Pep Guardiola – the player, the coach, the man

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Sophisticated, magical, intense and a motivator, these are just some of the thoughts of his former colleagues during the years in football. The Spaniard has won every major trophy there is to win in the game during his first eight years in management. His players have reached heights they didn’t know they could even reach. But what was his life before, during and since his playing career?

A quiet kid born in a suburban town just off the city of Barcelona, Guardiola was keen on playing football from a very young age. Picked up by chance, Guardiola’s family were dining out with the youngster when he was approached by a neighbor who expressed his wish for the household to allow him to have his talent assessed by Barcelona’s scouts. It didn’t take long before the 13-year-old Guardiola was asked to stay after impressing on a trail with the club.

He was quickly enrolled at the La Masia football academy, the iconic football academy established by the club. It was here Guardiola learned his first skills in soccer, but not with the ball, in a more mental capacity and how they should grow and behave as footballers. His future was in doubt as his parents were reluctant to see him move out of the family home, and also many within the club felt he was too skinny. This was not seen by one man, one man who would become crucial to everything Guardiola stands for today.

Johan Cruyff was the first-team coach at the club. Cryuff had seen potential in Guardiola and took a hard-line approach with a young Pep. The approach was so strict and volatile that Guardiola wanted to quit football because of his inability to please the coach. This couldn’t have been further from the truth as Guardiola was earmarked by the Dutch footballing legend to be the player whom he would establish his philosophy through in years to come.

Pep would make his debut in December 1990 at home to Cadiz. It was a decision made by Cryuff through a forced hand as the first-team was decimated by injuries. Guardiola impressed so much, and the young midfielder never looked back. Compared to a quarterback in American Football, Pep was used as an extension of the coach on the pitch and it didn’t take long before he became the club captain also.

Cruyff’s philosophy at the time was very similar to the “total football” period the Dutch national team tried to implement in the 1970’s. If your opponent were to score four goals, Barcelona would score five. The longer you had the ball, the less likely the opposition could score against you. A style very likened to Pep’s team in recent years.

Even at such a young age, Guardiola was keen to learn and being a leader in the dressing room he led by example. The young Spaniard hung onto every word Cruyff would say so the midfielder could expand his knowledge of the game. Guardiola was an anchor in the Barcelona midfield under Cryuff. His leadership on the field and ability to find space on the ball and retain possession proved he was crucial to how Barcelona were trying to establish themselves on a style of play. At the age of 21, Guardiola was arguably the most valuable player during their Champions League winning team of 1992, a victory dominated in the style Johan Cruyff wanted and executed entirely by Guardiola and co.

Now an iconic member of Barcelona’s history, Guardiola was keen to do more at the club. Domestic success continued, but he still wanted more. He was now heralded as the finest young player under the age of 21 in world football. Their newly found success continued and three league titles on the bounce as well as another Champions League final in 1994 meant the club were in the golden age of its history.

The defeat to Milan in the Champions League final rocked the club to its core. It wasn’t the defeat but the manner of which that caused such an issue. A devastating 4-0 loss to Fabio Capello’s AC Milan meant the club were embarrassed on the highest stage possible. The following season Barcelona finished fourth domestically followed by a third place finish. Neither of which were acceptable and Cryuff was sacked following a dispute with the President. Guardiola remained a pivotal part of the side during that time. Bobby Robson replaced the departing Cryuff and used Guardiola in a similar style to that in which Johan Cryuff had done. Much of the ‘dream team’ had departed the club, and now the young boy from Catalonia was the linch-pin in the club’s next generation.

Success followed, and three trophies soon followed during Robson’s first season. The Englishman’s time in charge was brief, and at the end of the season, he became the club’s General Manager, moving upstairs to allow Louis Van Gaal to take control in the hot-seat.

A symbol of both the club and people, he became the club’s captain in 1997. The season was not the best for Guardiola however as a calf injury ruled him out of the majority of Barcelona’s double winning campaign. At the end of the season, Barcelona rejected offers from Roma and Parma believed to be worth close to £15million for Guardiola. After prolonged and complicated contract talks, Guardiola signed a new contract with the Catalan club which extended his stay until 2001.

During this time injury hampered the player with him undergoing surgery in June 1998 which resulted in him missing the World Cup for Spain that same year. Just over a year later, Guardiola’s ankle caused him to miss the end of the following season and once again the Spaniard was required to undergo surgery. The next season would be the player’s last at the club. Finishing fourth in the league and no silverware available, Pep decided to announce his decision to leave his hometown club at the end of the season.

On 11 April 2001, Barcelona’s captain announced his intention to leave the club after 17 years of service. He stated that it was a personal decision and, in part, a response to what he perceived as football heading in a new, more physical, direction. On 24 June 2001, Guardiola played his last match with Barcelona in the last game of the season against Celta Vigo.

