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The long read: Guardiola's 16-point blueprint for dominance - his methods, management and tactics

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He hates tiki-taka

Yes, really. The concept most associated with his blueprint is the former Barcelona coach’s biggest bugbear.

Tiki-taka is a load of s**t - passing for the sake of passing. I won't allow my brilliant players to fall for all that rubbish

- Pep Guardiola

“Tiki-taka is a load of s**t – a made-up term,” he has often repeated of the initially pejorative phrase first coined by pundit Javier Clemente after watching Spain’s sterile possession game against Tunisia at the 2006 World Cup. “It means passing the ball for the sake of passing, with no real aim or aggression – nothing. I will not allow my brilliant players to fall for all that rubbish.”

Many seek to emulate Pep’s style, but see possession as the objective in itself, turning an attacking philosophy based around constant movement and freedom into a stodgy, passive hope of eventually reaching the opposition box. Teams copy it, but badly, failing to appreciate the hours of work that have gone into creating the space to attack.

At Barcelona, Guardiola’s strategy was long entrenched. Coming to English football, he will have to adapt to his new players and coach them constantly in the first six months for them to fully grasp the system’s complexity, in the same way he did at Bayern. Maximum intensity is demanded at all times, because, Guardiola believes, that is the only way to train his players’ muscles in the football-specific movements that define his attacking remit.

The cornerstone is the rondo (Diagram A), a piggy-in-the-middle drill that begins every training session. The ball flies around at speed, which helps to sharpen technique in tight areas, with the goal being to reach 30 touches, the eight players counting out loud as they go. If you lose the ball, you go in the middle as punishment.

A variation on the rondo adds an extra element. The drill is 4v4 with another three ‘neutral’ players who play for whichever side has possession, making the game effectively 7v4 (Diagram B). Crucially, however, as soon as possession is turned over, the team who lost the ball can then immediately counter-press to win it back. The effect is two-fold: it establishes the importance of being alive to the counter-press having just lost possession, and the team with the ball learn how to position themselves and engineer space.

“The secret is to overload one side of the pitch so the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope,” Guardiola says in Pep Confidential. “When you’ve done that, we attack and score from the other side. That’s why you have to pass the ball with a clear intention. Draw in the opponent, then hit them with the sucker punch.”

Pep Guardiola's tactical diagrams

To reach that point, however, players must develop their fitness levels. Pre-season double sessions were the norm at Bayern – by the beginning of October in 2013-14, Pep’s first season with the club, Die Roten had done 100 sessions – and everything happens with a ball. Just running is pointless.

“We train with maximum intensity,” he has said. “Even the rondos: it’s with 100% effort or you don’t do them at all. If the players don’t like them then they are welcome to go mountain running, but in that case we’ll never reach our potential.”

Circuit sessions with fitness coach Lorenzo Buenaventura are constant in the early days. Lesson plans from Guardiola’s 2007-08 title-winning season as Barça B coach are available online. The complexity of the 40-minute circuits is mind-blowing, arrows flying everywhere (Diagram C) – jumps over hurdles, in and out of cones, followed by shots at goal. 

“It has been difficult,” recalled Lahm at the end of Guardiola’s first season at Bayern. “But it was also necessary after we had won everything. Pep wanted to teach us something new.”

Weeks after he joined the club, Guardiola’s Bayern scored from a remarkable 94-pass move against Manchester City in the Champions League. Premier League defences, you have been warned.

He’s a tactical innovator

Guardiola watches the opposition’s previous six matches, plus targeted highlights provided by his head of analysis

Guardiola is swift to dismiss formations as “meaningless” and “nothing but telephone numbers”, partly explaining the fluidity and flexibility with which he alters a team’s structure.

Born from meticulous analysis building up to a game – Guardiola watches the opposition’s previous six matches, plus targeted highlights provided by head of analysis Carles Planchart – he’ll get a ‘Eureka moment’ that crystallises how his team will win. “It’s the moment that my job becomes truly meaningful,” he has said.

Using Lionel Messi as a false nine for only the second time, in the May 2009 Clasico, is his most famous innovation. The night before the match, he called Messi into his Camp Nou office at 10.30pm to show the Flea the exact areas he could exploit.

Guardiola’s use of a back three stems from his desire to achieve numerical superiority. At Barça, Gerard Pique brought the ball out from the back to blur the lines between defence and midfield; at Bayern, that job frequently fell to Jerome Boateng.

“I’m no innovator,” Guardiola has said. “I’m an ideas thief.” It’s true the influence of Cruyff’s Barcelona and Louis van Gaal’s Ajax are undeniable (Pep himself wrote: “They were capable of perfection – they gave football lessons to everyone”), but few have the stones to employ such radical concepts in huge games.

Interiores are his key performers

Whether it’s Barcelona’s double Champions League-winning 4-3-3 or Bayern’s evolution on a theme, one constant remains in Guardiola’s arsenal: the need to deliver the ball to his best players, in as much space as possible, in the inside channels.

In Catalonia it was Xavi and Iniesta, in Bavaria Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. The first two are classic Spanish interiores: central midfielders who operate in the channel between full-back and centre-back, and load the Messi bullets. In contrast, Robben and Ribery are wingers, who cut inside to occupy the interior space. In Germany they call it halbraum, or ‘half-spaces’.

To achieve this, Guardiola has a training pitch marked out very specifically for practice matches (see below): five vertical and four crossfield sections, of which two are subdivided in the wide areas. The two inside channels (shaded pale blue) are where he wants his best players in possession – Xavi and Iniesta to assist, Robben and Ribery to score – because they fall between all lines of the opponent’s defensive structure.

These aren’t mere guidelines or ideal scenarios. There are rules: no more than three players in any horizontal zone; no more than two players in any vertical zone.

For example, if Ribery cuts in from the left wing, left-back David Alaba should overlap. To cover Alaba, a central midfielder should drop to the left. If a rule 
is broken in training, Guardiola interjects, because it denies his most important players space.

“This happens every f**king game!” he screamed during a training session in Doha in January 2014, the YouTube video of which went viral. You wouldn’t like Pep when he’s angry. 

Nutrition is a serious business

To be an elite footballer, you need to eat like one. Hardly revolutionary, but when Guardiola saw pastries and cakes laid out for the team during his first pre-season at Bayern, he called for a nutritionist.

Eating the meal provided in the players’ lounge is compulsory. When only four players did so after a Bundesliga game against Nuremberg in August 2013, Guardiola spat at his squad: “I won’t ask again. You must eat within an hour of the match and since you’re all professionals playing at the highest level I trust that you will do it from now on.”

There’s no room for romanticism

All the hours spent studying videos, talking to his players and analysing every detail is pointless if he doesn’t win

Don’t ever confuse Pep Guardiola for a style-over-substance aesthete. Unsurprisingly for someone who has hoarded 21 trophies in eight seasons as a top-flight coach, he wants to win. 

At the centre of everything, however, is the desire to win with style. Ultimately, Guardiola chose Bayern as his next club after Barcelona – where he wants to one day return, to head up La Masia – because he wanted to prove he could advance on the ‘perfection’ that former coach Jupp Heynckes had left. Before joining Bayern, he researched every Bundesliga club to understand how they counter-attacked, but all the hours spent studying videos, talking to his players and analysing every detail is pointless if he doesn’t win.

Thiago agrees. “It’s a great mix: you know how he wants you to play and how to combine that with your own qualities. That’s how good results follow.  The players will end up drained by Pep. He’s so intense, he’ll exhaust us.”

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