While the senior Barcelona team floundered in la liga, a resurgent Barcelona B were finding their way at the Miniestadi under a former Camp Nou hero.
After retiring from football, Pep Guardiola took a one year sabbatical from the game. He flew with his friend David Trueba to Argentina, South America to meet El Loco Marcelo Bielsa – one of football’s most innovative coaches – where they would discuss about football for many hours. Pep was preparing to delve into football coaching, and on the 21st of June 2007 would be presented as B team manager at the Nou Camp, in a period when the club was playing without an identity and had just been relegated to the 4th tier of Spanish football. Their relegation mean’t the Barcelona C team had to be disbanded which meant Pep Guardiola in his first coaching assignment, had the laborious task of incorporating two teams of over 40 players into a single team. A certain Pedro Rodriguez – one of these players – will go on to score in six different competitions in the senior team under Guardiola the following season, becoming the first footballer in history to achieve that feat.
Being a former Barcelona ball-boy, youth player, captain and resident of La Masia, Pep Guardiola knew the whole lot about the club. He built the B team on the principles and ethos he had assimilated playing under the legendary Johan Cruyff in the famous Barcelona ‘Dream Team’. Cruyff played a huge role in Pep’s career as a player, and manager. He gave him his debut and had a huge influence on his playing position – one he mastered.
“In his first week at the club, Johan Cruyff turned up unannounced at the ‘Mini’ stadium, a venue just down the road from Camp Nou used by the youth and B teams. Just before half-time he wandered into the dug-out and asked Rexach, the youth team manager at the time, the name of the young lad playing on the right side of midfield. ‘Guardiola – good lad’ came the reply. Cruyff ignored the comment and told Rexach to move him into the middle for the second half, to play as pivot. It was a difficult position to adapt to and one not used by many teams in Spain at the time. Guardiola adjusted immediately, as Cruyff had suspected he would, and when he moved up into the first-team in 1990 he became the pivot of the Dream Team.”
“All the coaches I had in my career were important but Cruyff was the most important of all,’ said Guardiola. ‘Cruyff was without equal on training and tactics and he helped me to understand the million details that decide why some matches are lost and some matches are won. And his way of managing the dressing room.”
He enjoyed coaching the team and would spend a lot time creating tactical drills and analyzing every little detail and aspect of their game with his close friend Tito Vilanova, who was Guardiola’s assistant at the B team. Apart from the coaching and technical aspects, Guardiola also became very close to the youngsters – like a second father. He would take players to dinner after games, interact with them and become part of their everyday lives. Also, he was a very strict disciplinarian. Players who were late for training were often punished. Fines of over €100 and €1000 were handed out to players who missed sessions and broke their curfew respectively. Money collected was given to charity.
In no time, Barcelona B became appealing to the eye, combining proactive positional football with results.. Director of Football, Txiki Begiristain and other Barcelona board members heard the remarkable progress Pep was making at the MiniEstadi and would often go and watch the B team. They become champions of the fourth division playing an exhilarating brand of football which consisted a run of over 20 unbeaten home games, and were promoted to Segunda B. The mastermind behind this resurgence Pep Guardiola, would later that summer be appointed as Rijkaard’s successor.
“I can’t promise titles but I am convinced that the fans will be proud of us… I give you my word that we will put in an effort. I don’t know if we’ll win, but we’ll persist. Put on your seat belts, because we’re going to have fun” – Guardiola to the Barcelona faithful during his presentation at the Camp Nou. “We want a solid, balanced Barcelona team this season that wins games with football that entertains the fans.”
