The long read: Guardiola's 16-point blueprint for dominance - his methods, management and tactics
He’s widely regarded as the most innovative coach in Europe, and after one of football's longest courtships Pep Guardiola will finally lead Manchester City this season. So what can the Premier League expect? How does the Catalan work? Read on to examine Pep's blueprint...
He demands total control
Guardiola's rows with Bayern doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt ended in the latter’s resignation – after 38 years at the club
Never question Pep Guardiola’s authority. This is a man who needs to feel loved, from the boardroom to the training pitch, if he is to bring his revolution to your football club.
Though he struggled with the workload of being Barcelona’s de facto spokesman under fiery president Joan Laporta, Guardiola’s support for the man who gave him his big coaching break with the B team was ceaseless. When Sandro Rosell – a sharp political operator, whom Guardiola mistrusted – replaced Laporta in early 2010, the alienation that followed played a significant part in Pep leaving Barça at the end of 2011-12 for his New York sabbatical. The 6,000km Guardiola put between the pair was a blessed relief.
At Bayern, the rows between Guardiola and long-term doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt ended in the latter’s resignation (after 38 years with the club) at the continued implication that he was responsible for Die Roten’s frequent injuries.
Before his imprisonment for tax evasion, ex-Bayern president Uli Hoeness had lunch with Guardiola nearly every day, the pair swapping stories over plates of rostbratwurst sausages. Though Guardiola and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, a confirmed Pep devotee who marvels at his coach’s talent, frequently share a coffee, the pair’s relationship cooled after the chief executive suggested during July 2015’s tour to China that the club would survive without their leader.
That said, Guardiola is aware enough not to remodel an entire squad. Rumours abounded that he wanted to ship out Gerard Pique and Dani Alves, among others, in his final Barcelona season. In the end, he fell on his own sword.
Support him, give him what he wants, or Pep walks away.
He’s tactically flexible
PEP AT BAYERN
…and he expects the same from his players. Why? Because Guardiola has understood the most complex tactical instructions since his teens.
“Now you’re going to play as a false winger,” the former head of La Masia, Oriol Tort, told the 13-year-old with his team trailing 1-0 at half-time to minnows Carmel – not the easiest idea for a skinny central midfielder to process. However, Guardiola drifted into the vacant space between the centre circle and his winger.
“We won 3-1 and I touched the ball more in 15 minutes than in an entire half,” he wrote in his out-of-print 2001 autobiography La Meva Gent, El Meu Futbol (‘My People, My Football’). “Just by moving two paces I could radically change the game’s rhythm. Tort knows more about football than those who invented it.”
If a 13-year-old can do it…
Communication is key
Intimate with his players, he cried with youngster Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg when the midfielder lost his father to stomach cancer
Put simply, Guardiola loves talking about football. It’s a process that begins the first time he meets his players, continues throughout every training session (“He interjects all the time to correct and explain exactly what he wants from us,” recalled Dani Alves of Pep’s early days at Barcelona) and even extends to individual chats every day. Praise is effusive when merited.
Guardiola typically spends two hours per day discussing one-on-one the positional minutiae of what he demands from his players. Entirely self-taught as a player, Jerome Boateng has been the biggest beneficiary at Bayern Munich, adding brains to his prodigious centre-back brawn, while Philipp Lahm still spends 15 minutes after every training session talking in minute detail about midfield play, his hands a blur of explanatory signals. For more instinctive players such as Franck Ribery, less is more.
“Pep doesn’t just give you orders,” said Gerard Pique. “He also explains why.”
He knows his players intimately. He cried with youngster Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg when the midfielder lost his father to stomach cancer in April 2014. He wants a maximum of 20 players in a first-team squad because he hates telling anyone that they have failed to make the 18-man matchday squad.
He varies what he says, too, not through any kind of psychological plan but merely to express exactly what he is feeling inside. “Guys, you’re all greats,” he told his Barcelona players before 2010’s title-decider against Villarreal, which came two days after Champions League semi-final defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan. “I just want to tell you one thing. If we go out there and lose, and the league escapes us, don’t worry.” They won. 4-0.
He builds around a conductor
Johan Cruyff used to tell me that if I was fouled, it was my own fault because I’d held onto the ball too long
At Barcelona it was Sergio Busquets; occasionally Xavi or Andres Iniesta. For Bayern, Thiago Alcantara, Xabi Alonso and Philipp Lahm have performed the role. In every game, Guardiola picks his avatar – the player whose job is to keep the play moving, as he did.
In his 2001 autobiography he wrote: “[His former Barça boss Johan] Cruyff used to tell me that if I was fouled, it was my own fault because I’d held onto [the ball] too long; I had to let it go much before.”
