Behind the most coveted man in today’s world of European football
Auf Wiedersehen, Josep “Pep” Guardiola Sala. After three years as head coach of German soccer powerhouse Bayern Munich, Pep Guardiola will bid farewell to Bayern Munich after the 2015–2016 season, and will set off on a new managerial adventure. Many British soccer news outlets, i.e. the Manchester Evening News, the Daily Mail, and the Telegraph, have reported that Guardiola will become English Premier League (EPL) side Manchester City’s new manager for the 2016–2017 season. Whether Guardiola takes the Manchester City job or not is not the point of this article. Rather, the purpose of this article is to explore the two sides of Guardiola: the impeccably dressed, tactically-brilliant, ‘cool, calm, and collected’ Guardiola, and the fiery, constantly-fatigued, and at times, confrontational Guardiola. This article will explore the successes and failures Guardiola has had over his managerial career, and will analyze why he was successful at Barcelona and not as successful at Bayern Munich.
Guardiola’s accomplishments and his impact on the game of soccer have not only helped revolutionize the “Beautiful Game”, but they have also justified his inclusion in the conversation of the greatest soccer managers to have ever lived. Guardiola’s greatest work as a manager was when he took over FC Barcelona in 2008. During the 2007–2008 season, the year before Guardiola took over its senior squad, FC Barcelona finished in third place, 18 points behind Real Madrid. Guardiola preached endurance and intense pressing, taught positional awareness and counter-attacking tactics, and most crucially, instilled an aesthetically-pleasing, fast-paced passing style now known as tiki-taka. Once his players bought into the tiki-taka system and sacrificed individuality for team success, Guardiola was able to engineer one of the greatest trophy hauls in soccer history: a total of six trophies won from the beginning of 2008 to the end of 2009. A dynasty was born: Guardiola would win a total of 14 trophies during his four seasons as his Barcelona head coach, and he would also win FIFA World Coach of the Year in 2012. Rarely did Guardiola lose his cool or bark orders at his Barcelona players, with his preferred form of communication involving hand gestures. His sideline attire of a grey suit or sweater vest oozed class, and his closely shaved beard only added to his professional appearance. Yet behind Guardiola’s calm demeanor and professionalism is a tactical brain that is perpetually in motion. His idea of placing star forward Messi in the “false” number nine role was crucial in defeating Real Madrid in two El Clasicos in 2008 and 2009.
One year after announcing that he would step down as Barcelona’s coach at the end of the 2011–2012 season, it was announced that Guardiola would replace Jupp Heynckes at Bayern Munich for the 2013–2014 season. The results in his first season were astounding: a 28-game unbeaten start to the campaign, a 23rd Bundesliga title with seven games to spare, the earliest championship ever won in Bundesliga history, and a “double” in the form of a Bundesliga domestic league title and DFB-Pokal domestic cup title. While Guardiola was criticized by the German media for his inability to win the Champions League that year, his first season was nonetheless marked with success. Guardiola would struggle to replicate that success in his 2nd season in charge, with his team only winning the domestic league title, again by a wide margin. Now in his third and final year as Bayern Munich manager, Guardiola hopes to do something he has yet to do during his tenure at Munich: win a Champions League trophy, which would silence many of his critics who consider his time at Munich as a massive disappointment.
Guardiola’s Bayern Munich side have been utterly dominant in Bundesliga league play and are perennial contenders to win the Champions League, which showcases the best of European soccer. And yet, the German media has been reluctant to support Bayern’s Spanish coach, and have harshly criticized Guardiola a number of times during his tenure in Germany. Why can’t Guardiola seem to do anything right in the German media’s eyes? The main answer can be directly traced to two of Guardiola’s main shortcomings as manager: his inability to advance his team past the Champions League semifinals as well as his inability to win the “treble,” or three trophies in three different competitions. Guardiola’s stubborn belief in his tactics and his clashes with players and personnel have prevented him from winning the treble at Bayern thus far.