Barcelona president Joan Laporta revealed later on the decision to appoint Pep: “We chose a philosophy not a brand. The day Guardiola arrived, he did not promise titles, but he did promise that Barcelona would be “faithful to our philosophy, to a way of understanding the game”. He was true to his word. His success was making us believe in his ideas”
Upon his appointment, Guardiola made some very interesting and bold moves. He said: “With the technical secretary we are forming a squad and Deco, Ronaldinho, and Eto’o are not in our minds.” Ronaldinho, two time European footballer of the year was deemed surplus to requirements and was sold along with Thuram, Oleguer and Deco. Eto’o though was kept. Guardiola put his trust in youth, giving first team debuts to no less than 22 youth players during his four year stay. He promoted Pedro and Busquets who had played in the lower ranks of Spanish football with him to the first team. One of the first moves he made as Barca coach was to install a plasma screen tv for opposition analysis in the office he inherited from Rijkaard.
From Guillem Balague’s ‘Another Way of Winning’, this was Guardiola’s first words to the team. The speech that begun Barcelona’s most successful era.
“Gentlemen, good morning. You can imagine what a huge motivation it is for me to be here, to coach this team. It is the ultimate honour. Above all, I love the club. I would never make a decision that would harm or go against the club. Everything I am going to do is based on my love for FC Barcelona. We need and want order and discipline. The team has been through a time when not everybody was as professional as they should have been. It is time for everybody to run and to give their all.
I’ve been part of this club for many years and I am aware of the mistakes that have been made in the past, I will defend you to the death but I can also say that I will be very demanding of you all: just like I will be with myself. I only ask this of you. I won’t tell you off if you misplace a pass, or miss a header that costs us a goal, as long as I know you are giving 100 per cent. I could forgive you any mistake, but I won’t forgive you if you don’t give your heart and soul to Barcelona. The style comes dictated by the history of this club and we will be faithful to it. When we have the ball, we can’t lose it. When that happens, run and get it back. That is it basically.”
Many were skeptical about this decision to bring in a man with so little coaching experience to one of the biggest football clubs in the world. Pep recalled: “when I started out at Barcelona some 86 or 87 per cent of people didn’t want me.” His first two la liga games didn’t help either. Guardiola lost his first La Liga game against Numancia, before drawing at home to Racing Santander. It was the club’s worst start in La liga. The Spanish media and fans alike shredded Pep, his legacy and status as club legend was under threat, before the following week he thrashed Sporting 6-1, beginning a run which saw the Catalans gain 57 points out of a possible 60.
Xavi in particular was thrilled about his appointment. He recalled his excitement when Pep was handed the job, (from this Guardian article by Sid Lowe) “When they signed him I said: ‘Madre mía, we’re going to be flying. I swear it. He’s a perfectionist. If Pep decided to be a musician, he would be a good musician. If he wanted to be a psychologist, he would be a good psychologist.He is obsessive; he would keep going until he got it right. He demands so much from himself. And that pressure that he puts on himself, those demands are contagious – it spreads to everyone. He wants everything to be perfect.” Xavi was right. In four years, Pep Guardiola would become the most successful manager in Barcelona’s history with 14 trophies, eclipsing his mentor Johan Cruyff’s 11. He became the youngest manager ever to coach a Champions League winning team, and also the first to win the treble with a Spanish side.
It wasn’t just the success and trophies that shocked the world however, but the style.
“Pep tried to play simple football,” said Ferrer, Pep’s teammate. “He created the philosophy where if you can play an easy pass why would you play a difficult one? Barcelona are one of the few teams who always had 70-75% possession in games because of the players they had and the philosophy of keeping the ball. He was very demanding of that — not giving the ball away.”
“The principle behind Barcelona’s style was very simple: play with the ball, do everything with it. Every footballer around the world decided to play football because one day in some corner of their small village or big city, wherever it was, they kicked a ball around and enjoyed it. Barça’s system, even if people say it’s very complicated, is as simple as that: we’ll get the ball and just let them try and take it off us; let’s pass it between us as much as possible and see if we can score a goal. That’s what my predecessors handed down to me and the message I tried to get across while I was there too. What I’ll try and do in the future is what I did when I was a player, what I believed in, and what I’ve coached for the past five years: attack as well as you possibly can, keep hold of the ball and pass it to a guy wearing the same colour shirt.”