Yet Guardiola also demands what he calls “players with a pause”. Capable of holding onto the ball for half a second longer than your average midfield clogger, they lull the opposition into a positional error. He did it better than most himself. “I tried to trick the opposition into thinking I’d pass it wide again,” he says in 2014’s Pep Confidential, Marti Perarnau’s account of Guardiola’s first season at Bayern, “and then – boom! – I’d split them with an inside pass to a striker.”
It was this understanding that prompted his somewhat surprising decision to play Lahm in central midfield instead of his customary full-back position.
“He is super-intelligent,” Guardiola said of his elegant Bayern captain. “He understands the game brilliantly; knows when to come inside or stay wide. The guy is f**king exceptional.”
In short, Lahm became his organising midfielder, the fulcrum around which the whole team moves. Only the most intelligent players can pull off this difficult role, which demands one player that does everything that both holding midfielders do – the ball retention, positioning and intercepting – in the 4-2-3-1 setup that Guardiola seldom uses because it’s not attacking enough.
When he really wanted total domination of the ball, he would choose his former Barcelona protégé Thiago as conductor, the player he demanded oder nichts (“or no one”) when he took over from Jupp Heynckes in 2013.
“The basis is there: maintaining possession and playing the ball out from the back,” Thiago explains to FourFourTwo, comparing Guardiola’s two teams. “Of course, every team is different, but any Pep team is always going to be based on ball retention. It’s his mentality.”
Talk of Guardiola’s intensity is nothing new. He dedicates nearly every waking hour to planning his training sessions, coming up with tactical schemes and studying potential signings and upcoming opponents. Only by completely immersing himself in how his team will play, how his players will interact on the pitch, does he feel able to perform at his best.
His personal assistant Manel Estiarte calls it ‘The Law of 32 Minutes’. It’s the period of time Guardiola can disconnect from football before thoughts return to the beautiful game. Sometimes he has to be told to go out for a meal, or go home to play with his children Maria, Marius and Valentina. Then, after half an hour, he will either shut himself back in his office or his mind will drift.
Estiarte expounds his law in Pep Confidential, saying: “He starts staring at the ceiling, and although he’s nodding as if he’s listening, he’s probably thinking about the opposition left-back.”
Defensive structure is paramount
Pep’s free-flowing philosophy may be what draws in the casual observer, but he dedicates more training sessions to defensive organisation than anything else. It shows: before the 2015-16 winter break Bayern had conceded only 49 goals in 85 Bundesliga games since he arrived, keeping 50 clean sheets.
Attack is based on innate talent, defence is about the work you put into it. Defensive strategy is absolutely essential if I want to attack a lot
“Attack is more based on innate talent,” he once said. “Defence is about the work you put into it. Defensive strategy is absolutely essential if I want to attack a lot.”
Bought by Bayern from Athletic Bilbao, Javi Martinez virtually had to learn how to walk again, ditching the man-marking system he knew in the Basque Country for Guardiola’s more fluid zonal system. For six months, the Sabener Strasse training ground echoed with shouts (always in Spanish) of “Javi, go forwards!”; “No, not now, Javi!!”; “Javi, look at Dante!”
Yet the sessions worked. Martinez was transformed from prosaic midfield anchor into one of the best defenders in Europe.
Guardiola has shown me 200 videos and taught me concepts: when to move out with the ball, when to mark, where to position myself. He’s incredible
“We’ve done so much tactical work,” says Martinez. “He has shown me 200 videos and taught me concepts: when to move out with the ball, when to mark, where to position myself. He has an idea and knows how to teach it every session. He’s incredible.”
What Guardiola wants above all else is a defence that moves as one – a self-contained organism that suffocates opposition attacks by pressing high. If the centre-back presses, the midfield conductor drops in behind to cover; similarly, the winger covers his full-back. On average, Pep's Bayern would defend seven metres further up the pitch than they did under Heynckes. It’s a proactive sort of defending that can be achieved only by religious practice that begins against no opposition, to first learn the necessary movements.
But Guardiola’s defensive strategy doesn’t end when his team have the ball. Moving gradually up the pitch, to give the conductor full orchestral scope, Guardiola wants his team to complete 15 passes, the theory being that his players retain their shape, while destabilising their opponents. It is a defensive tactic as much as it is a transition to attack via gradual strangulation, because done effectively it prevents the chasing opposition from counter-attacking.
What he can’t abide, however, is when these 15 passes don’t go anywhere - which is why he hates tiki-taka...
READ ON: Pep's hate for tiki-taka and his nutrition obsession