My entire face transformed into a big fat smile when I saw the above caption; particularly the question mark. It is beyond hilarious and I’ll tell you why. Isn’t it weird that these types of questions, these debates, seem to be on the rise THE MORE SUCCESSFUL Pep becomes?
Why do we debate a manager’s genius, or lack of thereof, after a treble-winning season? Baffling. I find it more odd than Firmino’s current hairdo.
It’s been a popular, juicy bone of contention that has certainly been gnawed on since the Catalan ascended the ranks. He spent a couple years in charge of Barca B (wining promotion to Segunda B) before replacing Frank Rijkaard at the start of the ‘08/09 season. He has always polarised opinion. From making bold declarations to actually sticking by and going through with those declarations. I mean who begins his first, top flight managerial position by selling Ronaldinho and Deco?
I don’t think there’s any such thing as a magician in football. The ‘special one’, ‘master tactician’ and the likes are all tired euphemisms used, or should I say misused, to describe something totally different.
The factors that come into play if a manager is to win a single game of football are so numerous, I’ll need another article, or articles, to even brush the surface. This is just one game. Now consider a full 38 match league season. The UEFA Champions League. Domestic Cups. Year after year of success.
Some of it is down to good players. A lot of it is down to a good manager. Some of it is also down to good ol’ luck. When these 3 are present in varying portions, as needed at a particular time, you get magic.
So I’ve never met Pep Guardiola…yet. I haven’t been privileged to interview him…yet. These are my ideas, gleaned from watching a lot of football, mostly Barcelona’s, and a lot of personal deductive reasoning and conclusion drawing. Indulge me, please.
When Pep took over in 2008, I grumbled a bit. This guy was unknown. No pedigree. Joan Laporta took a calculated risk, hiring him. It didn’t look like it was going to work out : Numancia edged Barca 1-0 in his first league game in charge. It was an outrage. There were cries for blood.
That season, he became the youngest manager to win the Champions League. Then the 1st manager to do the sextuple. He followed up the tripla corona with the UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup and the Spanish Supercopa.
Meanwhile, silence from the critics’ camp was deafening. The narrative soon changed: he had world class players. He didn’t have much to do, Messi, Xavi and Iniesta at their peak didn’t need managers. Really myopic and laughable views, truly. 2 consecutive La Liga titles followed, and then another UCL trophy. I will not even go into the records he smashed with this Barca team along the way.
‘He is a perfectionist, (…) pig-headed, down to the very last detail’.
That was Xavi in 2010. He would know. If there was a player who represented that perfectionism, it was Xavi. The pass had to be perfect. The run. The through ball. Inch perfect. He re-introduced pressing off the ball like we’d never seen before, while laying so much emphasis on possession and attack.
His 4-1-2-3 formation, with quick short passes and constant movement was mesmerizing, if you were a fan. Tiring and frustrating if you were not. Some still regard his Barca as the best club side ever. Debatable, yes; but still…
His man-management is impeccable. We saw it at Barca, then at Bayern too. He discarded ‘Dinho and Deco because they didn’t fit into the blueprint he had for his team; promoted Sergio Busquets because he saw exactly what he needed in him.
Pedro Rodriguez is also a testament to this particular strength. Busquets is the best at what he does today, and Pedro was unplayable between ‘09 and ’12. He turned Philip Lahm into a midfielder and stretched David Alaba’s versatility even wider.
Take Messi as another example. He was a winger; scored 17 and 16 goals in the 2 seasons prior to ‘08/’09. Pep switched him to a central role (we read Leo didn’t buy it at first) and the results were astounding. Messi scored 38, 47, 63 and 73 goals in the 4 years following said switch. Records were smashed, milestones were reached. It was beautiful to watch.
How do you keep churning out result after result from world class players, who are probably sated with success? How do you keep them wanting more? Or demand they repeat already achieved milestones? I do not know how, but Guardiola certainly does. This is probably Pep’s greatest strength: the ability to do it over and over again. He hasn’t gone a season without silverware in the clubs he’s managed. That’s immense.
Work ethic. You want to play? Be ready to run. You must run. You must recover. Attack and defend as a unit. Few or no mistakes. You must press, especially without the ball. Most of all, possession football was compulsory. Keep the ball. Do not give it away. If you do give it away, recover it fast.
His ability and sometimes eagerness to take risks and try the new and sometimes downright absurd, shake things up a bit, is also worth a mention in this category. He once played a 6 man midfield vs Villareal, won 6-1. Lahm in midfield has already being discussed. He pushes players to try new things. Do something outside the ordinary. Different from the usual. It didn’t always work, but it worked enough for him to have built a machine at Barca; a very successful machine.
Attacking football. He instils patience in his players: the ability to pass and pass and wait, pass some more and then wait a bit more, and then expose vulnerability and then…bam! More often than not, Barca and Bayern would come against teams who knew they couldn’t beat them at possession.
So they sat deep, defending. It mostly didn’t matter. His teams still won a lot. He managed a total of 247 games at Barca, scored 636 goals, conceded only 181. He amassed 14 trophies in 4 years at Barcelona, 7 in 3 years with Bayern. I’ll leave you to make of that what you will.
You didn’t think this was coming, eh? Ha. Pep also has little patience with egotistical players, possibly because he has an ego the size of the Antarctica himself. This caused obvious friction and squabbles with some big names: Zlatan Ibrahimovic the prime example; he was loaned out after just 1 season.
Tinkering doesn’t always work. There’s such a thing as paying too much attention to details, and Pep is sometimes guilty of this. I must also point out that this fault is always in retrospect: If tinkering and trying new things work, no one cares if you played Victor Valdes as false 9.
Labelling a manager a ‘fraud’ is myopic. Like i mentioned earlier, the intertwining of factors necessary for a manager to succeed is similar to what my iPhone ear piece does when it’s alone in my backpack. More complex than the Neymar deal. No top flight manager is a product of ‘luck’ or the ‘he has always had good players’ narrative.
Jose Mourinho is one of the most successful managers in this era, yet a mutinous group of players got him fired. LVG is a world class manager (Yes, he is.) who failed spectacularly at Manchester United.
Daniel Alves once said ‘If Pep asked me to throw myself off the 2nd tier at the Camp Nou, I’ll think there must be something good down there.’ Pep won 5 El clasicos in a row, including a 2-6 destruction at the Bernabeu and a 5-0 annihilation at home.
Iniesta tries to explain it better: ‘…he gives you so many solutions to when you are in the middle of a game and it nearly always turns out to be right when you apply them.’
Football managers are usually a genteel mix of tactics, player management and luck. Yes, luck. Josep Guardiola has the first 2 in surplus; has had different doses of the 3rd. He’s no fraud; far from it. He’s a genius.
Oyax is a dude who often scribbles stuff about football, which sometimes is nice to read. He’s on twitter, @mroyax.