Inside the mind of Pep Guardiola

Pep Guardiola will step down as Barcelona coach at the end of the season, but just who is the man who masterminded arguably the greatest club side of all time? In the August 2011 issue of FourFourTwo, Graham Hunter – the only British journalist to have got past Pep Guardiola’s ‘guard dog’ – revealed all...

5-1 and 10-4. These are the aggregate scores that Barcelona have notched over Manchester United and Arsenal during their last six meetings. While Fergie’s side have been lauded for an ability to consistently win trophies and the Gunners lavished with praise for the beauty of their football, so perfectly have Barça combined the qualities of both – culminating in fantasy football at Wembley in May – that they can rightly take their place among the best teams of all time.

Lionel Messi is en route to surpassing Pele and Maradona, Xavi is arguably the most complete player in Spain’s history while Andres Iniesta’s sublime skills are complemented by an innate gift to score or assist at the most crucial moments.

Even the supporting cast of Gerard Pique, Eric Abidal, Victor Valdes and Dani Alves are enjoying new levels of appreciation. Then there are the likes of Sergio Busquets and Pedro, products of Barça’s much lauded and copied La Masia youth system which provided nine of Spain’s World Cup-winning squad. And we haven’t even mentioned David Villa, the world’s best centre-forward and Spain’s record scorer, who was deemed to have struggled at times during a season in which he scored 23 goals (and provided nine assists), including the piece de resistance in the Champions League final.

But amidst the torrent of praise there is one figure who remains under-explained and under-appreciated. Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola.

This saturnine, pencil-slim, passionate but introverted Catalan has worked a sporting miracle – not simply in giving us irresistible football with which the world has fallen in love, but by transforming the mess he inherited into a winning machine.

Just before Guardiola took over at the Nou Camp in 2008, the Barça crowd jeered their side into the Champions League semi-final because the display against Schalke was so disappointing. Weeks later, Real Madrid completed their second consecutive La Liga title with a 4-1 whipping of Barcelona – who finished 18 points behind them – and Frank Rijkaard’s team was forced to form a guard of honour in welcoming Madrid onto the Bernabeu pitch. Players were flabby and indisciplined, the coach had lost the will to crack the whip and teams were finding Barça a soft touch.

The contrast now is startling. It would be foolish to say that it’s all down to Guardiola but without him, Barça were rudderless and adrift.

Xavi recalls the impact of the new manager’s arrival: “We were just back from winning the Euros with Spain and instantly I could sense a different atmosphere, new standards and much more emphasis on getting fit. I recall saying to [Andres] Iniesta, ‘We’d better hop on this train or it’ll pass us by.’

"Standards had slipped. A kilo here or there didn’t matter. A few minutes late here or there didn’t matter. Now everything mattered. But Pep was right on top of everything like a hawk.”

Listen and learn: an early Pep talk with the players

Gerard Pique, who was brought in with the new guard, explains: “Pep doesn’t just give you orders, he also explains why. That makes you a better footballer because you learn the reasoning behind his instructions.”

When he took over from Frank Rijkaard, Guardiola announced he’d be giving no one-on-one interviews. This has meant that those who didn’t grow up watching Guardiola the midfield string-puller for Barcelona and Spain have had to learn about him from afar. His peak as a player came between 1992 and 1997 so there must be many outside Spain – and a minority within his own country – who only know him in his current incarnation.

The only times Guardiola has felt inclined to give exclusive face time is for the official programme before each of his Champions League finals as coach, and on both occasions this correspondent has been lucky enough to be sat opposite him.

So what to share? Firstly, it’s an intense experience. You pass through a smaller pre-office in which Tito Vilanova, his trusted assistant coach, works on a computer but sits facing the outside door – situated like a guard dog, with his back to the boss.

The Barça manager is famed for his obsessively detailed studying of opponents; banks of DVDs are apparent, as are books, magazines and, naturally, photos of his loved ones (long-term partner Cristina and their three children), of whom he’s seen rather less since taking the hotseat.

