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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Guardiola's guiding hand

BBC Sport website

Pep Guardiola

By Chris Bevan

Loved by his players, adored by Barcelona's fans and renowned across Europe for his side's breathtaking style of play, Pep Guardiola has made quite an impression in his first season in charge at the Nou Camp.

Chasing an unprecedented treble for a Spanish side, Barca are top of La Liga, in the final of the Copa del Rey and the last four of the Champions League - where they meet Chelsea in the first leg on Tuesday - and have scored 142 goals in 55 competitive games in the process.

Not bad for a managerial novice, whose only coaching experience before being taking charge of the Catalonian giants in May 2008 was a year running their reserves team.

The decision by Barca president Joan Laporta to appoint the then 37-year-old as Frank Rijkaard's successor came as a shock, even when you consider that the club is in Guardiola's blood.

As a player, Pep was always 100% motivated in games and training. The most important thing about the current Barca side is that they are the same 

Former Barcelona defender Frank de Boer

But even more of a surprise has been the manner - and the speed - in which Guardiola has transformed Rijkaard's underachieving and ill-disciplined team into a cohesive and hardworking unit, without losing any of the flair which is a necessity for any Barca side.

Combining his passion for the club with tactical acumen and supreme man-management, Guardiola has brought the buzz back to Barcelona.

As a Nou Camp ballboy turned midfield general, Guardiola was already a Barca legend - the local lad who rose through the youth system to win the European Cup as part of Johan Cruyff's celebrated "Dream Team" and capture six league titles during 17 years with the club as a player.

Now he is realising a long-held ambition to try to repeat that success as a manager.

Former team-mate Frank de Boer, who played alongside Guardiola for Barca from 1998 to 2001, says even over a decade ago it was clear that the former Spanish international was destined for a career in the dugout.

Pep Guardiola
Guardiola was part of the Barca side that won the European Cup at Wembley in 1992

"Pep was one of the most experienced and influential players at the club when I went there," the former Dutch international told BBC Sport.

"He is a Catalan player who won the European Cup under Cruyff and the way he conducted himself was an example to every Catalan player for Barca.

"He was the main man at the club, the captain and a real leader of the team. He was our manager on the pitch - I know him well and he is an intelligent person, just like he was an intelligent footballer.

"As a player, Pep was always 100% motivated in games and training - he never gave 40 or 50%. The most important thing about the current Barca side is that they are the same.

"Since he came back you can see how he has had an effect on how the team plays.

"As well as discipline, there is a lot of good possessional play and a lot of individual skill - you can see the hand of Guardiola."

Last summer, right at the beginning of his reign, the words of Guardiola, who speaks Catalan, Spanish and English, were undoubtedly more important. He needed to make a statement of intent about his plans for a club that had lost its way.

Under Rijkaard, Barca had won the 2006 Champions League but they failed to win a trophy in the two subsequent seasons and had the ignominy of finishing their last La Liga campaign in third place, 18 points behind champions and fierce rivals Real Madrid.

Worse still, Guardiola inherited a dispirited and dysfunctional dressing room that seemingly had more ego - principally in the shape of Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto'o - than desire, so his first act as boss was a significant one, he told the world those three superstars were up for sale.

"That was key," said Spanish football expert Graham Hunter. "Pep was always going to coach the way he has done and bring in the work ethic that he has but he does not walk on water - even he would have found it much more difficult if he had sulky and self-indulgent players in his squad."

Ronaldinho, out of sorts mentally and physically, was shipped off to AC Milan and Deco joined Chelsea for £8m.

Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi
Samuel Eto'o has scored 27 league goals, while Messi has netted 21 times

That left Eto'o, to whom Guardiola soon showed a less common managerial quality - humility.

Hunter explained: "As soon as the other two were gone, Pep was a big enough man to take Eto'o at his word when he said 'I don't want to go, I am going to prove you wrong, you need me'.

"Not only did Pep accept that but he came out publicly a few weeks later and said 'I was wrong, Eto'o is staying - he is a brilliant footballer and is totally committed'. That was a good step too."

Having put right what was wrong in the dressing room, Guardiola's next task was to do the same on the pitch. Towards the end of Rijkaard's reign, Barca had a reputation for being pretty to watch but weak defensively - that quickly changed.

Pep thinks he has a squad of geniuses 

Spanish football expert Graham Hunter

While they remain a fluid force going forward, Guardiola has underlined to all his players that they must work to retrieve the ball when they lose it and they have conceded just 40 goals this term as a result.

"The team believes in his system," De Boer explained.

"They believe that if they lose the ball that everybody has to work very hard to get it back and I've seen them in games - in three or four seconds they already have possession again.

"I think if you can convince players like Leo Messi, Thierry Henry, Eto'o, Xavi or Andres Iniesta that approach works then Barca become a very hard team to beat because they are so good attacking anyway.

"You can see from Barca's results that it works. And he knew that Ronaldinho, for example, was not the right player for him because he does not want to do that kind of job in a game."

Guardiola has not only won the hearts and minds of his players - he has also transformed them physically.

Since his return, Barca have embraced sports science for the first time - following the likes of AC Milan in introducing injury prevention treatment - and are also paying more attention than ever to their players' dietary needs.

"The fitness work in training is now much better organised," added Hunter. "Pep thinks he has a squad of geniuses and his rule has been that if they work physically then, as a team, they will beat everybody.

"To add to the talent he had, they now have the stamina to play the pressing game he wants. He's got them fit enough to play that way. It is obviously very draining but, because they are super-fit, they can do it and they continuously harass other teams."

Pep Guardiola
Ballboy, captain, coach - from the Barca cradle to the grave

Guardiola's search for the perfect preparation has seen other, more subtle, changes too.

In a bid to keep players as fresh as possible, his side never travel to domestic away matches before the day of the game while, for home matches, he brings them in for morning training before releasing them until kick-off.

Perhaps more revolutionary was his decision to hold training sessions at the club's new Joan Gamper complex in Sant Joan Despi behind closed doors in an attempt to keep the media at bay and improve the focus of his players.

Tales of life under Guardiola still surface, however, and it is clear he has not lost his famed authoritarian streak.

Hunter explained: "Training starts at 11am but that doesn't mean players coming on to the pitch at 11 - everyone has to be out there and ready or everyone will be fined.

"There was a famous incident in October where one player came out at a minute past, with his laces undone. He bent down and tied his laces and was probably ready by 11.02. Pep stopped everybody and said 'he's fined and you're all fined'."

He may be strict, and demanding, but Guardiola has also gained respect.

Although he did steer Barca's B side to promotion from Spain's third division last year, his appointment to the top job at the Nou Camp had more to do with the endorsement of his old boss Cruyff than anything else on his coaching CV.

Others were less convinced than the old Dutch master but Guardiola has proved during his 11 months in the hot-seat that he is the right man for one of the biggest jobs in football.


"I knew he stood for hard work and discipline but I didn't have any understanding that he would be so good on the man-management front and be able to handle the dressing room stars," Hunter said.

"Or that he was able to read a game so well or how obsessive about success he was."

Crushing wins over Lyon and Bayern Munich in Europe have underlined how effective Guardiola's methods are and victory over Chelsea will leave him only one step from the glory he craves.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009