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Football News: Great Teams Part 6 Pep Guardiola's Barcelona

Great Teams Part 6 Pep Guardiola's Barcelona
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Pep Guardiola's Barcelona - It's Not Tiki Taka!

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Josep 'Pep' Guardiola Sala retired from playing and returned to Barcelona, where he was immediately offered a role as an advisor to the first team by Txiki Begiristain. Pep was not interested in a role like that, he wanted what he considered to be a 'real' job, and put himself forward to take over the coaching of Barcelona's B Team. Begiristain was horrified at the thought, believing it would be an insult to a club legend to give him a job running a team that had just been relegated to Spain's 4th tier, with its semi-professional opponents and terrible surfaces or cheap, plastic pitches.

Eventually Pep got his way and on 21st June 2007 he took his first steps in football management by being appointed head coach of Barcelona B, with Tito Vilanova as his assistant, along with Domenec Torrent and Carles Planchart as more assistants. At the time, the B team were in the Tercera Division, a regional, semi-professional league which was considered so lowly that there was just one person from the media at games, a Mundo Deportivo journalist. Pep immediately began to make changes and brought in an era of professionalism for the team.

With no way, at the time, to gather statistical and video data at that level, Guardiola built a team of scouts to video opponents so that Pep could analyse the footage. He also created a network of local journalists who would gather intelligence on opposing teams. This was all to face teams with no budget, no scouts, no analysis of opponents, that were part-time footballers, while Pep had all these advantages plus squads of professional footballers to choose from. Players such as Pedro, who he brought up from the 'C' team and made a key component of his attack, plus Sergio Busquets, who became the pivot in midfield.

Even so his start was inauspicious: "I remember the first three games: I won, drew and lost. We played on artificial pitches in the fourth division and they were so small. I said: 'We have to change because the pitch is so small.' I arrived the day and said: 'No, I'm not going to change.' If you saw the Barcelona B team I coached, from the first game always I try to look for that... Sometimes it doesn't work. But that's because the other team is good or we are not good enough." After that rocky start, the decision was made, no matter what Pep was going to stick to his footballing principles and find a way to make it work.

As Guardiola remembers it: "We played one game a week. You had time to think and to review from each match, from Sunday to Sunday. When you play every three days, you don't have time. The alternative to play in a different way to my belief didn't convince me enough. And it was so good because by the end of the season we were champions and promoted to another division. I said: 'If we were able to win quite well and play quite good football on these small, artificial pitches, then we are able to do it at a higher level, better players, better pitches, better stages.' That was an important moment because I was new. I had no experience even if I had beliefs. I still had to prove myself, 37 years old, never trained with big players."

Meanwhile there were problems with the first team, with tension between Samuel Eto'o and Ronaldinho, the team's two biggest stars, a particular problem. Rijkaard would indulge the Brazilian to a degree that upset the rest of the team. While Ronnie would be out every evening in the bars of Castelldefels, then barely breaking sweat in training, the rest were expected to be model pros. Rijkaard would never push for more from Ronaldinho. There were pictures of Ronaldinho leaving the pitch after taking off his shirt on the front page of Catalan broadsheet newspaper La Vanguardia, simply because you could see the Brazilian's beer gut hanging over his waist.

A training match between Rijkaard's first team and Guardiola's B team showed the huge differences in professionalism. Pep was on the sidelines cajoling and coaching, Rijkaard sat there utterly unconcerned puffing on a cigarette, while the B team ran his charges ragged. Ronaldinho had to be taken off after ten minutes and Deco was out on his feet. Guardiola's charges won the Tercera Division, to qualify for the 2008 Segunda Division B play offs, which they also won and were promoted. It was enough to put Guardiola into the frame and, after Michael Laudrup rejected the job, Pep replaced Rijkaard as Barcelona's head coach in May 2008. It could have been so different, as the deal to take Laudrup from Getafe included them taking Guardiola as manager in return.

Txiki Begiristain was the main mover in the choice of Guardiola, choosing him over Jose Mourinho, much to Mourinho's annoyance. Begiristain, along with Marc Ingla had interviewed Mourinho for the job, as the Portugese coach had left Chelsea, and they were impressed. But the great Johan Cruyff was backing Pep, and he and club director Evarist Murtra were deeply opposed to Mourinho because of the football he played. That is probably why the deeply unpopular Joan Laporta (ironic now considering recent events at Barcelona) decided to appoint him, to keep Cruyff's favour. Laporta's presidency was in trouble, only surviving a vote the following month by a slim margin as 60% voted against him when 66% had to vote against to remove him. Eight directors of the club resigned after the vote, citing their lack of confidence in Laporta's leadership.