While friendly and generous with his answers, we both know Guardiola would rather not be doing this. Not while he continues to say ‘no’ to long-term friends in the press and to the demanding local television station which sponsors the club – not to mention the inquisitive world media. He’d much prefer to do his interviews in the mass forum of a press conference.

The greater spotted Pep, rarely interviewed one-on-one

Yet even though time is short, if we stumble on a subject which lights his fire there is immediately the intense, passionate tone of voice and phraseology which, we can only believe, hits the mark with his players. Even in close verbal combat, you only get glimpses of it. But when he talks about playing to win rather than ‘playing not to lose’, it’s there.

It’s something he’d already touched upon in the 2009 Final programme: “When you get to this stage in Europe it’s often the case that teams can be governed by a fear of losing and play cautiously.” He promised that win, lose or draw, his team wouldn’t die wondering (despite the absence of Iniesta, Alves, Abidal and Rafa Marquez). He’s even described some of Barça’s play under him as “audacious”.

Guardiola isn’t just driven by his own philosophy on the game, though. Unsurprisingly for somebody who has always been interested in ideas and cause – social as well as sporting – he makes a direct correlation between his team’s approach and the economic crisis. “For me it all makes sense – the effort, the work, the planning, the concentration and the discipline – if you do it for the people. The manner in which we’ve played this season is a demonstration of the respect we have for the people who pay for a ticket or pay money to watch games on TV.”

And for Guardiola, it’s about winning the right way, but above all winning. In his team’s last nine meetings with Real Madrid they have won six and drawn two, with a 20-5 goal aggregate. Add the three La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues and the new high watermark for intoxicating football they’ve set and it’s little wonder that the club president who appointed him, Joan Laporta, has admitted: “If I were reincarnated I’d like to be reborn as Pep Guardiola.”

* * *

This latest phase of Guardiola’s lifelong relationship with Barcelona started on a Saturday night in August 2008 when he was re-presented to the Catalan faithful as their new coach.

The game was preceded by a massive son et lumiere (‘sound and light’) festival during which Guardiola smiled to the camera, turned and told the assembled faithful “…we can’t promise a specific title but we will never stop trying, never give up and I advise you to fasten your seatbelts… you’re going to enjoy this ride.”

Unveiled: Barça's old new hero

Prophetic words, in hindsight. But sometimes a prophet is not honoured in his own land. Guardiola’s lengthy journey with Barcelona, indeed with football, has been almost as full of thorns as crowns.

Josep Guardiola was born in the Catalan countryside, approximately an hour’s drive from the stadium where he was to make his debut as an excitable ball-boy (he’s famous for twice running on the pitch to congratulate Barça players at the end of matches – when Terry Venables’ side clinched the league title in 1985, and when Barcelona qualified for the European Cup final a year later in 1986).

Santpedor is a small agricultural town, part of whose name (aptly, given Guardiola’s subsequent career) means ‘the golden place’. Barça first came calling when Guardiola was 11 but he didn’t want to leave home to live in La Masia, the stone farmhouse situated just behind the north goal of the Nou Camp where Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored those famous goals in 1999. According to his mother, what sealed the deal for Guardiola was that from his dormitory window in La Masia he could “see the football pitch every morning when I wake up!”

FEATURE Behind the scenes at La Masia

However, he was soon haunted by the same question which would later be asked of Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and above (or below) all Messi: was he big enough? Carlos Naval, one of the longest-serving and most popular officials at the club, remembers recommending Pep as “a kid who is small, not tall at all, but who plays like the gods.”

Naval continues: “He saw what nobody else saw, he anticipated everything that was going to happen. But people said, ‘That kind of player doesn’t exist! – we’re talking about a boy of 11 years old. There are no miracles in football.’”

Charly Rexach, Barça’s legendary goalscorer of the ’60s and ’70s who became Johan Cruyff’s assistant and later battled like a tiger to make sure the club signed Messi, always fought Guardiola’s corner. “What caught my attention was that even though Pep was really small and skinny he played one-touch, or at most two-touch football which set him well above everyone in his age group,” he recalls.

