'Witnessing a Pep Guardiola training session was my most enduring memory from 2015'
Witnessing Pep up close was a beguiling experience and challenged my pre-conceptions about the Bayern manager
The most enduring memory of my football year? Not a game, not an interview but rather a soaking wet September morning on the outskirts of Munich and the chance to watch Pep Guardiola at work.
We usually only see and judge managers through the prism of a press conference or a dugout and so it is always instructive to see them in the habitat that actually most shapes their career.
I had arrived with some scepticism about the view that Guardiola has been the outstanding manager of his generation. Jose Mourinho, it seemed to me, had achieved more given the highly privileged context of the squads Guardiola inherited at Barcelona and then Bayern.
Yet 90 minutes spent observing the Spaniard from just a few feet was sufficient to challenge that view. It was beguiling, not simply for the hands-on speed and intensity of the session but how it was possible to clearly recognise a Guardiola team from the training he so very personally conducted.
As ever, his favoured drill was the ‘Rondo’; a training exercise that became synonymous with Barcelona and involves quick accurate passing patterns within the confines of a small circle of players. It relentlessly ingrains the importance of pressing, finding space and retaining possession.
At least 20 minutes is devoted to variations of this exercise on a daily basis and, as Guardiola fired balls into the middle of the circle while constantly offering instruction and encouragement in a variety of languages, you could sense the lasting imprint that he was leaving on these players.
That impression was only reinforced by speaking to Arjen Robben shortly after as he described not just the ferocious training pace but also the concentration that Guardiola demands.
“The manager loves the possession game,” he explained. “In the warm up we do the little circle. Every day. He wants us to play it serious. If you know you always have to make the game, dominate, surprise your opponent by playing the ball very fast, this is the kind of training you need.
“If you want to play dominant football you need to get the ball and play quick combinations in small spaces. It makes you think fast and be extremely concentrated. This kind of training I love. It makes you better.”
It is the kind of training that Guardiola will soon bring to the Premier League and, with Manchester City his most likely destination, you also have to suspect that it might well be the catalyst to leave their domestic competitors behind.
Yes, Guardiola took over already wonderful squads at Barcelona and Bayern but to then guide each team to a domestic treble of league titles (assuming Bayern Munich win this season’s Bundesliga), as well as at least the semi-final of the Champions League in six straight seasons, underlines the value that he personally adds.
He would represent a sharp improvement at City on Manuel Pellegrini, who appeared almost in denial after Monday’s 2-1 defeat against Arsenal at the suggestion that his team had lacked character or intensity in failing to seriously threaten Petr Cech’s goal during a first-half they dominated.
Pellegrini’s new one-year contract has always looked more like a mechanism to quell speculation rather than a long-term statement of faith and he hardly sounds like a man with much certainty about his future. “I don’t think players work for the manager,” he said.
“At the right moment I will know what is happening. It does not depend on me. It is a matter for the owners.” If a deal for Guardiola is finalised, it must also prompt further questions of Manchester United under the stewardship of executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
With a manager in Louis van Gaal who has largely floundered and does not even want the job beyond 2017, the sudden availability of Guardiola should be viewed as an irresistible opportunity.
Yet with the train about to pass, United have the look of a club stalled in neutral outside the station. Perhaps Woodward will shock us but the strong suspicion is that United are reluctant to commit themselves to a battle for Guardiola that they feel destined to lose.