Pep Guardiola – The perfect manager who failed to conquer Europe
Pep Guardiola took the reins at Barcelona in 2008. He was not a proven contender at the highest level, but his understanding of the club’s values and principles helped him get the job.
From his playing days, Guardiola was a player who believed in Johann Cryuff’s famous philosophy – passing the ball, keeping possession and keeping the game simple.
He brought the same culture to the Camp Nou first team, introducing unknown youngsters to the team. His humble approach did not sit well with some of the club’s superstar egos, who were quickly dismissed. The manager’s handpicked players such as Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta, among others, entered.
His Barca side started slowly but stayed true to their philosophy. Aberrations were removed to ensure that players played at the same pace – nothing bigger than the team.
Over time, his team developed and soon began dispatching opponents with absurdity. The same pattern of play, drilled with great precision, blows away opponents who have no answers to the Spanish setup.
Looking back on his four-year reign at the Nou Camp, his Barcelona side were probably the best football unit ever played. He ended his tenure at the club in 2012, having won the league three times and two Champions League titles.
Guardiola has already established himself as one of the most formidable tacticians in Europe. He took a year off before returning to manage Bayern Munich.
In Germany, his name commanded respect and the club’s superstars knew not to argue. They were captivated by his knowledge of football and followed his leadership with faith. The results were released as Bayern won three league titles in three years. However, European satisfaction was not satisfied.
Guardiola’s challenge seems to have been easy, which could prompt him to move to England. The Premier League – famous for its competitiveness – has welcomed the master tactician.
The challenge was laid as Guardiola’s philosophy faced its toughest test yet in England. He lost the league title to Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, whose pragmatic approach brought immediate success at Stamford Bridge.
Questions have again been raised about the credibility of the City boss, with some critics suggesting he is taking a more pragmatic approach to life in England, thereby abandoning his ethos.
He did no such thing. He changed the style of play slightly, choosing to actively avoid the football with horseshoe possession, but City generally continued to look like a typical Guardiola side.
The reward would be seen in the next two seasons, as City won back-to-back league titles, sending opponents wild. His next challenge came in the form of Jurgen Klopp with Liverpool in 2019.
The German boss assembled his Red Army of warriors, whose heavy metal football disrupted Guardiola’s silky passing orchestra. The Spanish tactician once again defeated his opposition in the long run as City won two more titles in the last three seasons.
Many challenges in recent years have enhanced Guardiola’s managerial experience. But the beauty continues to lie in the simplicity of his football. He did everything to protect the core ethos and it gave the world a manager who was a serial winner.
His domestic record is better than almost any other manager in the game and he will go down in history as a football purist. However, there remains a rather sad asterisk next to his “best manager in the world” title.
Despite all his dominance in the league, his last European title came in the 2010-11 season. He won two Champions League titles with Barcelona and has since failed to win a third.
It’s not like his team stopped playing their typical consistent European football. Even in the season City lost the Champions League final to Chelsea (2020-21), Guardiola’s men won 11, drew one and lost one (the last) game in the competition.
City’s defeats all came in the round of 16, with most occurring within minutes. It is a well-established knowledge that a Guardiola team cannot be outplayed for long (he only trains them well to overcome). However, where its players fail is when they lose focus or composure in the game’s small bursts.
So what will happen to Guardiola’s teams in the Champions League?
The answer was inevitably written early in Guardiola’s managerial career. He is a coach who wants to control – his team and his players and the way they think on the pitch.
With his relentless desire to keep opponents off the ball, he required all his XI players to follow instructions to the letter. Everyone is assigned a position on the field, which they are forbidden to leave so that the team can perform better. This is not wrong, in fact it is an ideal plot. However, the problem lies in the effects of this practice.
These rigid tactical setups prevent players from changing regularly. They rehearse their training exercises, which makes them look good when holding. However, when a little something extra was needed to break down the opposition, Guardiola’s players couldn’t answer for themselves.
Through weeks of intense and precise tactical training, these professional footballers are honed in their ability to innovate every day. This allows the opposition to settle down in peace once they have eliminated the perceived threat from Manchester City.
It should be noted that it is usually impossible to cancel this threat. However, when opponents do find a way, Guardiola’s teams are more handicapped than their rivals on the pitch.
The relentless drive to avoid 50-50 situations in a match works against Pep’s teams on the rare occasions that they do appear. Guardiola doesn’t keep his players, but his system inadvertently prevents players from going off track in critical games.
This system is exactly what gives them success in a competition of 38 games during the season (league titles). However, this works against them in knockout matches where confidence, nerve and the ability to innovate are paramount.
Guardiola’s teams are unbeatable when the plan works. However, Champions League football is more than tactical training. It’s about understanding the pressure, taking advantage of it, and sometimes making important decisions with great risk. As the Spanish probably know by now, the best team doesn’t win the Champions League, but the most efficient team does.
Knockout matches at the highest level require players to improvise and push harder. It gives them the confidence to do things on the pitch. Guardiola’s teams are not good at impromptu decision-making. He has plans and more plans to back them up – but his team is reeling in chaos. That’s exactly how Real Madrid beat them in the Champions League last season.
After examining this weak spot in his game, the idea remains that he should not change his set-up to pursue Champions League glory. A football purist, as we see, is defined by his loyalty to the goal.
Guardiola’s defeats stemmed from confusion and rigidity. However, hopefully his system itself is perfect and the day may not be far off when the 13-game Champions League campaign goes along with his plans instead of resigning himself to chaos.
Until then, Guardiola remains the perfect manager who failed to conquer Europe.