"Pep coached the B team the year before and from the beginning he won the confidence of everyone at the club. Everyone who was working at the training ground and on the football side of the staff could see the potential he had to be a successful coach. When talent is very obvious, it can move up a level without difficulty. Pep had everything in his favour and one thing most of all: Barca was his club, he was 'persona de la casa'. The difficulty was convincing the board and the public opinion. There were logically other option, which were more conservative and less risky. I think Txiki had his mind clear from the beginning. But they considered the other options." - Evarist Murtra

Guardiola immediately made his mark when being appointed, not just his talk of wanting more effort out of the players, but he was clear that there were a large group of players that were not in his plans. Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto'o were three big names that Pep was clear had no future while he was managing Barca, among others. This was despite Guardiola inheriting a team that played a 4-3-3 built entirely around Ronaldinho, but Pep wanted his more disciplined style, with its focus on possession and an aggressive high press to win the ball back quickly.

Edmilson, Giovani dos Santos, Gianluca Zambrotta, Deco, Ronaldinho, Oleguer and Marc Crosas were all moved on. Santiago Ezquerro was released and Lillian Thuram, after a move to Paris Saint-Germain fell through when a heart problem was discovered, retired. Busquets, Pedro and Jefferson Farfan were all promoted to the first team squad and he then, as he is wont to do, spent heavily to rebuild the team. Sevilla received over £40m for the duo of Seydou Keita and Dani Alves, Gerard Pique returned from Manchester Unted, Alexander Hleb from Arsenal and young defender Henrique joined from Palmeiras, though he was immediately farmed out on loan.

Guardiola took the squad to Scotland for a preseason training camp, where he worked on providing a more hands-on, personal approach to training and an attempt to convince Messi not to go to the Olympics. Argentina had called him up, but Barcelona's president, Joan Laporta, took the Argentine FA to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to block the call up. Barcelona won, but, in Messi's own words: "I was unbearable, letting them know if I couldn't go this would be how I was going to be." Messi was hearing from his national teammates out there in Beijing how great it was and sulking around the camp until Guardiola took him aside and asked him directly if he wanted to go. Pep had his own gold medal from the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, so he could understand the desire to play there and he gave Messi permission to go, on condition he had a chaperone. Messi readily agreed and headed off to win the gold medal. That was the moment Guardiola won Messi over.

While Messi headed off to the Olympics, Guardiola was hard at work convincing the players to buy into the new work ethic required of them. Unlike Rijkaard, Pep is far from laidback and is a very demanding coach who expects his players to work together. So St Andrews saw him teach his new charges his 6-second rule for pressing, how to squeeze the pitch and pin teams into their own defensive third. He took bits and pieces from other coaches, such as Ricardo Le Volpe's 'La Salida Lavolipana', which is the ploy of the centre-backs splitting and a midfielder dropping between them, and knitted it all together into his own style. A high defensive line, with full-backs pushing right up put a lot of pressure on Xavi and Iniesta to maintain possession and the press to win it back quickly and as high up the field as possible. Rafael Marquez was playing at centre-back to create chances with his long-range passing. Probably the biggest strength of Guardiola was his willingness to be flexible, allowing Xavi and Puyol to convince him to keep Eto'o after the Cameroon striker worked incredibly hard in preseason.

The season did not get off to a flyer, newly promoted Numancia getting a shock 1-0 win over Barca to put immediate pressure on Guardiola. Even with Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o in the team they could only draw 1-1 with Santander next time out and Pep's reign was under intense scrutiny before it had really begun. Johan Cruyff had been asked to mentor Pep but had refused, insisting that his protege was ready for the job and he stepped in to give his backing, writing in El Periodico of the Santander game: "I don't know which game you saw, but I saw one of the best Barcelona performances I had seen for years."

Pep remembers being in his office when 'a small figure poked his head around the door, and spoke calmly. "Don't worry boss, we'll win it all. We're on the right path. Carry on like this, okay."' It was Iniesta. And he was right. The Santander game was the first of a 20 game unbeaten run which put them top of the table and they stayed there throughout the season. While pundits in the media argued about whether the style of football was sustainable over an entire season, and pointing to results like a 4-3 loss to Atletico Madrid in March which cut the lead to 4 points, Barca just kept going.

