Pep Guardiola – An appreciation of a big game manager

by Liam Corbett

After the somewhat surprising, but not shocking news that Pep Guardiola has decided to stand down as Barcelona boss, I thought I’d have a quick look at his stats from an Average Opposition perspective. When looking back on his reign, it’s easy to see why he’ll stake a claim to be Barcelona’s greatest ever manager, with 13 trophies won in his four seasons (so far). However, it’s easy to forget the state of the club when he took over.

Before Guardiola – 2007-08:

Frank Rijkaard’s final season was a tough one. Don’t get me wrong, a squad containing a newly signed Henry, Ronaldinho, Eto, Deco, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and a few others, isn’t that bad a place to be in, but it was clear the team was coming to the end of it’s cycle. Surprisingly, given the talent in the squad, there was clearly something wrong as they finished a third – just two years after winning the Champions League. They finished a massive 18 points behind league champions Real Madrid as they lost a massive 9 games.

With a win percentage of just 50%, Rijkaard ducked out on a bit of a whimper which is a shame considering what he did for the club (first Champions League title in 14 years). Just three points clear of 5th place is not where you’d expect Barcelona to be. When looking at the performance that season, of the 19 wins, only three were recorded against Top 6 opponents, and none were higher than 4th.

The problem wasn’t against the poor teams, where they only dropped 6 points from a possible 36 on offer, it was against the Top 6 teams, or more precisely the 5 other Top 6 teams. Of the 10 games, they picked up only 11 points from 30. An average opposition of 12.89 means that the team were flat track bullies – similarly, an average ranked opponent of 5.88 inflicted the losses. Whilst Rijkaard had done great things, Barcelona were not in good health (for their standards).

Step forward Pep.

The Job:

Eyebrows were raised when the coach of the B side was been given one of the biggest jobs in football. His only previous management experience was in the equivalent of the Spainsh 3rd division – although he did win the league. However, the Barcelona board had a very specific set of guidelines in their vision for the future of the club (as outlined in Graham Hunter’s ‘Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World’) and found here. They included: a preference for 4-3-3, an insistence of playing the “most attractive, most spectacular football possible”, to continue to promote players from the youth team, management of Superstar Players, Experience in elite, international football as player and coach, and “A good knowledge of the Spanish league and the club”.

Guardiola ticked most of the boxes, although perhaps lacking a little in the experience criteria as a coach, but in terms of knowing the club – there was no one better. He spent 11 seasons with the club as a player, appearing 384 times – including time as part of Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team.

Three Years of Dominance – 2008-2011:

His impact was immediate. Well almost. His first league game in charge of the club saw a 1-0 defeat to a Numancia team that went on to finish 17th. In fact he only picked up one point from his first two games. What followed though, was remarkable – 19 wins and 2 draws in the next 21 games put Barcelona in the driving seat to pick up their first title since 2006. They went on to finish a massive 9 points ahead of 2nd place – bitter rivals Real Madrid – and scored 105 goals in the process. And he did so after a large change in playing staff as well – Barca legends Ronaldinho and Deco were moved on, as well as established internationals Zambrotta, Thuram and Edmilson. Significant players brought in were La Masia graduates Gerard Pique (via Man Utd) and Sergio Busquets, as well as utility player Keita and Sevilla Full Back Dani Alves.

Best defence, best attack, most wins, fewest losses – it’s irrefutable, and compared to the previous season, it’s almost unrecognisable, finishing 20 points better off. In fact of the six losses and five defeats, two of each were in the last four games when the title had already been wrapped up. From an average opposition index, there’s an even bigger turn around:

And there you have it – 23 points taken from a possible 30 against the other teams in the Top 6. The two wins over Real Madrid were essentially a 12 point swing – enough to settle the destination of the league title. A solid 2-0 win at home (one of 15 clean sheets) followed by a mind blowing 6-2 win in the Bernebeu firmly cemented Guardiola’s status as a big game manager – a status only enhanced by a 2-0 win against Manchester United in the Champions League Final. In what would be a regular battle, it was Manchester United that had knocked out Rijkaard’s team the season before on their way to winning the trophy. As if there was any doubt about this team and Guardiola’s influence, they made it a treble with a Copa Del Rey Final win over Bilbao. Not a bad debut season, aged only 38.

How do you follow that as a debut season? Well you continue to match the level of performance despite changing personel once again – Ibrahimovic and Pedro in, Eto, Silvinho and Hleb out. And you improve your record – certainly in the league:

A record 99 points were collected in the league – an increase of 12 from his first season in charge. And this time was different – this was not a walk to the title, this was the start of the real Barcelona vs Real Madrid super rivalry. It’s always been great, but 2009-10 marked the start of the super teams that they are now. This title was won with bottle after seeing off a great Real Madrid team, who also broke the points record, only to finish second. One defeat (to Atletico Madrid who also beat them the previous year) was as impressive as the 31 victories.

Once again – Big Game Manager. They simply blew their opponents away, taking 28 points from a possible 30 (only Valencia picked up a point). They barely even gave them a sniff, with seven clean sheets in the 10 games against the Top 6 teams. This was sheer dominance. Madrid were once again beaten home (1-0) and away (2-0) in what effectively won them the title. The team may have scored less goals, but every other element was improved – more wins, less defeats, less conceded, better goal difference. That’s how you follow up a great first season. In the Champions League, they lost in the Semi Final in the now famous battle with Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan who employed the revolutionary tactic of giving the ball away, and they were elminated on away goals in the Copa Del Rey to Sevilla. However, they did win the UEFA Super Cup and the World Club Cup – all big games, all big performances. A treble of sorts for Guardiola again.