Manager Cruyff and Rexach not only trusted his ability but accelerated his promotion to the first XI. According to Guardiola, it was something akin to the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel icon, The Creation of Adam, where God and Adam touch hands and lightning shoots out.

* * *

In order to understand that, it’s important to skip forward 24 years to 2003 in Qatar, where a rather morose, downcast Guardiola is playing. Having wound down his career via Serie A (a short spell in Mexico will later precede his retirement), he reflects on his playing career. Moments like being told ‘no’ after a trial with Manchester City in 2001 have stung him, as has the fact that, despite only being 32 on leaving Brescia, no upper-echelon club thought he could do a job. He wanted to end his playing career “in Europe – France, England, Scotland even – but I think that option’s gone”.

Pep the ageing player continues: “I became a regular at Barcelona aged 20 because I had Cruyff as a manager and he believed in playing a certain way. If I were 20 at Barcelona today I'd never make it as a professional. At best I’d be playing in the third division. My skills haven’t declined. It’s just that football is played at a higher pace and it’s a lot more physical. To play just in front of the back four now you have to be a ball-winner, a tackler like Patrick Vieira. If you can pass too it’s a bonus.”

Guardiola the ‘quarterback’ didn’t play as high up the pitch as Xavi does now, but in what became a ‘mythical’ position in Cruyff’s 3-4-3: the ‘pivote’, or simply the ‘4’. Defensively he had to anticipate trouble before it reached the danger area, shepherd attacks into areas the opponents didn’t want to use, receive the ball from the back line, begin the attacks and shuttle the ball to and fro so that the Dream Team could re-establish their shape once they’d won the ball back.

Lifting the European Cup in 1992

Bobby Robson said what he liked most about coaching the player (to a season of three trophies in 1996-97) was “the speed at which he learned things.” He added: “Both as a man and a footballer, Pep is very intelligent. Tactically he’s world-class.”But what the Barça fans luxuriated most in was his sublime passing. They were often over greater distances than the modern Xavi-orchestrated tiki-taka, but pinpoint all the same.

Marc Overmars, who played both with and against the boy from Santpedor, says Guardiola was “unique. He saw the play faster than anyone but then used the ball in precisely the best way to take advantage of the situation.” Positionally he was like Busquets or Michael Carrick but – as he admits himself – didn’t have the surging pace or stamina to burst forward like Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard. The ball did his work.

Most importantly, though, he understood what he was doing, what others should do, how to move the team forward and – most crucially – what his team-mates should not be doing. Kiko, Atletico Madrid legend and Guardiola’s Olympic gold medal-winning team-mate in 1992, once commented: “Pep was born telling people what to do. I can imagine him telling the babies in his ward – ‘you in that cot and you in this cot.’”

Xavi admits that, in a playing sense, it was hard to live in Guardiola’s shadow: “When I was coming through, seen as Pep’s replacement, he treated me like a friend and gave me advice. But for the crowd it was hard. I was seen as the ‘outsider’ despite being from La Masia, and viewed as the one pushing Pep out. It made me unsure of whether to stay or go look for a career elsewhere [namely Man United, whom Xavi admits made him an offer]. In the end I was too stubborn to leave.”

Off the shoulder: Pep and Xavi

While part of Guardiola’s decision to leave in 2001 included making way for the new guard, he also left disillusioned. After the departure of Cruyff and Robson came Louis Van Gaal – “the man with whom I most discussed football”. The club had been deluged with expensive foreign signings and a devastating year-long injury left him introspective, unsure that he was a central part of the Barça ethos and suffering from idle, stupid chitter-chatter that because he liked cinema, books and fashion, perhaps he was gay.

Guardiola finally left on freedom of contract, telling fans and media: “This isn’t a decision taken after a bad game or a defeat four days ago. I’ve thought long and hard about it and my decision is that I want to experience new countries, new styles of football and learn a new language.” His father Valenti had a different view: “Perhaps the club didn’t deserve such a player, a guy who simply couldn’t eat his dinner if Barça lost.”