Real Madrid had been left so far behind that Bernd Schuster had been sacked and replaced by Juande Ramos, which had been the catalyst for them to go on an unbeaten run of their own, to put pressure on ahead of El Classico on 2nd May. Pep took Barca into the game with a new system, something Madrid had no idea how to deal with as Messi played a 'false 9', with Eto'o to his right and Henry on the left. It destroyed Madrid 6-2 as their defence had no idea what to do and who to mark or whether to leave Messi to have the ball deep or close him down. In the end they dithered and Eto'o and Henry worked the channels between the full-backs and centre-backs creating acres of space for Messi to play with freedom. Henry scored 2, and got man of the match, to take his total to 26 goals for the season.

Though it was often reported at the time that Guardiola had invented a new position, he was actually just a student of football history and had seen how successful both the 'Mighty Magyars' of the 1950s and Austria's 'Wunderteam' of the 1930s were using a player in that role. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Pep had found the perfect wheel for his needs and used it, brilliantly.

His team were not just leading La Liga though, they were in the final of the Copa del Rey and beat Chelsea over two legs, though not without controversy as the Londoners were denied a number of penalties, to also reach the Champions League final. On the 13th May the first of those trophies was won as Athletic Bilbao were battered 4-1 in the Copa del Rey final. On the 16th May, Madrid lost to Villareal to hand the La Liga title to the Catalans, leaving just Manchester United in Rome for an unprecedented treble. A 2-0 win saw Guardiola as the youngest manager to win the UEFA Champions League and all the doubts over the sustainability of the football were gone.

Pep's first season was over with a treble which saw his team win the league by 9 points over Madrid and with a goal difference of more than double the runners-up. Now the questions surrounded the opposition, who could stop this juggernaut? Perhaps what would stop Pep would be himself, as he bizarrely saw fit to give Inter Milan Eto'o and 46m euros for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, in possibly the worst transfer move in the history of the game!

Guardiola also continued his clearout of players that were there when he took charge as Eidur Gudjohnson headed off to Monaco, Sylvinho and Albert Jorquera were released and some other fringe players moved on. Pep also decided the signing of Hleb was a mistake and moved out on loan to Stuttgart. Joining Barca were, alongside the forementioned Zlatan, Brazilian left-back Maxwell, also from Inter, Dmytro Chygrynskiy from Shakhtar and young Brazilian Keirrison from Palmeiras. Pedro and Jeffren were promoted from La Masia to the first team as well.

The 2009/10 season started in the same vein as the previous one finished, with Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Supercup and Shakhtar Donetsk in the UEFA Supercup swept aside to add two more trophies to the cabinet. In September Barca played, and won, Pep's 50th competitive match in charge, away to Malaga. Then a scandal broke on 23rd September in Catalan newspaper El Periodico. The paper had discovered that the director general of Barca, Joan Oliver, had hired an investigation company called Metodo 3 to spy on Joan Laporta's likely opponents for the role of president of the club.

One of the 4 men that Metodo 3 had investigated, the vice-president of institution and assets administration Joan Franquesa, had then resigned for "personal reasons", and Joan Laporta had restructured the board. Guardiola had to shield his players from the fall out and, judging by results on the pitch, managed to do so adroitly, as in December 2009 Barcelona won the FIFA Club World Cup, the first one Barca had ever won. That made it six trophies in the calendar year, the first time any manager had ever managed to achieve that feat.

In January 2010, Pep surpassed Josep Samitier's record to become Barcelona's longest serving Spanish manager and agreed a 1-year contract extension to extend his reign until the end of the 2010/11 season. In February Guardiola took charge of his 100th match in charge of Barca and won it to make his record 71 wins, 19 draws, 10 losses, 242 goals scored and just 76 goals conceded. In April he became the first Barca manager to beat Madrid four times in a row as it seemed his team was fast becoming unstoppable.

But the UEFA Champions League semi-finals drew them against an Inter Milan side featuring a hard-grafting right-wing/auxiliary right-back named Samuel Eto'o, under a man who had a personal grudge against Pep, Jose Mourinho. Mourinho had believed that he was going to be named Barcelona manager, not Guardiola and he was determined to prove the Barca board got it wrong. Sure enough Inter ran out 3-2 winners on aggregate and went on to win the tournament, while Pep's Barca had to settle for their 20th Spanish title with 99 points, the highest points total ever scored in a major European league at that time. It was Guardiola's 7th trophy, tying him for second on Barca's all-time list behind Cruyff with 11 and level with Ferdinand Daucik.

This was when it began to turn against Pep off the pitch, though it was not to affect the team adversely on the pitch this season. Laporta lost the presidential election to Sandro Rosell and immediately tried to tighten belts by selling Dmytro Chygrynskiy back to Shakhtar against Guardiola's wishes. Veterans Rafael Marquez and Thierry Henry were both released, though that was with Guardiola's blessing, and both headed off to Major League Soccer to sign for NY Red Bulls. There were also personal problems between Pep and two of his players.

