A transformative manager
“Pep immediately transmitted an enormous amount of pride in our work, ambition and hunger. He won our confidence from the first day because we could see that things were being done correctly and then when results started to flow the confidence grew with them.”
Lionel Messi, Barcelona.
Pep Guardiola has a reputation for revolutionising the football clubs he takes control of. In 2008, he inherited a Barcelona side that had finished the previous campaign in third, 18 points off title-winners Real Madrid and below unfancied Villarreal. It was an ageing squad that needed reconfiguring, and Guardiola, immediately showing disregard for reputations, set about doing exactly that.
Out went Ronaldinho, Deco and Gianluca Zambrotta; in came Gerard Pique and Dani Alves, with Guardiola promoting several Barcelona B players,including Sergio Busquets and Pedro, to supplement his senior stars. If the appointment of Guardiola was a gamble on the part of Txiki Begiristain, then sporting director at Barcelona, the manager’s decision to rid himself of his big-name old guard was perhaps even more risky.
But what followed was unprecedented success. Not only were his wholesale squad changes the right call, his principles and ideas about how the game should be approached changed the way the team played. No side in world football kept the ball as well as Barcelona, and no side in world football worked as hard as Barcelona to regain possession. It was a lethal combination.
His first season ended with Barcelona’s first treble – LaLiga, Copa del Rey and the Champions League, where they beat Manchester United 2-0 in the final in Rome– and ushered in a period of European dominance rarely seen before.
Two more LaLiga titles quickly followed, as did another Champions League title, delivered after a memorably one-sided victory over United at Wembley in 2011. "In my time as manager, it's the best team I've faced,” Sir Alex Ferguson said afterwards.
Pep’s Barcelona are often referred to as the finest Club side in the history of the game and it’s easy to see why. In total, he won a remarkable 14 trophies in four years, all of which were delivered in supreme style. Xavi, who was central to the success, says Guardiola “revolutionised football” and “perfected” Barcelona’s pass-and-move style during his time in charge. “Pep's almost got a sickness for football,” he said. "He doesn't give himself a minute's rest. He's pig-headed, football is his everything and he puts so much intensity into everything.”
But after four seasons that saw him change the game and raise standards right across Europe as his rivals attempted to keep pace, he decided to take a year out. He went to Manhattan to enjoy some of life’s finer offerings, before returning to the game to take over at Bayern Munich in 2013. Again, success followed and after three years and seven major trophies, he left them with a clear playing style and a blueprint for potent attacking football. Just as he had done in Catalonia, he left an indelible mark in Bavaria.
Every side in world football wanted to entice him to their club. Over the course of his seven seasons as a manager, he had won 21 major trophies and established a reputation as the best coach in the world – not just one who wins but who does so in style and is capable of transforming the culture of the entire club. It was City who secured his services, with the pre-existing relationships Pep had with Begiristain and CEO Ferran Soriano key in persuading him to move to the Etihad.
This was a new era at City. A new badge was unveiled, this very website was re-launched and Guardiola, a visionary and unmitigated managerial success, was freshly placed in charge.
However, his first season, by his own admission, did not go to plan; the first of his management career to end without a trophy. We lost four in eight league matches between December and January, a run that ruined hopes of a title win, and lost to Monaco in the Champions League last-16 in March. April’s bitterly disappointing FA Cup semi-final defeat to Arsenal dealt the final blow in our bid to win silverware. His win ratio stood at just 60 percent, far lower than the 76 per cent he managed at Barcelona and the 80 percent he posted at Bayern.
But for those willing to look beneath the surface, there were some examples of significant progress.
The 3-1 win over Barcelona was our best Champions League performance to date, proof that we could take on the best and win in Europe’s elite knock-out competition. The first half of our win at Old Trafford in the September of that season saw us produce football the like of which we’ve never seen on these shores before. And then the closing weeks of the season, which included a thumping 5-0 win away at Watford, hinted at an improving mentality as we won four straight games, scoring 15 goals in the process, and playing with impressive freedom and creativity. The platform for future success had seemingly been laid.
"Next season I can assure you we will come back stronger," Guardiola after the game at Vicarage Road. “The gap is too big, so we need to play better - not work harder - to be closer to Chelsea and Spurs.” His words were clear - a strong message to his players as they departed for their summer break - and he immediately set about turning his promise into reality.
The summer saw change, particularly in the full-back areas, which needed refreshing after years of under-investment. In came Ederson, Bernardo Silva, Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo and out went Pablo Zabaleta, Aleksandar Kolarov, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Jesus Navas, Wilfried Bony, Kelechi Iheanacho, Samir Nasri and Nolito. The squad immediately had a more youthful, energetic feel, and a hugely successful tour of the US, that saw the players train at first-class facilities and play a series of high-calibre matches in packed stadiums, was the perfect preparation for the new campaign. A comfortable win over West Ham in Reykjavik in the final pre-season match of the summer suggested things were coming together nicely.