His time in Italy was soured by what proved to be another false accusation – that he’d used nandrolone as a performance enhancer. Against the odds he won a seven-year battle to clear his name, telling friends he’d fight to his last cent to prove his innocence if required. His sister Francesca admits: “I thought he should give up and on more than one occasion I told him ‘they aren’t going to accept your innocence’. But, hats off, he wouldn’t hear of it and was finally vindicated. I would have thrown the towel in.”

But although his Italian is superb and he speaks fondly of both Brescia and Roma (who he joined briefly), he was frustrated by the football culture. “When I played in Italy,” he wrote in a column for El Pais, “they told me to forget about ‘this passing game’ because, simply, there was ‘less space’ in their football. I never understood it. The pitch was the same size. What I saw was the movement of some guys, in relation to where others were, and what they did was mistaken. That was the only reason there was less space.”

Facing old foe Raul with Roma

When no top-level European club made him a firm offer after Serie A, Al Ahly were the beneficiaries. Guardiola played in Qatar for significant remuneration and what he’s often described as his sense of adventure and the very relaxed lifestyle.

While he played low-pace, low-stress football, Guardiola played a lot of golf too, and used his long free hours to study English. But what he discovered in the Gulf, above all, was that he had an absolute need to stay in football, that his coaching badges were vital to him. In his own words, he “loved that ball” too much to drift out of the sport – even though his diverse leisure interests would have been more than enough to keep an ordinary man happy.

* * *

In 2007, Guardiola was given his first coaching job, at Barça B. Txiki Begiristain, once a winger to the left of Guardiola in Cruyff’s Dream Team, had become director of football when Laporta won the 2003 election and recommended it was time to re-incorporate the iconic, intelligent product of the academy. Ex-Barça director Evarist Murtra confirms: “Were it not for Txiki’s insistence, we wouldn’t have signed Pep to coach the B team.”

Around that time, Begiristain generated ominous headlines by warning Frank Rijkaard and his self-indulgent stars that “the squad has to train more rigorously. There needs to be tighter controls and a better work ethic.”

Guardiola, though, was just getting his feet under the desk: “I’m grateful for the opportunity because, as a coach, I’m a nobody. I need to win because if I’m successful I’ll have credibility and, if not, I’ll be sacked. It’s the law of the dugout. I’ll try to transmit the values of this club and give the players some individual liberty. But I believe in the boss being in charge. And now I’m the boss.”

Eventually, Guardiola was informed that if Rijkaard didn’t win a trophy that season (2007-08), the Dutchman would be removed and Pep would assume control. The technical staff had watched Guardiola’s development with the kids and his success in taking Barça B out of the third division at the first time of asking. They also loved Guardiola’s tactics, his man-management, his substitutions and the air of control and vision which had returned to the club’s nursery side.

Yaca Garcia Planes was the only journalist to follow the B team throughout their entire season and summed it up by saying: “He won confidence and respect with a number of tactics. Unity was the first thing he sought and the introduction of regular breakfasts, lunches and dinners for the whole team – paid for by Pep if the results had been good enough – was a regular tactic. A new set of fines for being late, for being sent off and other small, previously ignored details brought new standards.”

Yet promoting him to the top job was still a risk – he was only 37. But that didn’t stop him from continuing his disciplined approach when he was handed the job. He told players on his first day: “If you think I’m going to be soft on you, an easy touch, simply because I’m only 37 then you are wrong, you are out of luck. My pride and my ambition are enormous and let’s be clear – you’re going to work hard.”

Watch your step: one of Pep's first games, a friendly at Hibs

New rules included coming in for breakfast before training and players being at home before midnight on any night when there was training the next day. On the training pitch, every player was told to be ready to work at bang on the announced hour – not tying laces, not trotting in a second late – or it’s a fine.

In training Guardiola’s known to be more of an interventionist than a dictator, stepping in to correct the odd detail or re-explain a concept. But if the hairdryer is needed, it’s a match for Fergie’s. “If he really ‘starts’ on one there is no stopping him,” admits Pique.

