Monday 18 December 2017

'Pep used to pick my brains at Barca - now I steal his ideas'

Koeman prepares to lock horns with the player he put on road to stardom

Everton manager Ronald Koeman. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
Everton manager Ronald Koeman. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

Chris Bascombe

The bond between members of one of the most influential football teams in history is unbreakable, but for 90 minutes today Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman must bury their friendship.

For Koeman, there is recognition that the footballing apprentice has become the coaching master. The Everton manager was trusted to mentor Guardiola, his former room-mate during the era of Barcelona's legendary 'Dream Team'.

Now he seeks to unlock the secrets of the coach he says may be the best in the world.

The affection between the pair is obvious ahead of their first meeting as managers, Koeman recalling how the young Guardiola drove his second-hand car to training.

"I had a Mercedes, but I had already been in the first team for two years," he quipped. "I like young players when they are still open to learn and behave normally. Not driving a Porsche after three matches in the first team. I think for Pep it was a second-hand Opel."


Trying to outwit each from the touchline rather than over dinner offers a fresh challenge, but Koeman, manager of Everton, and his Manchester City counterpart Guardiola will not be alone in grappling with the conflict between professional duty and personal fondness.

Watching from afar, former Barcelona team-mates - those who helped redefine football as part of Johan Cruyff's European Cup winners of 1992 - will be torn seeing friends in combat.

Hristo Stoichkov - the Bulgarian whose flamboyance sprinkled stardust across the Nou Camp during two spells in the 1990s - recognises an afternoon for diplomacy.

"The result will be 33 per cent, 33 per cent, 33 per cent and one per cent," he replies, laughing. "Txiki Begiristain 33 per cent (the duo's former Barcelona team-mate in 1992 who became director of football at the La Liga club and is now in the same role as City), Pep 33 per cent, Ronald 33 per cent and the last one per cent is for fans to enjoy.

"I always knew that if one day Pep and Ronald decided to become coaches, they would be great at it. They are doing exceptional jobs.

"When you are a young footballer you never think you will one day become a coach. I did think Pep and Ronald could. As players they wanted to achieve the best results possible, it is only natural that they would apply this same mentality in their careers as coaches.

"Pep and Ronald's personalities were totally different. Ronald was a young guy - around 26 - when he joined, but already with a great deal of experience. I recall his blond hair the first time we met. He understood the game by memory.

"Pep joined the team a little after the 'Dream Team' began at a young age. He was obsessed with the game. Pep thought about football 24/7, you would ask him something and his response would be related to the game.

"I saw Pep grow day-by-day while in Barcelona. He enjoyed conversations with his team-mates. He liked having authority on the field, having control of the ball. He was very meticulous, he was always paying attention to a lot of details. He has been able to apply the same model he had on the field as a coach.

"If they had not gotten along, they would have not been able to understand each other on the field in the way they did. Without the level of connection it would have been impossible to succeed."

Of Cruyff's multitude of epoch-shifting achievements, constructing a side comprising so many dynamic, charismatic and outspoken personalities and making them gel was as astounding as the football played.

Stoichkov - now a pundit for the South American broadcaster Univision Deportes - still deferentially references the influence of 'Mr Johan'.

Cruyff's influence will stroke every pass this afternoon.

"While playing at Barcelona, we all had our differences, however we never allowed them to affect us on the field - they stayed in locker room," recalls Stoichkov.

"Although each player had his own mentality and ideas, it was ultimately Mr Johan who would decide what position and role we had. His training went beyond physical.

"He trained us at an emotional, mental and psychological level. I now realise that he understood how complicated the real world is. He wanted to mentally prepare us for life, so that once our time as professional football players was up, we were able to adapt to the real world.

"Life as a football player is easy, your life surrounds around the beautiful, you go from your house to the field, from the hotel to the field. It is a short road.

"However, life is filled with unexpected turns that require you to be mature and prepared to face different situations.

"Mr Johan wanted to prepare us in this aspect. There's no doubt in my mind that his teaching tactic helped for a lot of his players to develop into coaches.

"His biggest influence on his players was to prepare us for experiences inside and out of the field."

Koeman is equally reverential to Cruyff. "There was a reason why the coach put Pep and I together in a room," he recalls.

"We played close to each other and Cruyff mentioned that Pep should learn a lot from (me).


"After one training session when he was involved in the first team you saw his qualities.

"He doesn't pick my brains now. The dynamic is different. Now he is maybe the best manager.

"I have some stolen some exercises from him, yes. I used to give the advice, but when I was the coach of Feyenoord I sent Giovanni van Bronckhorst to watch three days of Bayern Munich's training sessions when Pep was there. I can learn from other managers and other exercises.

"We have similar feelings about football, we like to dominate, we like to have the ball and it is also about the qualities of your players."

There are some differences. Koeman is more pragmatic in his definition of 'total football' than his friend.

City's recent results prove even the best sides are vulnerable and Koeman believes some of Guardiola's core beliefs will be tested in England.

"Pep likes to always try and build up even when it is difficult. I am a little bit different than that," said Koeman. "I prefer to play the long ball (in those situations) but we will see how they will handle what we want to do."

Ultimately, Koeman believes the identity of those in the dugout is a sideshow.

"You can have Guardiola as a manager, you can have Koeman as a manager, anybody as a manager," he said. "But the players inside the white lines win the game." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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