Yaya Toure elected to leave to join Manchester City, though Guardiola had wanted him to stay, saying later: "Whenever I asked him something, he always gave strange answer. He pretty much ignored me until City's offer came in. That's why I eventually opted to leave. I didn't speak to Guardiola for a year. If he had talked to me, I would have stayed at Barcelona. However, he had no faith in me." That was nothing like as bad a clash as there was with Pep's big signing, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Zlatan wrote later in his autobiography: "Guardiola was staring at me and I lost it. I thought, 'There is my enemy, scratching his bald head!' I yelled, 'You haven't got any balls!' and worse than that I added, 'You can go to hell!' I completely lost it, and you might have expected Guardiola to say a few words in response, but he's a spineless coward." Zlatan's agent, Mino Raiola, also hit out at Guardiola in public comments, which caused the Barca board to respond and they "denounced the conduct over the last few days of the agent of our player Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mino Raiola, whose declarations have put into question the honour and moral integrity of our coach Pep Guardiola".

The relationship between player, club, agent and head coach had deteriorated to such a degree that Barca's legal department were instructed to explore the possibility of terminating the Swede's contract. AC Milan stepped in before that was needed and Zlatan joined them on loan for a season with an option to sign permanently for 24m euros. Coming in to Barca were Adriano, from Sevilla, Ibrahim Afellay, from PSV Eindhoven, Javier Mascherano, from Liverpool, and a top class striker in the shape of David Villa from Valencia. Despite those two outgoings against Pep's will, he was backed in the transfer market once more.

Before the season kicked off, despite the change in president, Guardiola signed a new 1-year contract and then the team started the season as usual, with another trophy to put in the cabinet. It was the second Supercopa de Espana in a row that Barca had won, this time with a 5-3 aggregate win over Sevilla. In fact, on the pitch the team was once more like a well-oiled machine and sweeping pretty much everyone before them.

It was only off the pitch that there were even the slightest sign that there might be anything wrong as, in October 2010, the new Barca board had finished their audit of the books. They had found that 48.7m euros had gone 'missing' during Laporta's reign and Barca's commissioners voted to take legal action to chase down the money. Laporta hit back, claiming Rosell was "envious, resentful and jealous" of him. Still, the team on the pitch were managing to ignore the politics and the following month a 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid made it five wins in a row in El Clasico.

A couple of weeks later the club revealed it was set for a large influx of cash from their first-ever paid shirt sponsorship deal. For a while now they had worn UNICEF on the front of their shirts to prepare fans for the switch to having paid sponsors and a 5-year deal with the Qatar Foundation was the first (though it only lasted a year before the name on the front of the shirt changed from the non-profit foundation to become Qatar Airways). At the time it was the biggest deal in footballing history, with 150m euros being paid over the 5 years.

January saw Messi win another Ballon d'Or, this time his Barca teammates Iniesta and Xavi were second and third respectively. Less than a month later Guardiola signed a 1-year contract extension and all was once more looking rosey, despite the Rosell/Laporta dispute rumbling on. Just a week after Barca had beaten Arsenal in the Champions League 1st knockout round, controversy once more hit the Catalan club.

This time it was a report by Spanish radio station Cadena COPE on Real Madrid questioning doping practices within La Liga and calling for tighter controls. They pointed the finger squarely at Valencia and their two wins in the early 2000s, due to them working with Esteban Fuentes, who had been heavily involved in the Lance Armstrong doping scandal (ironic really as Fuentes himself later in court admitted working with Real Madrid among many others, such as the Spanish national team). Madrid also claimed the doctors working for Barcelona were of "doubtful reputation" (allegations with regard to those Pep has worked with that followed him to Bayern Munich as well). Barcelona immediately denied involvement in doping and COPE apologised for reporting on the allegations.

A day later, on the 15th March 2011, Barca called a press conference to announce legal action against Cadena COPE. That same day they also announced that their French defender Eric Abidal had a liver tumour. Despite the problems Barca were 8 points clear of Madrid by early April and then reached the semi-finals of the Champions League by cruising past Shakhtar Donetsk 6-1 on aggregate. Madrid did get some relief from the constant El Clasico defeats by beating Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final but lost to their rivals in the Champions League semi-finals.

The 11th of May 2011 saw Barca pick up their third La Liga title in a row after a 1-1 draw with Levante. A few weeks later their were at Wembley to face Manchester United in the Champions League final and ran out 3-1 winners, with Man Utd midfielder Paul Scholes saying it was the best team he ever played against. It is little wonder Guardiola was FIFA's World Coach of the Year or that the Catalan parliament awarded him their gold medal, the highest honour they have. Once again Barca looked to be a step above the rest. It was hard to see how anyone could challenge them in Spain or in Europe.