The season started somewhat unconvincingly, though. City’s 2-0 away win at Brighton on the opening day was far from comprehensive and was followed up by a frustrating home draw with Everton. Some of City’s frailties from the previous season – most notably, an inability to convert chances – were demonstrably on show as Everton scored with their only genuine effort of the game. Could Pep’s approach really work in the Premier League, a division unlike any of Europe’s others in terms of its pace and physicality? There were now serious questions being asked from every corner of the British media, many of whom felt his ideas weren’t suited to English football.
The answer since then has been emphatic.
Raheem Sterling’s dramatic last-gasp winner in the game at Bournemouth sparked something special, a run of results and performances not seen in this country before: an 18-game winning streak that set a new English top-flight record and left City 15 points clear at the top of the Premier League table. It was an incredible period that saw the team achieve remarkable consistency.
"As a manager, I have to adapt my team to convince them,” Guardiola said after the 1-0 win away at Newcastle that made it 18 victories on the bounce. “In these 18 games, we have played against teams who have done high pressing, low pressing, counter-attacks, just set-pieces, Tottenham who tried to go forward and attack, and in all of them, we have been able to beat them.
"Teams can try to trick you, but you have to be able to beat them and until now we have been able to do that. Until now, we have found a way to win."
Those 18 consecutive victories came during a 28-game unbeaten run in all competitions that gave the players belief and provided the platform on which City’s record-breaking season was built. The Carabao Cup was secured with a 3-0 win over Arsenal at Wembley, before a series of Premier League and English top-flight records tumbled as we won the title by 19 points. Never has a side won as many matches (32), scored as many goals (106), registered as many points (100) or won the title by such a large margin (19 points) as Pep’s City side.
There were numerous high points. The 1-0 win at Chelsea was special, a performance at the home of the champions so complete it ended up being one of the most one-sided games between two top-four sides in recent memory. City were better in every department: quicker and more inventive in possession; more tenacious and hard-working when trying to win it back. Chelsea, a fine side in their own right, couldn’t get close. That was the game, Guardiola admitted later, that made him believe City could be champions.
The 6-0 win at Watford was unfathomably comprehensive, with City three goals ahead inside 37 minutes. The 7-2 win over Stoke City showcased our supreme attacking quality, and the 2-1 derby win at Old Trafford was a wonderful blend of artistry and industry. United struggled to match our pace and ingenuity in possession and, as chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak said in his post-season address to supporters, the final period of what is usually a fraught derby occasion was incredibly comfortable.
“The 18 games we won in a row is the reason that we have won the league," Guardiola said after our last-day win over Southampton saw us clock up 100 points. “That was the key point of the season.
"Winning the title is special because the Premier League is the toughest competition because of the weather, the amount of games, the physicality...it's so complicated.”
City dropped just 14 points all season.
But aside from the results, there has been all manner of other successes, all of which are borne out of an attention to detail and style of management unique in the game.
Guardiola has turned Nicolas Otamendi into one of Europe’s best-performing ball-playing centre-halves; the development of Sterling and Leroy Sane, two of the game’s finest young forwards, has been remarkable; Fernandinho, at 33, is proof you can teach an old dog new tricks; Fabian Delph has been transformed into a fine left-back and Kevin De Bruyne’s transition from a super-talented midfielder into the Premier League’s most effective player is complete. The list goes on.
“I think every player improves all the time under Pep,” Sane says. “He wants every player to improve on every issue. Each training session he tries to help every player. He will tell you what he’s seen, what he thinks and what you can improve and do better.” Sane’s improvement after a difficult first six months at the Club is testament to Guardiola’s powers of enhancement on the training pitch. He was named 2017-18 PFA Young Player of the Year having managed 10 goals and 15 assists in the Premier League alone and looks capable of reaching the very top of the game. Privately, the German says he wants to remain working under Pep for the foreseeable future.
Much of the players’ improvement comes from the Guardiola’s work on the training ground. Rondos are essential to his sessions, with the emphasis on a good first touch and an ability to retain possession, even when under pressure in tight spaces. His training programme is highly-tactical, with Guardiola often stopping drills to point out where particular players should be positioned when we are attacking and defending. The team has regular meetings about how best to combat opposition sides and individuals are briefed on how they can improve each facet of their game. No stone is left unturned.
One of the most striking aspects of City’s dominance in the Premier League this season was the intensity with which we played in almost every game. With the ball, we were sharp and inventive; without it we were relentless in our search to get it back. That desire comes from Guardiola’s exacting demands on the training ground.
Before the League Cup third-round game with West Brom earlier in the season, Guardiola was taking his players through a drill explaining how to attack down the flanks in a manner that was both quick and devastating. At one point, the ball was played out to the left-hand side to Benjamin Mendy, who had the simple task of bringing the ball down and crossing into the box. But instead, he chose to try a trick...and mis-controlled it. The drill had to be restarted. “Mendy! Mendy! Play serious!” Guardiola shouted, leaving the Frenchman in no doubt about the demands placed upon him.
