Pep Guardiola and the unrelenting game of fools

Pep Guardiola and the unrelenting game of fools

“JOHN STONES HAS MORE PERSONALITY than all of us here together in this room, more balls than everyone here. I like that. I love him. Under pressure, the people criticise him, so I am delighted to have John. With all his huge amount of mistakes. I love him. I love guys with this personality.” Almost as soon as the press conference was over, the video clip was doing the now obligatory rounds on social media.

Pep Guardiola explaining to the gathered media that his unassuming 22-year-old centre-back, John Stones, had ‘mas cojones’ than anyone in the room is obviously a sound-bite that is ready made to be shared, liked, retweeted and commented upon by Pep’s cyber fans and critics alike.

It seemed a little off-kilter, a little jarring. There was something about the high-priest of contemporary football intellectualism offering a somewhat crude genital metaphor that just didn’t quite fit. But it is what does not seem to fit that is usually what is worth paying attention to, a stranger in the village square, a glitch in the Matrix.

Josep said that he loved John, even “with all his huge amount of mistakes.” Josep loves “guys with this personality.” What personality? The personality to follow the bat-shit instructions of a radical coach? City were underperforming, Guardiola needed to ‘adapt’ his style, his insistence on ‘overcomplicating’ things just won’t cut the mustard in the rough and tumble of the greatest league in the world. His demand that his team play out from the back must be quelled if defeats like the one dealt to them earlier in the season by Spurs were to be avoided in the future. ‘It’s too risky’ to play like that here. Maybe he just loves the personality of guys who do what they are told?

Guardiola’s style has been the catalyst for innumerable articles, studies, essays and books. Over the past decade, his development and implementation of an elaborate version of the Latin Juego de Posición has hypnotised fans, coaches, pundits, journalists and writers. His quixotic marriage of aesthetics with pragmatism has spread his appeal beyond the world of football and into the bohemian quarters of art and culture.

It is often difficult to assess the importance of ideas when you live during the time of their discovery. It seems to me that Guardiola’s teams – especially his Barcelona – will live on to represent one of the great reshapings of the footballing landscape. When the dust finally settles, when his impact has been fully appraised, his ideas will nestle comfortably alongside the innovations of Herbert Chapman, Helenio Herrera, Rinus Michels, Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Arrigo Sacchi.

The most obvious – and controversial – element of Guardiola’s strategy is his unwavering commitment to build play from his own goal-line. He instructs his goalkeepers to play as an outfield player to provide the numbers that are required to outplay the opponents who advance to disrupt the build-up. His centre-backs and deep midfielders must be prepared to engage in what often feels like a collective high wire act as they transfer the ball to-and-fro across their own penalty area. Hearts are in mouths as the opponents attempt to intercept the ball only metres from the goal. It is as though the previously calculated professionals have been indoctrinated with a death-wish. Their personalities seem different, they are not the players that they previously were. Something within them has changed.

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The logic behind his deep build-up is straightforward enough. The more players that you can attract towards you and outplay, the fewer players you must beat once you have successfully achieved the build-up. This is echoed in Juanma Lillo’s – one of Guardiola’s mentors – assertion that: “Everything is much easier if the first progression of the ball is clean.”

This is a simple concept, you have more space to attack fewer players if you can eliminate a significant number of opponents using your own defensive players. When the build-up is successful, when it is ‘clean’, Guardiola’s players have increased time and space to make penetrating interactions upfield. It is why his team’s attacks often appear to be so swift, breathless sweeps towards goal characterised by multiple players running freely into space and enjoying numerous passing options. The opponent’s defensive block has been depleted as three or four players have been eliminated high up the pitch. The remaining six or seven find themselves suddenly required to scuttle back in hopeful retreat in the face of a raiding party of the world’s most gifted attacking players.

If the concept is simple, its embodiment is a little more complex. Guardiola utilises a framework of positional play – Juego de Posición – that, to a large degree, dictates the movements, patterns and interactions of his players. The canvas that he uses to create these plays can be seen in the now well-documented training pitch that features an array of zones and columns that the players must rotate between according to the situation of the game.

