Soccer

Pep Guardiola: Is he the very best?

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After City won the domestic treble, captured the Premier League back to back, racked up 198 points in 2 seasons and thrashed Watford 6-0 in the FA Cup there has been a lot of grousing and accusations in the British press of how City are dominant because they have access to unlimited funds and have purchased talent at every position. No one seems to appreciate or acknowledge that Guardiola’s well-honed football philosophy and intense practice sessions of possession, quick passing and pressing improves his players radically. Pep takes young, talented, promising players and transforms them into great players. Rival fans and ‘objective’ journalists seem hard to admit Guardiola has been one of the very best football managers since he took over at Barca, the best manager of his generation and one of the greatest, innovative footballing minds of the sport as I will argue below.

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Pep was appointed coach of Barcelona in May 2008. The previous 2 seasons under Frank Rijkaard Barcelona had won exactly ONE trophy – the equivalent of the Charity Shield in England: The Spanish Super Cup an exhibition game to start the season. This was a team loaded with talent: Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Deco, Samuel Eto’o, Carlos Puyol, Yaya Toure, Lilian Thuram, Eric Abidal, Xavi, Iniesta and a certain player named Lionel Messi, and yet in the previous 2 seasons they had won effectively nothing.

The moment Pep took over – and this was Pep’s first major managerial job – he announced that Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto’o would not be part of his plans going forward – these were among the 3 biggest, most popular stars on the Barca team. Ronaldinho was only 28, Deco was 30.

In Pep’s first season at Barcelona, Barca won the the Treble: The League, The Cup and The Champion’s League – this was the first time in the history of Spain that it had ever been done. Even the great Real Madrid sides of the 1950’s who won the first 5 European Cups in a row had not achieved this feat. Lionel Messi who had scored a total of 16 goals the previous season under Rijkaard, scored 38 goals in Pep’s first season. He went on to score 47, 53 and 73 goals in the remaining 3 seasons he played under Pep. And if you do not remember or did not witness the brilliant, dazzling football Barcelona played for the next 4 seasons where they won 14 trophies then you seriously missed out on watching the greatest team of all time play the most beautiful football in the history of this game. The 2010-2011 Barca team under Pep was considered to be the best team of all time by Sir Alex Ferguson whose team lost 3-1 to Pep’s in the Champions League final.

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Messi was a raw talent under Rijkaard – under Guardiola the player we now know as the greatest of all time came to life. Allowed to play as a free man starting on the right, Messi had the freedom to go anywhere on the pitch. And that he did: Forming perfect triangles and zipping short passes with the likes of Xavi and Iniesta, La Pulga – the flea – terrorized defenses in Spain and abroad and won the Balon d’or every season he played under Pep.

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Sergio Busquets was a 20 year old Barca B team player Pep promoted to the first team to replace the indomitable Yaya Toure, Gerard Pique was only 21. Busquets went on to become the best Defensive Midfielder in the world and 11 years later he still is the first name in the midfield for Barca and Spain – he also won 1 World Cup and 2 Euros basically playing the Pep method of possession, short passing and pressing for Spain. The World Cup winning squad for Spain had 7 Barcelona players in the starting lineup and it is no coincidence La Roja’s international dominance coincides with Barca’s dominance between 2008 and 2012 when Pep was at the helm.  And lest we forget how brilliant Xavi, Iniesta and Dani Alves amongst others were under Pep – easily in the top 5 of the very best in their positions and they were not at that level before Pep arrived at Barca.

After 4 seasons of the most intense pressure at one of the biggest clubs in the world Pep was burned out and needed to take a break. After one year off, he signed for Bayern. His first year, Bayern won 4 trophies, he won the league every season he was in Munich. But he did not win the Champions League, and critics always seem to bring this up but Bayern reached the semi finals all 3 seasons. Playing consistently winning football for 9 months and winning the league is harder to do than win a knockout tournament where a red card, a penalty, a bad call by the referee, a freak goal can knock a team out. And to prove that you do not have to win the Champions League to be acknowledged as a great manager – Sir Alex Ferguson, the greatest of all time won only 2 Champions League titles while winning the league 13 times, and Zinedine Zidane has won 3 Champions League trophies but is hardly considered a great manager.

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Manchester City were lying in wait for Guardiola, even hiring 2 of Barcelona’s Spanish executives and Pep’s close friends to run the front office before Pep arrived. The ambitious City project with a new stadium, a new training facility was tailor made for Guardiola’s brand of football, if only Pep had the right players.

When Pep arrived in 2016 City had an ageing team: Zabaleta, Fernando, Yaya, Demichelis, Sagna, Kolarov, Clichy were not up to par to play the Pep way and in the first season the flaws in the team were exposed. City finished 3rd in the league and were knocked out early in the Champions League. Reinforcements were badly needed and Txiki Begiristain, Ferran Soriano and Pep slowly started buying young talented players who were not finished products yet: Leroy Sane for 37MM, Gundogan for 20MM, Gabriel Jesus 27MM, John Stones 47.5MM, Zinchenko 1.5MM, Bernardo Silva 43MM, Ederson 35MM, Benjamin Mendy 49MM, Laporte 57MM, Kyle Walker 45MM and Mahrez for 60MM. You notice a pattern here? There are no superstar purchases like Ibra or Pogba or Coutinho or Alexis or Cristiano. Most of the players the casual football fan had never heard of before they came to City and turned into a promising player. Bernardo was a young player from the Ligue 1 who has turned into one of the world’s very best and is a future Balon d’or winner in this writer’s opinion. Aymeric Laporte is the second best central defender in the league. Leroy Sane is probably the best left-winger in the world. Ederson is arguably the best goalkeeper in the Premier League. Zinchenko a solid left back who could walk into any team. Raheem Sterling has turned into a world class player under Pep and should I say anything about Kevin DeBruyne the Chelsea washout, the two year Wolfsburg player who is a top 5 player in the world now. These players did not magically become great players on a great team – they are developing daily under an innovative football obsessive who sleeps and breathes football: the brilliant Pep Guardiola who learned under Johan Cruyff who learned under Rinus Michels – the architect of Total Football.

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So a criticism of Pep Guardiola that he buys great players and had Messi to win him all the trophies is not only false but very lazy analysis. Guardiola has proved over and over he transforms good players into great players, creates awesome teams, wins stacks of trophies and with time will go on to become the greatest, most decorated football manager of all time.

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