Friday 6 December 2019

The Brilliant One

It pays to follow the rules with Guardiola - a serious man with a serious plan that always follows strict principles

Pep Guardiola. Photo: Reuters
Pep Guardiola. Photo: Reuters

Sam Wallace

There was a definitive take on Pep Guardiola's strict tactical discipline in December from Thierry Henry, who joined Barcelona as one of the biggest stars in the world and found that when he arrived there was nothing more important - not even him - than the principles held dear by his manager.

It was on a Sky Sports Monday Night Football show, amid a discussion about Louis van Gaal, that Henry conveyed the absolute rigour of Guardiola's system - and what happened when you disobeyed him. Henry tried it once, he said, and the reaction of his manager was immediate. He substituted the Frenchman.

In those days, Guardiola was dealing with a level of superstar on a different plain even to those he will manage at Manchester City next season. He will arrive as the veteran of three years at Bayern Munich, perhaps even as a three-times Champions League winner. Either way, one does not expect that he will have mellowed from those days that Henry described - in fact quite the opposite.

"When Pep has a plan, respect the plan," Henry recalled. And the plan was simple: "the three Ps" as Henry called it were "play, possession and position, and the most important one," he said, "was position".

"You have to stay in your position and trust your team-mates in order for a (chance of a) goal to come to you".

It was why, Henry said, he spent his two years under Guardiola playing dutifully on the wing, and why David Villa, another centre-forward, did the same when he later joined the club.

Henry said Guardiola would often train with cones down the middle of the first two thirds of the pitch to remind his players that they were not to cross to the other side. Team shape was paramount - it kept opponents stretched, while Barcelona retained the ball. Only when Guardiola's team reached the final third were they granted "freedom", Henry said, to go where they pleased.

"On his first day," Henry said, "he told us, 'My job is to bring you up to the final third, your job is to finish it'."

Henry ignored that instruction once, but never again. He decided unilaterally to switch wings in a Champions League game against Sporting Lisbon, scored a goal and was promptly substituted at half-time. He had failed to respect the plan.

The original view of Guardiola, although it is changing, is that of the football aesthete. What has emerged since he left Barcelona in 2012 is a picture of a very demanding man who does not care who he gets rid of when he is fine-tuning a club to work his way.

At Bayern, the highest profile departure was Hans Muller-Wohlfahrt, the doctor who inspired such loyalty in many players but resigned after he and his medical team were blamed by Guardiola for a Champions League defeat by Porto last season.

What is not in doubt is that Guardiola will be given whatever he needs at City, whose statement yesterday acknowledged that his arrival is the fruition of negotiations that began in 2012, before Manuel Pellegrini's arrival. It is understood that detailed talks have already begun about who will be leaving - and joining - City prior to Guardiola's arrival. His brother Pere, an agent, is a key figure and the man himself wants it done before he arrives.

The received wisdom is that there is no point in appointing one of the most original minds in football if you are not prepared to buy into the plan wholesale. What Guardiola asks for, he will get. He has signed a three-year contract and while his preference is to move on after three seasons, from the moment he arrives, the efforts will begin to persuade him to stay for longer.

There are strong suggestions that Guardiola has already looked closely at all staff, even in the academy, and that changes could be made. It is interesting that Patrick Vieira has already moved to New York City, the City Football Group's Major League Soccer franchise. Although it is undoubtedly a developmental step of sorts for a coach whom City have put much resources into, it also takes him out of the line of fire when Guardiola arrives.

What will Guardiola do for City? He can attract a different class of footballer, although in Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva it is not as if the club have struggled in that regard.

Could he attract Lionel Messi? It is not so fanciful that it is not discussed in elevated football circles. The tax evasion case against Messi and his father Jorge is in City's favour but temperamentally the odds are against persuading the player to uproot from a life in Spain that is so familiar to him.

The expectation is naturally that Guardiola can take City to a different level on the pitch. Bayern have conceded just nine goals in 19 games this season and lead the Bundesliga by eight points from Borussia Dortmund. He inherited the European champions and although he has not been able to repeat the feat of his predecessor Jupp Heynckes, there is no question he leaves a formidable legacy.

In the authorised account of Guardiola's first season at Bayern, Pep Confidential, journalist Marti Perarnau describes how, in May 2009, the young coach was sitting in his office at the Nou Camp at 10pm when he hit upon a way to beat Real Madrid. He summoned Messi immediately and announced that he was going to play him in the "Messi zone", the "false nine" role he had devised for the player the previous September for a game against Gijon.

It all sounds a bit too good to be true, but the basic principle holds.

Guardiola is a serious man who believes winning football matches is a serious business. He is high-maintenance. His record suggests he will prepare for games against Norwich City as diligently as games against Manchester United. He watches match footage of the opposition in a patient hunt for weaknesses. In Pernanau's words he is "obsessional. . . and believes that the ideal solution can be found only after examining all the available options".

There will be many Premier League managers who will shrug their shoulders and ask where that differs from their own approach.

Guardiola has managed two of the greatest teams in the world but he has never coached in a league where there is such an intense level of competition throughout the field. In three years at Bayern he has lost eight league games, five of those after his team have already secured the title. At the moment he is averaging one meaningful league defeat per season.

The English game will be a new challenge but that is not ultimately why City have appointed him. They may well be English champions by the time he arrives. They want him to make the difference in the Champions League and winning that trophy for the first time at a club is, apparently, one of the attractions that Guardiola saw in joining City. That and the complete control he will undoubtedly be afforded. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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