For many football fans, Pep Guardiola is the best manager that the modern game has produced. The Spaniard has landed on a unique style of attractive, aesthetically marvellous play, and he has chiselled it into perfection during his 13 years as a coach.
His system requires nimble, athletic and elegant players, all of whom must possess the mentality and sponge-like brain to soak up the words of wisdom which their coach preaches. During his time as a manager, he has created the most entertaining Tiki-Taka team during his years at Barcelona, and then turned Bayern into an all-consuming monster.
Guardiola finds a different type of connection with his players | Pool/Getty Images
He ensures that his soldiers carry out his instructions to the letter, playing the game as he believes it should be played, whether that culminates in three points or none on the day. More often than not however, he is a winner, and he has been a serial winner as both a player and a coach.
The truth is, this pinnacle that he has reached on the touchline with Barcelona, Bayern and latterly Manchester City is the result of his life’s work, one which he started well before donning odd turtle neck jumpers at the Etihad Stadium.
Guardiola’s legacy as Barcelona’s revolutionary coach will forever stand the test of time, particularly because he actually began, and spent most of his playing career, at Camp Nou. The starlet came through the famous La Masia academy, learning at the feet of the equally significant Johan Cruyff.
The Dutchman, who was at the heart of the Netherlands’ ‘Total Football’ era, was building his own dynasty in Catalonia, one which would later be remembered as ‘The Dream Team’. At the centre of his group of superstars, was a certain Guardiola.
1995 | Diego Simeone vs Pep Guardiola. Two of the greatest football managers right now, were opponents during 90’s in the football field. pic.twitter.com/1YZVY1q4Cj
— Old Days Football (@OldDaysFootball) May 17, 2019
The tactical guru has often spoken about the impact which Cruyff had upon his development, turning him into the player he became during Barcelona’s successful spell during the 1990’s.
“Every step you make he helps you realise why you are getting better,” he explained in an interview with The Guardian.
“He taught me how I can get better. I am like this: ‘I want more and more.’ You can feel the desire in me to get better.
“This is not the same as being hungry to make it. We all feel that hunger in football. With Cruyff it was different. He deepened and changed the hunger so you became conscious of why you are getting better. It was often simple.”
Guardiola, Wembley, 20 May 1992. pic.twitter.com/26pbnZfLMl
— A Football Archive* (@FootballArchive) May 20, 2019
Plenty of that particular extract is striking. The fact that Guardiola believed Cruyff’s instructions to be simple, speak volumes of the intellect of the man – even as a young boy – and while he credits his coach for instilling this burning desire for knowledge, there will have been many who opted not to deepen their understanding of the sport.
So much of the midfielder’s game was played between the ears. While he may claim not to be the best player in the team, and that his brain worked much faster than his feet, he was still a consistent cog in the best team in Spain.
His awareness on and off the ball offered him so much time and space, and he boasted the trademark aspect which he demands of all his disciples: never surrender possession. He was the ideal man to begin attacks, usually from deep, by springing the ball forward and finding his targets in good positions.
Guardiola provided the perfect shield for his defence, and although he wasn’t physically strong enough to blow people away in the tackle, his anticipation and reading of dangerous situations allowed him to be one step ahead of his opponents.
May 1994: Pep Guardiola looks on in disbelief as Barcelona crash to a 4-0 defeat against AC Milan in the Champions League Final. pic.twitter.com/IjejFzEB9g
— Classic Football Shirts (@classicshirts) August 16, 2020
Like a snooker player, the Barça star was already planning the next two or three moves for his teammates, and mind-mapping the attacks before even receiving the ball at his feet. As he suggested, he learnt quickly, and he learned to think faster, anticipate and act faster.
It comes as little surprise, but the crop of brilliant midfielders who all played under Guardiola at Camp Nou, all hailed their coach as their inspiration on and off the pitch. Without Guardiola, we would not have seen the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets or Cesc Fabregas.
But his career is not only defined by those he moulded in his shape. The Man City boss was the axis of one of the most celebrated Barça teams in football history: The Dream Team. Guardiola broke through as a rare talent, bursting onto the scene during the 1991/92 campaign, where he would become a regular in the first team at the tender age of 20.
La Blaugrana thrived amid the emergence of this wonderkid, winning the league and European Cup in that season, setting the stage for the arrival of a glorious era at Camp Nou. He played a key role in the Barça midfield over the next decade, helping them to five more La Liga titles, along with a whole host of other domestic and European victories.
Pep Guardiola lifts the European Cup for FC Barcelona, 1992. pic.twitter.com/Fc6uYZlKrA
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) August 2, 2019
While not the most exciting or electrifying of the stars in that squad, the system simply wouldn’t have worked without him. Guardiola provided the platform for those around him to shine, and much like Busquets has done during his own career, or Fernandinho under his boss’ tutelage at the Etihad, he allowed those around him to flourish.
He made the best players in the world, better. Just as he does to this very day.