total mess. The biggest fuck-up of my life as a coach,” he confided to Perarnau following the game. At that time, Bayern’s loyalty in a time of such trigger-happy conclusions to managerial reigns was tested to the extreme. However, they never bent, never blinked. The board knew exactly that Guardiola was sort of man to assume full responsibility for such a defeat – which he did.

The great coaches learn from critical errors on the grandest stage. Sir Alex Ferguson, for example, used to embrace a buccaneering style of football in the Champions League, where he would answer the calls of the Stretford End and attack with full-bodied purpose. However, when United were humbled and outplayed by Real Madrid at Old Trafford in 2000, Fergie was forced into a rethink of his tactical approach to European games. From that point, the Scot deployed a more pragmatic approach, which led them to three finals in four seasons between 2008 and 2011. Not dissimilar to that, Pep added another chapter to his never-ending textbook on football coaching after the thrashing by Madrid.

“We lost the Champions League, but it was the way we lost that left the bitter taste in our mouths. There is no justification. I just need to hold my hands up and accept it,” he told Perarnau.

It’s true that Bayern had been enormously challenging for Guardiola. Despite tempering his philosophy as a reaction to the loss against Real, the second season proved to be equally as intense and emotionally shattering at times for the coach. Bayern won the league title again, but by 10 points this time, compared to 19 in his first season. They also lost five times, compared to just twice the previous year. But the most bruising encounter came in his first competitive game against Barcelona, in the Champions League semi-final.

Now managed by Luis Enrique, Barcelona showed Pep just how strong his legacy had held up, defeating his Bayern 3-0. Unsurprisingly, Die Roten had more possession but failed to register a single shot on target as a sparkling, inspired Messi stole the show and haunted his former mentor. Again, Guardiola’s tactics were heavily criticised in the post-mortems, specifically his decision to play three defenders against Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez in a man-to-man system with a dangerously high defensive line. That enabled Enrique’s men to run in behind and punish the space afforded to them by Bayern.

The end result was distressing for Guardiola and ultimately spelt elimination at the semi-final stage once again. However, it didn’t deter this magnificent coach from his quest to bring European glory to Bayern once again, despite that dream falling just short at the same stage in 2016. His three Bundesliga titles, two DFB-Pokal and a Club World Cup stand Guardiola up against the greatest of Bayern coaches.

Greatness at Manchester City surely awaits Pep. It’s been his dream to manage in the Premier League. The prospect of etching another amazing chapter into his already illustrious career is tantalising. It’s easy to forget that he’s still only 46. The Premier League could be the start of a Guardiola dynasty. Now wouldn’t that be something for modern football’s ultimate winner?

By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11

With thanks to Graham Hunter for his expert insight. Follow him on Twitter @BumperGraham

Illustration by Kevin McGivern. Check out Kevin’s online shop here, where you can purchase the Guardiola print and his website here for more great work. Follow on Twitter @KevMcGivernArt.

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