One anecdote which indicates the jolt his players got in the summer of 2008 was an early, fierce ticking-off from the new boss for Eric Abidal. The Frenchman told him: “There’s no need to speak to me like that. I’m a grown-up, a family man and I don’t need to be talked to like that.” He was reassured by President Laporta that “Pep is just that intense. It’s not personal.” From there to Abidal being given the captain’s armband in the 2011 Champions League Final and being asked to lift the trophy is a microcosm of the journey everyone, including Guardiola, has undertaken.

A manager should be judged not just by his iron fist, but also by his velvet glove. In Guardiola’s first summer, Barcelona were at war with the Argentine FA, FIFA and the International Olympic Committee over their right to withhold Leo Messi from selection for the Olympic football in Beijing. Ultimately Joan Laporta won a victory at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The Olympics were not part of the FIFA calendar so Barça had the right to order Messi to return, immediately, for their Champions League qualifier against Wisla Krakow.

But Guardiola thought long and hard, recalling his own Olympic triumph and what it meant to him. On hearing the verdict, he immediately opposed his president and Begiristain, despite the huge fuss which had been made to keep Messi, and took a personal decision to allow him to play for what subsequently became a gold medallist Albiceleste side. Guardiola won undying loyalty from Messi, got through the Champions League qualifier without him – and showed president, players, fans and media who really was boss now.

Whatever you say, boss: Pep and Messi in 2008

Had Barça been eliminated or Messi injured then history might have been utterly different. Smart or lucky? You decide. Either way, he’d got the world’s best player immediately on side. “From the first moment Pep was brilliant to me,” says Messi. “He told me what he’d demand from me but listened to my wish that I should play what might have been my only Olympics. I can only say that I owe him.”

Another piece of fine man-management came weeks later. After getting rid of divisive duo Ronaldinho and Deco, another tricky character, Samuel Eto’o was next for the exit. But after watching the first few weeks of training, the new boss changed his mind. “His attitude and work have won me over,” was Guardiola’s verdict.

Eto’o played brilliantly in that treble-winning season, scoring the goal which won the Champions League final after being warned that he would be allowed not one single blot on his copy-book. But that June, Eto’o was out, this time definitively, because of “a lack of feeling” between the two.

The majority of those Guardiola has worked with can’t speak highly enough of him, though. Busquets is one of those who has been promoted from B team success with Guardiola to Champions League and World Cup glory. “Pep is identical now to what he was like then,” he explains. “He studies endlessly, prepares in detail, draws the maximum from his players and makes us ready for the opposing team.

"It involves many hours watching videos but also a huge knowledge as a coach and experience as a player.” His assistant, Tito Vilanova, a childhood friend, says Guardiola’s X-factor is his “contagious self-confidence. His will to win is matched by a complete belief that he’ll win and an ability to explain how to do it.”

* * *

But for how long is Guardiola going to keep winning with Barça? “Pep loves this club madly and lives his work with too much intensity,” says legendary Barcelona water polo Olympian Manuel Estiarte, who was brought in by Guardiola as the club’s director of external relations. “I’ve occasionally had to tell him to take it easy so that he doesn’t burn out.”

Exit stage left: Pep Guardiola, 27th April 2012

Indeed, there is a feeling that he isn’t in it for the long haul. Johan Cruyff even speculated that Guardiola, whose contract only extends to the end of the 2011-12 season, might walk away following the Wembley triumph. After all, how much better can it get? But the remarkable win in London has renewed his energy and enthusiasm for the job and he told his players “it doesn’t end here” after the game.

So where does it end? Perhaps those of us who enjoy what Guardiola has created will get another year from him at the Nou Camp. He believes that he has set up a style of thinking, of working and of playing that can live beyond his specific mandate.

But his wanderlust, the same instinct which told him to abandon the nest and sample different languages and cultures, will take him to coaching duties in England and Italy – perhaps even Qatar again before he eventually returns to Barcelona as president. Of that FFT is quite sure.

In the meantime, the rest of us should just keep our seatbelts fastened and enjoy what remains of the ride.

On 27th April 2012, Pep Guardiola announced his intention to step down as Barcelona coach at the end of the season. His replacement will be Tito Vilanova, his assistant and 'guard dog'.