In April of 2014, against Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals, Guardiola’s reliance on his Barcelona-derived tactics led to a 1–0 defeat in the first leg. Guardiola’s Bayern Munich side used his possession-oriented philosophy in the first leg, and although Bayern Munich had 72% possession, they weren’t able to break down a well-drilled Real Madrid side. When Guardiola’s squad was thoroughly outclassed in the second leg, losing 4–0 in Germany, the German media blamed Guardiola as “the key to the crisis.” The expectation was that Guardiola would win the treble like his predecessor Jupp Heynckes did the season before him. To the German media, anything left than a treble would be a disappointment, and when his team was so convincingly beaten by Real Madrid at the end of that 2013/2014 campaign, the German media turned on him.
In addition to being tactically inflexible, Guardiola has also developed a track record of numerous disputes between himself and former players/personnel. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a high-profile, 66.5 million Euros signing for Barcelona in 2009, but he fell out of favor with Guardiola after suffering a calf injury and serving numerous suspensions. He ended up scoring 16 goals in the 2009/2010 season, but Guardiola had apparently not spoken to him since February of 2010, and his relationship with Guardiola had completely deteriorated by the time he was shipped to AC Milan in August of 2010. Former Guardiola-managed players Mario Mandzukic and Samuel Eto’o have also joined, as Yahoo.com coined, the “Pep Guardiola Haters Club”; Mandzukic said Guardiola disrespected him during his time at Bayern Munich, and Eto’o claimed Guardiola “never had the courage to say things in front of him.”
Yet the most recent — and revealing — rift that Guardiola has had was between him and Bayern Munich club doctor Hans Wilhelm Muller Wohlfahrt. On April 17th, 2015, Wohlfahrt and three other members of Bayern Munich’s medical team opted to leave the club, saying that they had been unfairly blamed by Guardiola and Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge for the long list of injured players ahead of Bayern’s 3–1 defeat to Porto in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals. Guardiola seemed to place the blame on Wohlfahrt in the post-match interview after the first-leg defeat, saying that his players’ “legs don’t last very long”, and a viral Youtube clip shows Guardiola appearing to sarcastically clap at Wohlfahrt and the medical staff after center back Mehdi Benatia had to be withdrawn in Munich’s league game against Bayer Leverkusen, just a week before the Porto game. The German and English media criticized Guardiola for seemingly scapegoating the medical staff after the Porto loss, and the Daily Mail called the episode “the all-time low point in Guardiola’s reign.” This episode and all of the other disputes between Guardiola and former players proves that behind Guardiola’s air of calmness is a fiery temper. The bad-tempered, tired-looking, confrontational side of Guardiola has appeared more frequently over the last couple of years, and the fact that he isn’t performing as well as his predecessor Heynckes has only emboldened his critics to attack him. If Guardiola fails to win the Champions League final and the treble in his last season in charge of Bayern Munich, the German media and many soccer pundits will undoubtedly call his tenure at Bayern Munich a disappointment.
With the Telegraph.co.uk and Goal.com reporting that Guardiola is Manchester City-bound, there is considerable excitement brewing in Manchester. Manchester City fans have a right to be excited if the reports that Guardiola will be their manager for the 2016/2017 season (and possibly beyond) are true; he is one of the brightest minds in the game of soccer, and arguably the best available manager left on the market. However, if Guardiola does take over the Manchester City head coaching gig, he will face enormous pressure to take a team with one of the highest payrolls in soccer and make it even better.
In order to be successful, Guardiola must find a way to be more tactically flexible, and he must also form a healthy relationship with his new players. Close friend and former Barcelona technical director Txiti Begiristain is now Manchester City’s technical director, meaning Manchester City has already adopted a little bit of that tiki-taka style which Guardiola is renowned for. The fact that the tiki-taka style is already familiar to Manchester City’s players means that Guardiola is already at an advantage if he wants to use the tiki-taka playing style to build the team’s identity. The challenge for Guardiola is finding a way to build a tiki-taka style (or a new, unique style) that can match the physicality of the Premier League as well as thrive against the best teams in Europe. If Guardiola takes the Man City job, he will enter the 2016/2017 season with the same expectations he felt at Bayern Munich: to lead the team to domestic and Champions League success. He can’t afford another disappointing tenure as manager if he hopes to secure his legacy as one of the best managers to have ever coached in the game of soccer.