December 19th, 2009. Pep Guardiola, flanked by his assistant and ultimate successor Tito Vilanova, solemnly stands shoulder to shoulder with all footballing giants past. Roughly eighteen months into his first major managerial position, he is now the conductor of football’s finest orchestra.
The dying embers of Frank Rijkaard’s once domestic and continental superpower have been rejuvenated, despatched, recreated and set ablaze once more. F. C. Barcelona, for two seasons bereft of any trophies now possessed six, all in the space of those sporadic eighteen months. From the moment that La Liga was clinched, Barcelona would go on to claim the Copa del Rey, the Champions League, the Spanish Super Cup, the European Super Cup and on that crucial day in December, the FIFA Club World Cup. In the space of a few months a year’s work under Guardiola was vindicated by the capturing of six trophies; a new record. Yet, as Guardiola stood with Vilanova watching the exuberance of players that constituted the best team in the World, it was with a harsh eye on reality that he uttered his searing concern; ‘What do we do now?’
Championing Barcelona to every available accolade at the first time of asking was as rewarding as it was destabilising for Pep Guardiola. Although it is generally accepted that on their two biggest stages – the Champions League Finals of 2009 and 2011 – Barcelona were a far superior edition of themselves in the final of 2011, their ascension to the peak had been reached two years before.
In Guillem Balague’s Pep Guardiola – Another Way of Winning, the toll taken on Guardiola was ferocious. The successes of 2009 allowed for the performance in Wembley 2011 to manifest itself so purely. One could render parallels between the liberation of having succeeded materially and thus being able to hone their art further with the decision of The Beatles to stop touring in 1966. Much like they may never have had the time to create Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s, The White Album or Abbey Road had they to contend with the rigours of World tours, so too could Barcelona add such decisive finesse to an already wonderful style had they the pressure of no prior success. However, as The Beatles ended up developing individually to the extent that being a group became limiting, so too would Barcelona – in its entirety as opposed to its squad of players – would become practically unmanageable for the man who had done most to create this voracious monster. After a tiring season of quarrels with Jose Mourinho – then of Real Madrid – Guardiola called it a day at the club he had represented so successfully as a player and more successfully still as a manager. Amazingly, this is when it may get most interesting of all when considering the career and methods of Pep Guardiola.
When considering the remarkable insight leveraged by Balague’s book, one can now trace Guardiola’s methodology explored while the manager of Barcelona under the guise of what may be occurring in what is his second job; seasonal work with a quaint German club.
Barcelona in 2008 was a team in decline. Guardiola provided the necessary spark. Bayern Munich in 2013 were a treble winning sensation that had destroyed the Barcelona team Guardiola had left barely 12 months before en route to the club’s fifth Champions League title. It is fascinating to consider which project is the more difficult for a new manager.
In hindsight, all the ingredients for Barcelona’s success were present within the club and its ethos. It required a true cule like Guardiola to harness that raw ability, trim off the fat by means of Ronaldinho and Deco and re-establish the Barcelona ‘way’ initially procured by the Dutch influence of Johan Cruyff.
At Bayern Munich however, Guardiola encounters a side short of very little, let alone trophies and medals. Ultimately his successes of 2009 and the eight trophies that would come in the following three years definitively display Guardiola’s ability to deal with successful individuals in a successful team. While initial questions may have been asked when it was announced he would be taking over as Bayern manager before any segment of their treble was complete, if it is not clear it is now apparent that he is settling in as expected. As of tonight Bayern Munich have gone to Manchester City in week two of the Champions League group stages and thoroughly humbled a City side still clutching for a voice on the continent. Domestically, in a league relatively new to him – although I imagine his research prior to taking the job was as thorough as the speed to which he was reported to be learning German – Bayern are parallel with Dortmund in 1st and 2nd positions, both unbeaten and both on 19 points.
It is difficult to scrutinise precisely how much of this is Guardiola’s work and how much the work of his predecessor Juup Heynckes. While the results may well have been the same at this stage with or without Guardiola there have been a few telling moments that have defined the indelible mark of his impact. While laying claim to his third managerial European Super Cup – although I’m sure he saw it as an extension of Heynckes success – Guardiola’s Bayern out played Chelsea in a devastating fashion. It was reminiscent of his Barcelona side, yet it lacked the clinical nature so prevalent with Messi at the helm. This was evident in so far as it took a penalty shoot-out to secure victory for Bayern. Regarding possession and attempts on goal and Bayern dominated despite the protests of Mourinho that his Chelsea team had been so clearly superior on the night. However, the lack of penetration – partly attributed to the excellence of Cech on the night – will have worried Guardiola. It was little surprise therefore that the on-again off-again saga surrounding Robert Lewandowski and a move away from Dortmund to Bayern Munich gathered such pace recently. If Guardiola were to secure the services of a goal-scorer of Lewandowski’s repute it could be devastating for all potential opponents both home and abroad. This will be especially so when we consider the other obvious mark of Guardiola’s arrival.
Throughout Balague’s book one is constantly confronted with the word ‘love’. Guardiola you sense truthfully loved those players whom he established and retained over his four seasons there. He loved them it seemed just about as much as they loved him. Reading Balague’s account of his tenure in charge and his relationship with the majority of his players and it is an extremely believable scenario to imagine. More often than not solutions and comfort were clarified or indeed wholly apparent in a physical embrace between manager and player. As such, ‘hug’ is a word that appears almost as frequently as love.
Franck Ribery is a player who needs to feel such love. He said so himself in 2009 when he decided to renew his deal with Bayern Munich, a club at which he felt thoroughly loved and appreciated. A player capable of reaching astounding performances, one feels such love makes these performances an altogether more reasonable expectation. Perhaps it was a fluke, but much more likely another beacon of Guardiola’s immediate impact on this team of Champions that on scoring the initial equaliser in the Super Cup tie with Chelsea, Ribery ran straight to the sideline and shared and exuberant embrace with Guardiola. Knowing each other scarcely more than a few weeks, the trust, love and admiration both men shared is a testament to Guardiola’s commitment to Bayern Munich.
For the boy who was a born cule, to the player who would win both domestic and continental honours, to the manager who would craft their finest incarnation, Barcelona will forever be Guardiola’s team. They are his club, his obsession and for four long years, his entire life. Despite almost breaking him, Guardiola now stands tall as the latest in a long number of colossal coaches to lead Bayern Munich. He met with great success, encountered the demands both physically, mentally and emotionally that followed, and he may well have come out an even better manager.
For a long time I doubted his credentials as much as any spectator can. It all seemed too easy with Messi as the target for Xavi and Iniesta’s pin perfect passing. Yet, therein lies another legacy of Guardiola’s already illustrious career. Without his tutelage and development, the world may never have seen the incarnation of Lionel Messi that Guardiola made possible.
Should you get the chance, pick up a copy of Balague’s book. It is a remarkable account of a footballing genius at work. Yet, for all the successes it details, the harrowing lows and self doubt of Guardiola indicates the duality of a man who would give everything for Barcelona but ultimately got too much back by way of expectation. In Guardiola we possess a coach/manager/leader and friend to the best club side of a generation. Without him it never would have occurred. With this experience in tow, and a new club built on similar foundations to the one he exalted, Guardiola could truly achieve something equally spectacular in his latest venture. Long gone are the naïve doubts about his credentials. Take a good look at him and watch him once more weave a tapestry that can truly dazzle the world.