Pep Guardiola created a dynasty, one of the greatest sides the world had ever seen, portraying the game in an art form. He played a 4-3-3 formation predominantly during his time at the Camp Nou, but I say that as a mere number. Formations are phone numbers to Pep. A 433 can easily became a 451 in pressing, a 3124 in first phase of attack with the pivot dropping into the defensive line to create positional superiority etc. The idea as ever, is to generate positional superiority. Between 2009-2012, Barca dominated almost every opposition with and without the ball. Guardiola prioritized having possession of the ball, in order to do so, the Barcelona team will move into space to receive the ball.“Look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day. Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realize how hard that is. Space, space, space. It’s like being on the PlayStation. I think damn, the defender’s here, play it there. I see the space and pass. That’s what I do.” – Xavi said, “Whoever has the ball is the master of the game”
Barcelona controlled games and knew how, and when to change the rhythm and tempo of the game: from slow intricate passing, to monopolizing the ball at a quicker speed and tempo. They did it consistently, and in no game in the Guardiola era did Barcelona see less of the ball. The possession wasn’t for the sake of it however. It was proactive football: They decided the way opponents will play. They moved the ball with purpose to move the opposition and as such create and open spaces to exploit. “Move the opponent, not the ball. Invite the opponent to press. You have the ball on one side, to finish on the other.”
The above photo was taken from Barcelona’s 5-0 defeat of Mourinho’s Madrid. One of the most expensive teams ever. Barcelona toyed with Madrid with the ball, provoking and forcing them to come out of their positions to win the ball after constant Barcelona possession. Gaps would then opened up for Messi and Iniesta to make runs centrally, Villa at the top of the screen will get the pass from Xavi, and square for Pedro to double Barca’s lead. It was calculated. Sir Alex Ferguson after the 2011 Champions league final said “It’s the best team we have ever faced. No one has ever given us a hiding like that.”
Guardiola also dispelled myths regarded to playing styles in the modern game. In the early and mid 2000s, the general consensus was: to win consistently you need tough and physically imposing midfielders. The Vieira-Edu partnership was a testament to this. Pep Guardiola was still playing during this time, he was in his 30s and wasn’t wanted by many because of his style, despite being the brain of Cruyff’s Barca. He said then: “I haven’t changed, my skills haven’t declined. It’s just that football now is different. It’s played at a higher pace and it’s a lot more physical. The tactics are different now, you have to be a ball-winner, a tackler, like Patrick Vieira or Edgar Davids. If you can pass too, well, that’s a bonus. But the emphasis, as far as central midfielders are concerned, is all on defensive work…players like me have become extinct.” (From ZonalMarking.net).
In Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta, Pep put this myth to bed. Xavi was the orchestrater, and along with Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, Pep Guardiola had the personnel to channel his style.Together, they formed arguably the world’s greatest midfield triumvirate. “The midfield is a crucial part of any team. Midfielders are intelligent players who have to think about the team as a whole. They’re selfless players who understand the game better than anyone” Pep stated
Guardiola also got the best out of a certain Lionel Messi, who would win three consecutive Ballon D’ors, surpassing Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s best footballer. The potential was there, but injuries kept on hampering Messi’s seasons. He had picked up seven injuries in the space of two years before Pep’s arrival. Under Guardiola, this would happen minimally. Pep watched over his (and the team’s) diets, and during his time His main dishes included vegetables and fish – foods he had disliked since his childhood. “Rest and a good diet are essential when you depend on your body for your job, so the idea is to be in the best possible shape. That’s why we try to get the players to rest at home, play well and eat well too. The fuel that powers the muscles is very important, and that goes for any player, not just Messi.”
