With 27 trophies to his name so far, Pep Guardiola will no doubt be remembered as one of the greatest football managers of all time. A disciple of Johan Cruyff, Pep is a major reference point for aspirational coaches around the world, with many inspired by his ‘Juego de Posicion’ philosophy. Guardiola, by his own account, is obsessive about the game, always looking for different ways to hurt opposing teams. In this article, we will identify some lessons that can be extracted from one of football’s brightest minds.
Positional football requires patience
In Pep’s first season at Manchester City, the Citizens only managed to finish third in the Premier League, failing to secure any silverware. Many fans of rival clubs nicknamed him ‘Fraudiola’, suggesting his previous success had come purely thanks to the quality of his players, rather than as a consequence of any sophisticated training methodology. 12 months later, however, City were crowned champions having amassed a record-breaking 100 points. The football on display was worth the wait, with regular high-scoring victories and flawless team goals.
“It’s far simpler to play in a 4-4-2, defending and counter-attacking as it takes less time to perfect. To play with positional football and attack spall spaces is so complicated; each player has so many individual roles.”
Managing success and failure
As well as having the capacity to lift players following defeats, Guardiola believes a coach must also be able to maintain a sense of humility in their team during successful spells.
“When you win everything, your players have great confidence in themselves, they believe that if they have managed to win two, three, four times, they can do it again. At the same time, there is a risk that they think they are better than they are, and you have to calm them down. And when you do not win, you have to be closer to them, empathize and make them understand that we can win next time. The advantage of managing these situations is that they are willing to let you help them.”
Possession with purpose
The type of football that Barcelona played under Pep between 2008 and 2012 was often termed ‘Tiki-Taka’, which is defined as ‘a style of play involving highly accurate short passing and an emphasis on retaining possession of the ball’. However, Guardiola regularly stresses the point that possession is merely a tool to help them create lots of chances, rather than being an objective itself.
“If you do nothing with the ball then what’s the point?! Everyone in the world knows when you’re playing with meaning or when you’re just playing because you like having the ball. If your possession doesn’t have motion, it’s like living without a life; it’s more dangerous to play like that. I may as well just sit down with my legs crossed on the bench, waiting for the opposition to counter attack.”
In Pep’s 10 full seasons as a top-flight manager, his teams have finished the league campaign as top scorers on 5 occasions. Interestingly, they have achieved the best defensive record 8 times. For Guardiola, maintaining a compact and organised offensive structure in the opponent’s half is the most effective way to avoid conceding goals. How you attack will influence how you defend, and vice-versa.
“I don’t divide football into attacking and defending. In football, everything depends on everything. I have always been focused on defending well. The only difference is we try to do it far away from our goal. That is a good signal to attack better. When you defend solid you attack better.”
Often hailed by colleagues for his incredible work ethic, Pep is known to spend hours analysing upcoming opponents in search of weak points to exploit. For him, this is one of the most meaningful aspects of the job.
“I sit down and watch videos. I take notes. That’s when that inspiration comes. The moment that makes sense of my profession. The instant I know, for sure, that I’ve got it. I know how to win. It’s the moment that my job becomes truly meaningful.”
Playing ‘good football’
Although he has stated on a number of occasions that there is no right or wrong way to play football, Guardiola does have a clear definition of what ‘good football’ is from his perspective. For some, fast-paced counter-attacking or build-up play with a focus on verticality are the most enjoyable styles to observe. For Pep, however, the emphasis is on intelligent manipulation of the opponents.
“It’s in studying the movements of the opponents and making the right decision. If I have a centre-back with the ball, my winger moves forward to attract the opponent, then I play to my full-back who now has more space. If I’m a centre-back and the opponent’s centre forward is closing me down, my fellow centre-back has more time and space so I give it to him. The process of positional football is to move the opponents, then they make your decisions for you and from there we play.”
Selling your vision
During the pairs time competing for titles in both Germany and England, the battle between Guardiola and now Liverpool head coach Jurgen Klopp has often been sold as the tactical mastermind vs the man motivator. In truth, however, Klopp is also an intelligent tactician, and Guardiola is also an inspirational leader. Having the ability to convince others of your vision is, for Pep, an essential skill that every coach must have.
“You need to show your qualities in terms of tactics, vision and, at the same time, manage very different personalities; not only your players but also the people who make up your staff, and try to convince them that the way they are going to play and live for the next 11 months is the best way.”
Adapting to your players
While many coaches will design a system specifically suited to the players at their disposal, others will arrive at a new club with the intention of imposing a clear and unchangeable tactical vision. Guardiola believes in the importance of remaining true to fundamental playing principles, while also creating a system that helps to get the best out of the qualities of the players in his squad.
“We adapt to the qualities of the players we have to make our attack better suited to their capacities. But the patterns are quite similar, they don’t change too much.”
Focusing on the collective
Although Pep has enjoyed the privilege of coaching some of the world’s greatest footballers, he has always been adamant that the collective is more important than any individual. Players who don’t buy into this vision are quickly moved aside, allowing for a system of play that relies on selfless movements and finely-tuned passing sequences.
“I don’t like it when people say: ‘I like freedom; I want to play for myself.’ Because the player has to understand he is part of a team, with 10 other players. If every player plays like a jazz musician, it will be chaos. They will not be a team.”
The brave new generation
As discussed earlier, a possession-based approach is likely to take more time to implement than a low-block counter attacking system. With that in mind, more patience is needed from clubs and fans alike. But it also takes bravery from the coach to go down this route, and Pep believes the emerging generation of managers are increasingly willing to take risks.
“There’s a new generation of coaches who are very well prepared and extremely brave. The difference between good football and bad football is the brave coaches and those who aren’t brave. I think the new generation of people who are young and starting from the bottom in grassroots will give us good football – positive football. When you have two teams and both play and give everything to win, it’s always a good game.”