Guardiola played 479 games in 12 seasons for the first team, winning 16 trophies. At the press conference after the Celta game, he said, “It’s been a long journey. I’m happy, proud, satisfied with the way people treated me and I have made many friends. I cannot ask for more. I have had many years in the elite. I did not come to make history but to make my history.”

Surprisingly he signed for Brescia in Serie A. The club at the time had the likes of Luca Toni and Roberto Baggio within their ranks. The midfielder replaced the departing Andrea Pirlo, and the Italians were hopeful of utilizing him in a similar role to that of which he was used to at Barcelona. His aim was to experience another league, another style, and another team. Even at the age of 30 the midfielder was keen on expanding his knowledge and would do anything to learn more.

Even then, he was a coach. A coach on the field and in almost every way bar selecting the team itself. Guardiola’s time in Brescia may not be considered a successful one regarding achievements on the field. However Guardiola will undoubtedly tell you it was crucial to what he has since become. After Brescia, he then moved onto play for Roma as well in Qatar and Mexico. The midfielder called time on his career in 2006 following an unsuccessful trial at Manchester City as a player and would enter into a successful coaching career.

In June 2007 Pep Guardiola returned to Barcelona after six years away from the club. Not everyone was convinced he could make it as a coach or the fact he was the right one. He was appointed the head coach of Barcelona’s B team who had just been relegated to the third-tier of Spanish football. The appointment nearly did not happen as a fortune encounter between sporting director Txiki Begiristain and one of the directors set in motion the career of Guardiola as a manager.

Begiristain was keen to revive the Barcelona B team and wanted Luis Enrique as the side’s head coach with Guardiola as the assistant. This was not a position Guardiola was keen on as he had identified himself with becoming the number one man or nothing at all. Just a few short days later Guardiola was confirmed as the coach of Barcelona B for the upcoming season with promotion on the agenda.

The side was in bad shape and Pep arrived at the perfect time. Sergio Busquets was a member of the team at the time and stated Pep had made everything more professional and the approach he implemented was very advanced for the time. If someone arrived late or overweight the manager would fine the players with discipline becoming an integral part of how the side was going to move forward. He knew if people worked hard and adapted his ideas the team would be fine and become successful. The team was promoted as champions in just his first season at the club, and a new position was about to become available for Guardiola.

The first-team were of poor shape. On paper, this was the best Barcelona team established since the 1992 ‘Dream Team, ‘ but poor discipline and unprofessional conduct meant despite their immense talent throughout the squad, the team was suffering badly. Finishing third behind Villarreal ( a town with a smaller population that the Nou Camp can hold) and exiting the Copa Del Rey and Champions League at the semi-final stages was not enough. Frank Rijkaard was sacked as a result, and the team was in need of a new approach. The club was self-imploding from the inside out.

No trophies in two years, and a squad on high wages with no return, the club was ultimately on a downward spiral on and off the pitch. A new leader was required, and the possibility of signing Jose Mourinho presented itself to the club. Mourinho’s tough no-nonsense style was felt by many board members as crucial to obtaining success once again. Mourinho fitted the profile perfectly, and President Laporta listened to everybody before meeting with Pep and confirming him as the new coach.

“Put your seatbelts on we’re going to have fun” – his first quote in charge of Barcelona. It was a risk for the club as the club’s reputation was on the line and failure with Guardiola could result in the club falling even further behind their bitter rivals Real Madrid. Even at such a young age regarding management Guardiola was convinced his ability would bring his home-town club success.

“I’m prepared for this challenge. Believe me, if I did not feel this way, I wouldn’t be here. The team will work hard; they will be committed. I won’t forgive them if they don’t work or make an effort.”

When he arrived at Barcelona, it was chaos. Fans were not happy; they were booing the players. It was almost like the supporters had lost all faith in the side and Guardiola was keen to establish a sense of pride in the fans. It wasn’t far from becoming a crisis. He sold players that had become legends at the club and were in the prime of their careers. He instantly identified the talent at his disposable and whom would be best suited for his newly disciplined side.

It would be easy to say look at the team at his disposable, but the year before they finished third and had not won anything for two years. Especially the way the team would not be quickly turned around. The team before Guardiola’s arrival was even better than the one he took into the 2008-2009 season, but they were not beneficial to him establishing his team of winners.

Guardiola may not be an expert in buying players, but he had the foresight to identify the rotten apples in the squad and replace them with hungry young players. One such decision was the sale of Deco and replace the Portuguese legend with Sergio Busquets. He was aware that without a good dressing room, his career as a coach might not kick-start.

