Getting inside the mind of Pep Guardiola

by Brian Irvine

Successfully chronicling the trials and tribulations of Pep Guardiola; one of modern football’s most enigmatic, adored and influential figures is no mean feat, yet it’s one Guillem Balague manages with consummate skill, balance and a supreme understanding of his subject in his latest book ‘Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning’.

That understanding is achieved through Balague’s exceptional research obtained via first-hand interviews with current FC Barcelona players and staff, past colleagues and of course Guardiola himself (a stipulation of Balague’s when agreeing to write the book).

The results show, the book is unique in that not only detailing Guardiola’s rise from the sleepy Catalan village of Santpedor to the most successful football manager this century but also providing an insight into his complex, pragmatic and often obsessive mind.

Gulliem Balague, who is currently on tour promoting the book explained why he took this approach:

To understand Pep Guadiola as a manager, you have to be his player. So the only other approach you can get is; instead of to talking to him and telling him what he does – talk to everybody and how they see him. This is more a product of how everybody sees him than how he sees himself. So whenever I spoke to him it was to check things or confirm things or to give me his vision of Messi or Mourinho.

 

But what I found fascinating was how other people see him, when you start you think ‘great coach’ but when you scratch below the surface you see he’s complex, he’s obsessive and you start seeing a different side to him. I wouldn’t call it a dark side but certainly, there is more to him than you can see.

Another feature of the book is Balague’s ability to remain objective when discussing such an illustrious and admired name of Spanish football. He maintains a critical eye throughout and doesn’t get lost in the romanticism of Guardiola’s story of a skinny kid with tough beginnings at Barca’s infamous La Masia academy to the man who brought some the most glorious football the world has ever seen to Camp Nou.

What is written about Guardiola, they describe him as this amazing character, that he can do no wrong and obviously he’s successful so people who have been writing about him have been writing about about his successful character and because he’s a major part of the success they don’t want to paint any bad picture of him.

 

I’m and Espanol fan, I’m not in love with him. I see what he does and what he’s provided to football, he’s changed football no doubt. I see his aura, and I get as intimidated by it the same as anyone else. So I tried to describe what else is in there; I think it’s quite a sympathetic portrait in the sense that I didn’t have enough reasons to ‘have a go’. He’s a good guy but he does have his weaknesses and trying to explore those weakness is what the book different as well.”

For a man as successful as Guardiola, investigating his weakness and frailties remains a minor part of a story tinged with more victories and silverware than disappointment and defeat. Balague’s condensed narrative showcases the events that laid the roots for that success while whisking the reader along at a brisk pace, yet doesn’t scrimp on the details when required, making for a very enjoyable read.

What becomes clear as the book progresses is the importance of preparation, attention to detail and a strong work-ethic has to Guardiola. It has been present throughout his entire career; from finding his feet (and best position) at Barca’s youth set-up, to dominating midfield in Johan Cruyff’s European Cup winning ‘dream team’, right through to his research missions in Italy and South America, managerial beginnings at Barca B to worldwide supremacy with the first team. He brought a level professionalism rarely seen to every role he undertook, building towards a work-ethic that would become synonymous with Barcelona’s philosophy.

Balague points to this a a major contributing factor to the success of Guardiola and part of what makes him unique about modern football managers:

What I think is most unique is that he has a football eye and that he’s absorbed so much information from so many different sources and has put it all together and produced this whole new way of playing at a time when we felt everything was invented.

 

So all of a sudden the first defenders are the forwards, the full-backs are wingers, the number four becomes a centre-back and they all move.

 

The biggest influence of Pep is obviously he’s pushed the Barcelona style and philosophy, put he’s put a desire to work to it. So off-the-ball everybody has to work, so Xavi works more than anybody, Pedro, a World Cup winner still runs more than anybody in that position; because he’s made everyone understand that if you’re going to do well, the work starts when you loose the ball – straightway. Otherwise you’d be like any other team.

 

To convince players to do that you have to do two things, one: win early, which he did and two: make sure the players are friends and they will do it for each other because defending is about attitude. If you want to help your teammate then it becomes better defending if you completely know him.

It’s a philosophy that provided a glut of trophies for Barcelona and left the world salivating over beautiful football Messi, Xavi, Initesta and co were serving up each week. Under Guardiola, Barca were crowned champions in 13 out of the 16 competitions they entered, making him the most decorated manager in the club’s history.

In 2012 Guardiola stepped down as manager due to the inevitable pressure that came with unprecedented achievements of the previous four seasons leaving the squad in the hands of assistant, Tito Vilanova to begin a new stage of evolution.

I think Vilanova is taking the the team back maybe two or three steps. He’s said lets go back to basics a little bit, let’s make things a bit simpler and just put the best guys out on the pitch. Pep Guardiola has so much in his head that he sometimes didn’t take the best decisions – Tito is doing that.

 

In the meantime he is re-enforcing some of the things that were working last season, so you can see Barcelona attacking on the wings or inside, you can see more direct football, but not all the time so depending on the game. You can see Xavi doing the Cesc role (being more direct) and you can see Cesc doing the Xavi role (playing more passes).

 

Barcelona are a very complex team, people say ‘anyone can do that if Tito Villanova can do that’ – that’s wrong. It comes from some very strong foundations that Pep Guardiola put in place and Tito, in understanding what was required, has just added his input.

As Guardiola enjoys his sabbatical from football, it hasn’t stopped some of the world’s biggest clubs clambering for his signature and leaving rest of us speculating where he’ll go next and even if he’s capable of performing to the same standards in another league and without a pool of emerging talent containing the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez.

When posed with the question ‘What will Pep do next?’ Balague said:

It’s a fair enough question and a question he would ask himself, he’s the kind of guy who thinks he’s not good enough and it’s a test and he’s going to test himself, he’ll try to do it in the Premier League if the right conditions are in place – I think the right conditions are in place at Manchester City for example but he’ll have to decide what to do next. Chelsea have been flirting with him big time as well so we’ll have to see what decision he takes.

 

As a player he almost went to Juventus and Manchester United but ended up at Brescia but for him it’s about testing himself. Once he tests himself, he’ll do it for or two or three years and move on to the next thing, and the next thing could be Director of Football or President of Barcelona – he’ll go back to Barcelona.

Balague’s book goes a long way to getting to the bottom of why Pep Guardiola holds so much widespread public interest. The book aims to get under the skin of Guardiola and show what makes him and his teams tick, as well as providing insider anecdotes and insightful details on off-the-pitch politics giving a wider and more defined understanding of the man himself and the club he has come to symbolise.

‘Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning’ is available on Amazon.

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