Ahead of the 2011-12 season, Gabriel Milito returned to Independiente, Jeffren moved to Sporting CP, Maxwell was sold to PSG, and Bojan went to AS Roma for an initial fee of 10m euros with an obligatory re-purchase clause of 13m euros unless Roma paid a further 28m euros. On the in side were Alexis Sanchez from Udinese, Cesc Fabregas returned home from Arsenal and Thiago Alcantara and Andreu Fontas were promoted from the youth team.

Pep was looking towards making a lot of use of a very similar 3-4-3 system to the one Cruyff used when a certain Josep Guardiola was his pivot, particularly against teams that used two attackers. In place of himself, Pep used Busquets as the sitting midfielder, with Fabregas as the attacking mid saying: "Playing out with three men at the back is very useful because it conditions the response of your rival. Even if they press you, it'll be with their centre-forward and second striker, obliging them to move into a 4-4-2 shape and you can therefore overrun them by achieving superiority."

The season began with a bad-tempered clash (clash being the appropriate word in many respects) against Real Madrid for the Super Copa de Espana. The first leg was in Madrid and ended 2-2 but the second leg saw a brawl following a Marcelo challenge on Fabregas which left Barca with ten men and Madrid with just nine. Red cards were shown to David Villa of Barca and Mesut Ozil and Marcelo from Madrid. The game ended with a 3-2 win to Barca, and a 5-4 aggregate win for Barcelona, but the clashes were also happening off the pitch, as new Madrid manager Jose Mourinho was involved in a physical altercation with Tito Vilanova.

Despite a strike by the Spanish players delaying the start of the La Liga season, Barcelona beat Porto 2-0 in the UEFA Super Cup to give Pep his 12 trophy in charge of Barca. His 200th game in charge came along in November with his record standing as 144 wins, 39 draws and 17 losses. His team had managed to net 500 times while conceding 143. Trophy number 13, out of a possible 16, was added when Santos were thrashed 4-0 in the World Club Cup.

In January 2012 Guardiola was named FIFA World Coach of the Year but, despite beating Real Madrid 2-1 on his 41st birthday, things were beginning to turn against Pep's Barcelona. Criticisms of his recent tactics and team selections were being heard, not just in the media but on the terraces as well. Pep was looking a shadow of himself and the players looked unhappy too. To make matters worse, Madrid won La Liga and Chelsea knocked Barca out of the Champions League semi-final 3-2 on aggregate. Just three days later a tired looking Pep announced he would be stepping down at the end of the season. Despite all of that, Barcelona triumphed 3-0 in the Copa del Rey final to give him trophy number 14 to take with him.

Guardiola and his Barcelona side created records, though not, as most of the media claimed, through 'tiki-taka': "I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It's so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition's goal. It's not about passing for the sake of it. Don't believe what people say. Barca didn't do tiki-taka! It's completely made up! Don't believe a word of it! In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak."

What he did was to get the players to buy into the need to work for the team, even Messi as Dani Alves explains: "The first player to apply the pressure is our best player, Messi. That pressure is the starting point for the entire concept: to be a great team you need to have everybody willing to go hunting for the ball. And you do it for each other." That is why he took what was a great bunch of individuals and made them one of the greatest teams football has ever seen. The problem was that his inexperience began to be exposed by the end.

Firstly Guardiola was unable to recruit players who improved the squad, the one he inherited was a better group than those he left behind. In fairness to him, he was hampered by the change in presidency, with the new president wanting to lower costs, but he was still given a decent budget. Secondly, and this has become a bigger problem throughout his career, Pep has bought into his own media hype about him being a tactical genius and so kept trying to make clever tactical tweaks that did not work.

There is no doubt Guardiola is a fantastic coach that can produce a team that plays the way he wants brilliantly. However that takes time on the training ground to get the players to play that well. Completely throwing away all that good work for a one-off game makes little sense. Pep is going against his strengths as a coach and needs to realise that is why it keeps failing for him. The final problem was that he was let down by the players. Guardiola was clearly worn out, but that was because he was working so hard and doing so much for the players. They let him down by letting their workrate dip. They were no longer playing at 100% and even a tiny dip can make the difference between success and failure at the top level.

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To read the previous episode in the Great Teams series click HERE to read Part 5 - The Big Goon & Superbrat: Fleming & McEnroe.

Written by Tris Burke July 02 2021 17:21:39


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