Guardiola’s obsession to focus on the littlest of detail helped the Argentine tremendously. He would make Messi sleep to recuperate rather than watch his native Argentinian league. According to this piece by Ben Hayward, Physio Juanjo Brau, instructed by Guardiola, will spend the day monitoring his fitness and would hold personal training sessions with the Argentine regularly. Guardiola saw his potential and his hardwork to maintain Messi’s fitness proved monumental. Messi would barely suffer any injuries during this period, and would become one of the most influential players of all time.
Tactically, his decision to change Messi’s role in the side was genius. Pep believed in having his best players in the middle of play. He wanted Messi to be more involved in transition. Lionel Messi was a very fine inside forward, but as teams adapted, they started overloading the wide area to prevent space for Messi who was proving a great threat cutting in from the flanks. Pep Guardiola, a tactical obsessor, noticed this. “People talk about tactics, but when you look at it, tactics are just players. You change things so that the team can get the most out of the skills they have to offer, but you don’t go any further than that. When it comes to tactics you have to think about what the opposition does and the players who can hurt you. What I’ve done is a response to the game plans our rivals are now adopting against us. As time goes by, people get to know you better. They pose problems for you and you have to come up with solutions.” He saw in him a player who could cause more danger to opponents playing centrally, and thus moved him into a central role, popularly referred to as ‘False 9’.Basically, a false 9 isn’t a conventional number nine. The false 9 plays in between the lines(space between defense and midfield) and looks to find gaps and spaces by dropping into pockets of spaces, rather than staying high up the pitch as the conventional #9.
Barcelona did as much work off the ball, as they did on it, despite having majority of the possession.Without the ball, they pressed aggressively in high zones to regain possession. “Don’t mark a player; cover the space between two players. The opponent thinks he’s unmarked, making pressing easier.” Pep Guardiola’s mantras “Pressuring high limits the amount of running players must do. When you win back the ball, there are 30 metres to goal rather than 80” – Cruyff. “We play in the other team’s half as much as possible because I get worried when the ball is in my half,” Guardiola adds. “We’re a horrible team without the ball so I want us to get it back as soon as possible and I’d rather give away fouls and the ball in their half than ours.”
Psychologically, it was horrific playing against Barcelona with or without the ball. Barca for the majority of games would keep the ball and force opponents to take it off them. This was physically brutal. They would sometimes pass the ball, not to attack, but as a form of defensive mechanism because without the ball it is impossible to score. Juanma Lillo the man Pep called ‘the maestro’ noted: “Guardiola’s Barcelona are the only team that defend with the ball; the only team that rests in possession. They keep the ball so well, they move so collectively, that when you do get it back, you’re tired, out of position and they’re right on top of you.” When opponents get the ball they’re tired and fatigued after chasing ghosts, Barcelona will then press aggressively and try and regain possession in under 6 seconds.
He motivated his players. He maximized their potential and got them performing at their highest level. He made them believe in his style and trust that it will guarantee them success.
“He’s a passionate perfectionist. So if he believes something is white and you think it is black, you will end up believing that it is white.” – Xavi
After games he would gather the team, review the performance and address key areas they could improve. He focused on every possible detail with video footage, whether scouting opponents or reviewing games. As Xavi once said: “Pep was right on top of everything like a hawk.”, also Thierry Henry said: “Guardiola knows what will happen in the games and how to succeed in every way, and the greatest thing is Guardiola is always right. He has it all in his head. He is special.” He’s a perfectionist. The Einstein of football. He loses sleep trying to plot schemes and find ways to outmaneuver opposition. He demands a lot from himself which transcends unto his players. “If Pep told me to throw myself off the second tier at the Camp Nou,” Dani Alves once said “I’d think: ‘There must be something good down there.”
HONOURS: Tercera Division 2008, La Liga 2009, 2010, 2011, Copa del Rey 2009, 2012, UEFA Champions League 2009, 2011, UEFA Super Cup 2009, 2011, FIFA Club World Championship 2009, 2011, Supercopa de Espana 2009, 2010, 2011.