His exact method with regards to these sequences remains somewhat mysterious although a relatively comprehensive understanding can be gleaned from the analysis that has become available online as well as specialised books such as Martí Perarnau’s.

So, if it isn’t some secret magic that Guardiola is using, why does it seem as though his style remains so unique? Ten years have passed since his Barcelona B team began to play in this way yet the style continues to elicit a stubborn refusal to be replicated. Indeed, many critics have lambasted those coaches who have appeared hell-bent on merely recreating the work of their idol; anyone who watched teams like Roberto Martínez’s Everton labour to progress possession up the pitch, scored by the groans of the disgruntled thrill seekers in the stands will surely identify with such a critique.

Plagiarism is not a tenable manifesto; the imitators are ten-a-penny – destined to a career of mediocrity spent peddling a bastardised version of another’s vision. Possession of the ball is not an end in itself.

And herein lies the rub, in my view it is Guardiola’s ability to convince his players that the risk involved in building-up – if executed according to the methodology – is less than the risk attached to playing direct that provides the psychological foundation for his players to play in this way. This lesson in risk literacy is evident in one of Guardiola’s favourite footballing aphorisms: ‘The faster the ball moves forward, the faster it comes back the other way.’

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For the majority of players that he comes into contact with – particularly in the UK – this will be an alien concept, something anathema to their existing beliefs. He is asking his players to play in a new way, to step outside of their known territory and embrace a different paradigm of thought. The problem with this is that we, as humans, are often unwilling to move out of our comfort zones; modern man is loath to stray too far from the campfire (or wi-fi connection).

This reluctance is understandable; a Premier League defender might not risk being eaten by a wild animal if they choose to venture beyond the tree-line but they do face very real deterrents nonetheless. Who wants to be standing with their head in their hands in front of 60,000 people in the stadium and millions around the world as the opponents celebrate wildly after your mistake has gifted them a win. Who would want to risk that shame?

To let your teammates down, to have to go home and explain to your family how it was your error that led to defeat. To have to endure the primetime pillaring dished out by the cardboard cut-out random cliché generators on Match of the Day. It is the pundit’s own terror at the thought of discomfort which fuels their resistance to change. And that’s not to even mention the electronic lynch mobs that patrol the Twittersphere and the unforgiving gallows humour of the memers. No, there are many reasons why most players – especially goalkeepers and defenders – should want to avoid Pep like the plague, but strangely enough, they don’t.

It is the opposite that seems to occur, the players embrace his ideas and choose to follow The Emperor’s kamikaze instructions to the death. They suddenly seem fearless, as if freed from the fear of failure. Free to play. And this – as far as I can tell – is what makes Guardiola’s comments about Stones – and other similar glowing assessments of his players after defeats – so revealing. He loves players who are willing to play the role of ‘The Fool’.

The Fool is the one who is not afraid to make mistakes, because when you step into the unknown mistakes are inevitable – it is how we learn. Throughout mythology, art and literature, from the Bible through Shakespeare to Disney, the Fool provides the archetypal motif for the individual who foregoes their pride in order to follow the truth and dare to walk a new path. The Fool is humble yet robust, no amount of heckling or derision will cause him harm. He is the court jester, allowed to express himself freely, beneath as he is, from the contempt of the King.

In mythological narrative and Tarot readings alike, the Fool is a precursor to the Hero, for how can one achieve mastery if one is afraid of humiliation along the way? Guardiola’s players must first learn to play the fool, to play without fear. Only by following this process will they transform themselves into the masters of play that the coach desires them to be.

The Fool is the agent of change, the breaker of the established order, the re-writer of programs. His willingness to do things differently is what leads to the great innovations. Guardiola, the trickster-hero himself embodies these traits. It is just as the mysterious sage, Marcelo Bielsa, prophesised: “A man with new ideas is a madman, until his ideas triumph.”

By Jamie Hamilton  

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