In March, Guardiola took the players to Abu Dhabi for five days of warm-weather training - a chance to enjoy some sun and down time. But despite the nature of the trip being focused on recovery, three training sessions were scheduled and intensity was high. The players, split into two teams of 11 for a full-scale match during one such session, played like their lives depended on it. Tackles were fierce, the pace was frenetic and no one wanted to lose. Vincent Kompany, captaining one of the sides, barked orders constantly throughout, and Ilkay Gundogan rarely stopped harrying and harassing the opposition. Guardiola has created a hunger and appetite that is now deeply embedded in the squad.
Key to Guardiola’s management is his ability to remove mystery from the game, to make things simple and understandable for his players and staff. “He is very, very clear about what he wants and what he believes about football,” Fernandinho says. “So, we have the job to follow him and do our best to put 100 per cent effort in training sessions and games.
“Of course, he is very, very demanding but this is the best way to be a good team and win the titles we want. He helped me to improve a lot, especially talking about small details to improve myself.”
Gundogan agrees. “Every time when I’m sat in a meeting or training I feel like he knows what every single player is thinking at the time,” he says. “Doesn’t matter if it’s a player who is starting every three or four days or a player who maybe is more on the bench.
“I have the feeling he always knows how to speak and act to all of these players. That makes him very special. Maybe because he was also a player and he has been through all these different situations. It’s about the way he wants us to play and prepare us for every single opponent and every situation and game. It’s impressive for us as players as it’s a huge quality.”
City are by no means the finished article, and Guardiola, a perfectionist whose focus on the minute details of the game astounds those he works with, will be looking to continually evolve. The squad is in far better shape than prior to his arrival, and City are now regularly producing the kind of beautiful football the Club’s owners crave - but there’s more to come. The squad will be fine-tuned this summer in an attempt to ensure we can do what no side has done since 2009: retain the Premier League title.
“Yaya is leaving so we have to replace him, and maybe another one,” the City manager told Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football recently. “One or two more, no more.”
City have found recruiting the best players easier under Guardiola’s watch, with his reputation as one of the game’s great man-managers well known. Players want to play for him.
“Playing under Pep is a big reason why I chose to come to City,” says Kyle Walker, who has been outstanding since his move from Tottenham last summer. “His ambition for the club, I wanted to be a part of it.”
“I want to learn every day and keep improving. When I spoke to the manager his enthusiasm and his dream where he wanted to take City is a big part of my move.”
“Guardiola called me up and said I would be a very important part of his project,” Gabriel Jesus says. “This obviously made me feel wanted and was a big factor in helping me pick City as my next club. There had been a lot of clubs interested in signing me at the time, but the one I felt most confident in was City.”
Guardiola is undoubtedly a genius – but one fuelled by drive and ambition. It’s a formidable mix but for him the focus is always on the collective. He has a large and trusted backroom staff, including Mikel Arteta, the most recent addition to his team and now his main sounding board. Guardiola refuses to take the limelight and always wants to promote the involvement of his entire team.
After City were handed the Premier League trophy following the draw with Huddersfield, he brought every single member of his backroom staff into the press conference. “Every time I’m here, I am alone, but I am not alone, fortunately for me,” he said. “They deserve all my respect.” It was a hugely symbolic gesture.
And it isn’t just his management of his squad and technical staff that has helped turned City into a winning operation. Across the entire business, he has united an organisation.
“They [the coaches] are maybe the closest part of my staff who I am in touch with every single day,” he said. “But behind that we had many, many people and everyone did an amazing job. That’s why we are where we are.”
On the night of the trophy lift, a staff party was arranged at Mayfield Depot, a disused railway station that was formerly Manchester's main terminal before being superseded by Piccadilly in the 60s. Guardiola came to our offices days before the event to personally invite every member of staff and to thank us for our efforts throughout the year. On the day of the party, he insisted there would be no VIP section. He and his players had to mix with the 500 other staff members who work behind the scenes. Guardiola brought his daughter along and enjoyed the festivities until late into the night. Those things are important and help foster the kind of vital togetherness every business needs to succeed.
The good news for City fans is Guardiola is happy. He feels the Club offers him the best possible conditions to succeed, a point emphatically proven when he signed a new deal in May. It was the longest commitment he has made to a Club since becoming a manager in 2008 and shows he has the energy to keep improving the side.
He enjoys Manchester and regularly eats out in the city. His children, Valentina, Marius and Maria, are happy and settled at school, and his wife Cristina has adapted well, too.
“I am so happy and excited,” he said after signing. “It’s a pleasure to be able to work here.”
It feels like just the start. Guardiola has transformed the culture at City in the space of two seasons. An entire Club has been energised and a blueprint of how the game should be played that will remain long after he departs has been established.
The results are flowing and confidence is growing with them.