As well as refreshing the squad, he had a tough job on his hands trying to ensure key players remained at the club. Xavi was the player of the tournament at Euro 2008 and after a horrendous season with Barcelona, the Spaniard had offers on the table from Bayern Munich and Manchester United. Guardiola convinced Xavi to stay for one final season, and if he wished to leave next season, he would not stand in his way of a move. It was a ‘ballsy’ move that proved to be one of Guardiola’s best in his short managerial career.

Guardiola intended to use Xavi in a similar role he was used during Johan Cruyff’s time at the club. And now Guardiola wanted the club to work hard and allow the supporters to share a sense of pride once again. Being late to training was not acceptable, players had to be in their homes by midnight along with the fact he controlled what was being ordered to players for lunch-time. He controlled everything within the club’s first-team scene.

Suddenly Barcelona became a side that went from outscoring and dominating teams to not conceding goals whatsoever. Movements and tactics were crucial, and he made the players memorize a handful of each for each solution. Thing’s did not get off to a good start at Barcelona however for Pep.

His first game away at Numancia seen the newly promoted side win 1-0 with Barcelona doing everything in the game but score. In his first home game, a late goal stopped the club gaining the first win under the new regime and fans became angered with the club’s start to the season. Everyone was talking about his inexperience and how could we become satisfied after just managing a third-tier side. Johan Cruyff wrote in the local newspaper that results would come, but for now, the philosophy implemented by Guardiola would need time. And suddenly it clicked.

The club remained unbeaten until December, and the style and formula adopted by Barcelona was gathering attention throughout the footballing world. Suddenly these great players were work-horses. Without the ball, Barcelona were intensely pressing the opposition desperate to retrieve the ball back once they had lost it. When they had the ball, Barcelona would dominate games with their keep-ball style.

Within four years Barcelona had won every title. In his first year alone, this side became the first and only team in history to win six trophies in one year. A feat that has not been equaled since and will never be beaten. Two Champions League titles, two other semi-finals and three league titles during that time meant his Barcelona side were the most dominant in the history of the game. On April 27th, 2012, Guardiola announced his departure in the summer from the club as he felt he was no longer able to give any more to the club he had served so well. By this time Pep had looks tired and fatigued and was set for a year out of the game to gather his thinking and escape.

He did just that and moved to New York for a year before returning to the match, this time at Bayern Munich in 2013. He needed to test his philosophy abroad and seen the large club that is Bayern perfect for his style and how he might be able to implement the club. By the time of the announcement in January 2013 that Guardiola would take over at Bayern in 2013, the club had not won anything in two years. Similar to that of Barcelona before his arrival.

The end of that season Bayern had recorded a historic triple so straight away he was forced to follow someone who won all three possible titles. Towards the end of his first season, having won the league they were in the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. They lost 1-0 in Madrid but were unfortunate to do so at the same time. Upon the return fixture in Germany, many of the players revolted against Guardiola and opted to play in the Bayern Munich way and not that of Guardiola’s.

Schweinsteiger, Ribery, and Robben, in particular, wanted to play in the old way, and Guardiola backed down to his player’s demands. This resulted in Bayern losing 0-4 at home, a way never seen before. Afterward, Guardiola attacked his players publicly and said the players had done this and his approach was intended to be different. This was the first time a manager had publicly launched an attack on his players when the club was proud of their closed doors policy.

Suddenly the domestic success was not valued. His side continued to win trophy after trophy, but there was a perception he joined a club that was guaranteed success. Despite this people fail to remember the Real Madrid Galactico side of the early 2000’s who failed to win a single trophy despite having a team from the front to back full of world stars. It does not guarantee success. His recruitment of Xabi Alonso and Robert Lewandowski and giving them a new lease of life. Both players were good players but under Guardiola became world-class. Alonso’s career was heading towards the end, but now it seemed as though he was suddenly 25 years old once again and in the prime of his career.

He established Bayern Munich as a squad that could adapt to any situation. Midfielders could play in defence. Forwards could play in midfield. Goalkeepers who have played in a defensive role also. In doing so, he is completely revolutionizing the modern game. The thing for him was that he looked at Bayern Munich as a job, and didn’t love the club. That’s the difference and the reason why the fans were never in love with Guardiola. In the end, he will be criticized for not winning the Champions League, but who can remember the last time Bayern Munich won three titles in a row as well as two domestic doubles in three years?

Guardiola has set the tone as a manager. A Barcelona boy from birth but his managerial career has changed the face of world football. This is the story of Guardiola the man, the player and the coach. It’s never likely the sport will ever see a man in such capacity ever again. If someone can give you something great and take it to the next level, you know you have something special on your hands. He has standards, you as a player either meet them or he will find someone else who will meet his standards. Now facing his biggest challenge as a coach, Manchester City fans are in for one hell of a ride.

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