As was now customary, Guardiola moved to change the playing staff again in his third season. Out went Marquez, Henry, Yaya Toure and most importantly, Ibrahimovic. Here was a player that did not fit into the team ethic that Guardiola put ahead of individuals, and it’s fair to say that the manager didn’t get on with him as well as Pique did. Guardiola tried the superstar signing, it didn’t work, so he reverted to signing players that would fit into the club and the system. With that in mind, David Villa was brought in from Valencia, as well as Javier Mascherano, full back Adriano and youth product Jeffren. Once again, it was another fantastic performance in La Liga, and once again it was the battle of the Super Teams at the top:

Once again, in most countries in most seasons in the history of football, Real Madrid’s 92 points would have won pretty much any title. Not on Pep’s watch. As with the previous season, 2010-11 saw Barcelona flex their muscles and win the league. They once again scored 90+ goals, and this time they had their best defensive season in the league, conceding just 21 goals in the 38 league games – a new season, a new high. Once again they dominated the games against Top 6 opponents:

This time they took 26 points from the 30 available against the teams in 2nd to 6th. This time, Real Madrid at least managed a point against them, but the 5-0 defeat inflicted on Madrid pretty much settled the contest, as early as November – this time under the stewardship of ex Barca No.2 and pantomime villain, Jose Mourinho. Once again, like Pellegrini before him, the Special One wasn’t able to topple Guardiola’s men. Strangely, it was against the poorer teams that Barca lost to – defeats to relegated Hercules, and 15th placed Real Sociedad, and a failure to score against also relegated Deportivo La Coruna suggested a lack of focus on the easy games – but that would be splitting hairs in another phenomenal season.

Once again, it was topped off by a Champions League win over Manchester United, this time at Wembley – a fitting reward for the style of football that Guardiola had impressed onto the team. A style he took from his time as a player under Cruyff – but with added identity. Mourinho’s Madrid beat them in the Copa Del Rey final but it was little consolation for the Captial giants, they wanted the League and the Champions League. It did at least break the hoo-doo, and perhaps has led to the change in the balance of power domestically in 2011-12.

The End of the Era:

And so on to this season. At the time of writing, Real Madrid have all but won the title with a 7 point lead with 4 games to go. Barcelona could realistically finish the season with 93 points and over 100 goals, but such is the competition with the other Super Club, it’s not going to be enough. A surprise defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League semi final, perhaps pointed to Barcelona’s one weakness this season – lack of depth in the defence. With Puyol ageing and Pique distracted by his superstar girlfriend Shaqira (I certainly won’t judge him on that), the team has had to rely on Javier Mascherano as a makeshift centre back and youth team graduate Fontas. It’s unfortunate that his Barcelona team have had their worst run in the most important time of the season – the defeat to Madrid in the Clasico was sandwiched by a aggregate defeat to Chelsea, but at the end of it, Guardiola had seen enough and decided that it was time to step down. For a big game manager, it was hard to take.

He won’t finish the season empty handed though, he has already won the UEFA Super Cup and World Club Cup, and still has the Copa Del Rey Final to come. He’s certainly leaving the club in a much better state than he found it in.

Legacy:

First and foremost, he’s brought back an identity to the club both on and off the field. The brand of ‘tika-taka’ football and pressing far up the pitch is undeniably Barcelona. The total control of the football regardless of the opposition is something that won’t leave the club for a long time – unless of course Sam Allardyce somehow got the gig that he thinks he deserves, and talks about the so called Barcelona way not existing.

Intertwined with the footballing style is the continued promotion of the youth team players into the first team. Believing that those schooled in the Barcelona way will better serve the team than buying in players, Guardiola not only fulfilled one of the many criteria required of him, but he also left the future in good hands. La Masia graduates Busquets, Pedro, Thiago, Jeffren, Fontas and Cuenca have all been given their chance by Guardiola. He also resigned former youth teamers Pique and Fabregas. Add in established players, Messi, Puyol,Xavi and Iniesta, and the footprint of Barcelona will remain in the team.

Tito Vilanova can also thank Guardiola for his promotion to Manager. His success has convinced the board that much like the players, and similar to Liverpool’s era of dominance – it’s best to promote from within, to carry on a successful team.

And most importantly, what a team he’s left behind. With some reinforcements in defence, there’s not much else the club needs. David Villa will return from injury to also add some experience and ability further up the pitch, and the likes of Fabregas, Sanchez and the youth teamers will have settled that bit more. And with the big game mentatility that Guardiola has drilled into them, they’ll be there or there abouts in every competition they enter.

What next?

A well earned break for Guardiola comes first, but what after that? Personally (it’s my blog), it wouldn’t surprise me if he returned to the club after recharging his batteries. It’ll be hard for Vilanova to follow in such large footsteps, and with Real Madrid finally gaining the upper hand, it’ll be even harder for him to topple Mourinho’s men. However, it won’t be for the lack of offers. Every single team in the World would welcome him as manager, and it’s not outside the realms of possibility to see him as the replacement for long timers Ferguson or Wenger.

What is for sure, he’s undoubtedly been one of the greatest managers of all time, in such a short spell. Normally I try and make these pieces into a two sided debate, but his record is unquestionable, and sometimes you just have to appreciate the achievements. Not only did he win countless trophies (13), he gave an identity back to a very special club. He got the best out of his players as well. Messi went from 16 goals in 2007-08 to 38 in Guardiola’s first season. And it wasn’t just the youngsters – Henry went from 19 to 26 goals, despite being well into his 30s.

After a four year stint, Vincente Del Bosque left Real Madrid after two league titles and two Champions League medals, and after a nice break, he didn’t do too badly.

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