What's next for Pep Guardiola?
His Barcelona team had a revolutionary impact upon the sport, but can Pep Guardiola recreate that astonishing success elsewhere? And will the Premier League be his next destination? Guillem Balague – Spanish football expert and author of a new biography on Guardiola – helps us analyse the future of football management’s golden boy
Josep Guardiola is the elephant in the room. The most successful club manager in football in the past five years took a break from the game at the end of 2011/12. And, as we await his return, almost every manager of a big club sits more uneasily than usual in his hot seat. Each is aware that most chairmen and fans would gladly trample them underfoot if it meant winning the race for the signature of the 41-year-old who shaped a Barcelona side acclaimed worldwide; the coach who delivered 14 trophies in just four seasons. But where is he most likely to go? What can we expect when he does? And how can he deal with the sky-high expectations which will greet him?
“He will be seen as a messiah wherever he goes, there’s no doubt about that,” agrees Guillem Balague, one of the world's foremost authorities on the Spanish game. “If he comes to England, he would be seen by the media straight away as the most glamorous figure in the Premier League. If he goes to Germany, it will be the same. Expectations will be huge. But Pep is very, very clever at communicating the right message.
“When he first arrived at Barcelona he said, tighten your belts, because this is going to be a great ride, we’re going to enjoy ourselves – and we’re going to try and win everything. Everyone was kind of won over by that speech in his press conference. So I wonder if, in his first press conference, he will actually mould – even manipulate – the audience to his point; to manage expectations through his oratory. But don’t forget that his choice will be a top, top club who will be expected to win things. He will have to deal with those demands.”
The demands on Guardiola will not only be to deliver trophies, however. The mesmerising, high-pressure, tiki-taka style of his Barcelona team awed pundits, football supporters and even his fellow managers. “I’ve known managers in at least three different divisions in England – and in Scotland as well – who show DVDs of what Barcelona have been doing under him to their teams,"
says Balague. So, is it possible for him to recreate the magic with a new set of players and in a whole new environment?
“Well, he believes that is the way football should be played,“ Balague explains. “I don’t think Pep believes it’s the only way, but he believes in it. At a time when the likes of Chelsea or Inter Milan were taking football in a different route [using physically imposing, athletic midfielders], he thought: ’No, we’re going to do it this way.’
“He wants his team to come out as protagonists, to want the ball, to be the ones deciding the destiny of every game. He will choose an offensive way of playing. But what he is first and foremost is a coach – so he’ll adapt to the players that he has. But obviously the decision he takes on the club that he’s going to will depend a lot on what squad he will have, what type of football
they practise, the demands of the fans and the history of the club.”
But which club will Guardiola decide to join? That is the golden question. Despite making it clear that he wished to take a year break after his Barcelona exit, he’s not been short of attention. As Balague details in his book, Chelsea are longstanding Guardiola admirers. Given that new manager Rafa Benitez has been given a short-term contract, the signs are there that the London club may well make a move for Guardiola in 2013.
“Chelsea have a lot in favour, a lot against,” says Balague of Guardiola’s chances of joining the Blues. “In favour, they are a team that’s starting to play, and use the ball, in a way that would please Pep. Against that is the fact that history shows that it’s a club run by one person – who at first, at least, changed his mind a lot. But I’ve met Roman Abramovich and I think he’s learning from football. I believe his mindset is changing. Also, Pep asks for seduction to get to a club – and there’s no club that’s tried to seduce him more.”
They are not his only suitor, however, particularly given Manchester City’s rather conspicuous appointments of Barcelona’s former vice-president and former director of football over the past four months. “Of course, now that Manchester City have Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, I think they are definitely going to try to get him at some point,” says Balague. “Against City is the fact that there’s still a lot to do to make it the kind of brand of football that he would like, but at the same time there’s enough quality there to transform it pretty quickly. And the big thing in favour of City is that he’s got friends in charge. That is very important for him.”
Bayern Munich is another club that Balague lists as a potential destination, but dismisses the idea that a manager with whom Guardiola shares a bond – Sir Alex Ferguson – would ever consider lining him up as his Old Trafford successor. “There’s been contact – Sir Alex and Pep have met in New York this year,” Balague explains. “That doesn’t mean anything in terms of a Manchester United link, but it shows their mutual respect. Would Pep suit Manchester United? Sure. But Ferguson retire so Pep comes in? No way.”
Although Guardiola might be the most wanted free agent in football, there are still a few questions hanging over him as a manager. While he took Barcelona’s football to a new level, he had a stunning talent pool at his disposal. Players core to his success – Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andreas Iniesta, Carlos Puyol and more – were already at the club when he was promoted to the top job in 2008. Indeed, the signing of the immensely gifted but eventually troublesome Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter Milan (for €46m plus Samuel Eto’o) was widely seen as a failure. Ibrahimovic left the club after just one season.
“Guardiola is not perfect,” admits Balague. “The signing of Dmytro Chygrynskiy [for €25m], perhaps even the signing of Ibrahimovic, were expensive mistakes. But look at any manager’s history – they all make mistakes. In his case, the main guys who have done it for him – with the possible exception of David Villa – are players who were already at Barcelona. But in his favour, he brought Sergio Busquets and Pedro into the first team, which Frank Rijkaard wouldn’t necessarily have done. So he hasn’t always got it right, but he can identify talent, obviously.”
And, while Guardiola thrived at Barcelona, he sometimes seemed worn down by the pressures of the job. He hinted at leaving after winning the treble in his first season, questioning where he could possibly go from there. Balague’s insightful biography presents Guardiola as a relentless perfectionist – a man obsessed with the minutiae of football, often unable to switch off. It’s part of his success, as it drives him to seek constant improvement, but the pressure he puts on himself can be excessive. He’s also a sensitive individual, to the extent that Guardiola claims he has few happy memories of his stirring matches with Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid because the bad blood between the two clubs was so overpowering. However, it’s this sensitivity that helped Guardiola develop such a close relationship with his players and to extract the best from them. It’s a bond so strong that Lionel Messi – having been unable to persuade his manager not to leave Barcelona – didn’t feel he could be present at the press conference to announce Guardiola’s exit because the Argentinian feared his emotions might betray him.
“Pep is a complex character,” Balague says. “His mind is always at 200mph and at one point, he had his priorities wrong. He abandoned for a little bit the things that made him a happy person – being close to his family and his friends. Football took over completely.”
On the subject of whether Guardiola can succeed away from Barcelona, Balague is convincing. “One of the things for me in trying to analyse Pep Guardiola is that I’m not in love with him, as many people are, because I’m an Espanyol fan,” he explains. ”I see his talent for what it is. And I see that – yes – he’s got it in him to go to another club and succeed. He reads football better than anybody I know, but tactics are not his only quality. It’s about what he gives to players, how he works with them, how he finds out about them. He manages people in a wonderful way – and he will do that anywhere else, because his English is very good, and he has the experience of playing in other countries. If you add to that the work he’s going to put in and you ha a guy who’s as committed as he is talented. Will he be able to adapt to a new job? For sure.”
Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning by Guillem Balague – with a foreword by Sir Alex Ferguson – is available now (Orion Books), £20