Pep Guardiola: The most complicated man in football
Here’s what you learn when you spend a whole year with the new Manchester City manager.Robert Chilton May 29, 2016
“If I had to define Pep Guardiola I would describe him as a man who questions everything, not through insecurity or fear of the unknown, but in the search for perfection.”
These chilling words might send a shiver down the spine of Manchester City’s players as they nervously wait for their new coach to arrive on July 1. The 45-year-old will earn a salary of around $20m per year, for which in return the club’s Abu Dhabi owners expect the Champions League.
The description of Guardiola above comes from football journalist Martí Perarnau. The Spaniard was given unrestricted access to Guardiola’s first year as Bayern Munich coach in 2013-14 for a revealing and fascinating book, Pep Confidential. Extracts from the book reveal Pep’s obsessive search for perfection, his manic energy, and his anxiety.
No matter the opponent, his preparation never changes and he will not rest for a second until all the variants have been dissected and assessed. Then, when he has finished, he goes over it all again. This is what Manel Estiarte, his right-hand man at Barça and Bayern, calls ‘the law of 32 minutes’.
The term refers to his often-fruitless attempts to persuade Pep to disconnect from football. From time to time Estiarte will use all the resources at his disposal to curb the coach’s obsessional behaviour. Experience, however, has taught him that Pep cannot be distracted for much longer than 30 minutes at a time.
“You invite him for a meal in a restaurant, hoping that he’ll forget about football, but 32 minutes later you can see his mind is already wandering,” Estiarte explains. “He starts staring at the ceiling and, although he’s nodding as if he’s listening to you, he’s not looking at you.
In actual fact he’s probably thinking about the opposition left-back, the marking scheme for the midfielders, how much the wingers can support the inside-forwards… the guy can only manage half an hour and then he goes straight back to his mental contemplation.”
May 2, 2009
Real Madrid vs Barcelona
It was the day before the match – a holiday Friday, May 1, 2009. Guardiola had stayed at the stadium to study his opponents. He spends two days analysing the team they are about to face, looking for strengths and weaknesses. He reviews entire matches as well as sections of the videos his assistants have picked out for him.
The day before the game, he shuts himself in his office, puts on some gentle music and thinks about his approach to the match. He is seeking inspiration; inspiration which comes only now and again.
Pep explains, “Before every match I lock myself up in an office I’ve set up myself. I sit down with pen and paper and watch two or three videos. I take lots of notes. That’s when that flash of 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 the match. It only lasts for about a minute, maybe 80 seconds, but it’s the moment that my job becomes truly meaningful to me.”
It was 10pm and Pep was alone in his office. Everyone else, including his assistants, had gone home. He sat in that dimly lit room imagining Messi moving freely across that enormous empty space in the Bernabéu, having shaken off the Madrid midfielders. The image was crystal clear and he picked up the phone.
He wasn’t calling his advisors, or even Xavi, the brains of his team. Instead, Guardiola dialled Messi’s number. “Leo, it’s Pep. I’ve just seen something important. Really important. Why don’t you come over. Now, please.” At 10.30pm there is a gentle knock at Pep’s office door and a 21-year-old Leo Messi comes in. The coach shows him the video, pausing it to point out the empty space. He wants his player to make that space his own. From now on it will be ‘the Messi zone’.
Defining Pep – that’s a tough challenge. There isn’t a single adjective which will wholly sum up the complexities of a personality like his. Sometimes he seems like he’s made out of steel, sometimes out of butter. All the same it is tempting to seek out some definitive word. Like ‘obsessive’.
“If being obsessive means being passionate and detailed in your preparation,” says his friend Sala i Martín, “then Pep is obsessive. But in my opinion that kind of obsession isn’t a negative thing if you’re obsessed about something you love and you’re trying to achieve to a perfect degree. Pep’s obsessive in the same way a great musician or a great artist is obsessed. It’s just that his key, his palate is football.” Pep isn’t out to intellectualise football, or his ideas and concepts. He doesn’t use complicated vocabulary. He’s an ordinary guy and uses simple words. This is the son of a bricklayer who has never forgotten his roots.
Pep tucks into a starter of pureed potatoes, with obvious pleasure. He looks like he hasn’t eaten anything since last night and, when I ask, he nods. He can’t eat a thing on matchdays. Guardiola has linguini with truffles. He doesn’t eat anything during the day so he tends to have a lavish meal in the evening. Even the prospect of playing a friendly leaves him tense and robs him of his appetite. He manages only to drink water, bottle after bottle. So he really makes up for it in the evening. He’s already put away a whole bowl of pureed potatoes, a tomato and mozzarella salad, half a dozen rostbratwurst with sauerkraut – the legendary Nürnberg sausage – and the linguini with truffles. Now he’s ready to attack a juicy sirloin steak.
Pep has always believed that every player is different and needs to be treated as such. The trick is working out how to interact with each individual. Whilst his players are constantly learning and incorporating new concepts into their game, their boss is also learning and improving the way he communicates with each of them. He’s tough on one guy and soft on the next. He might give long, tactical explanations to a kid in the youth set-up and then respond brusquely to a key member of the first team.
He’s always looking for the right code to unlock the talents of each player and take them to the next level. “The players are my principal concern,” Guardiola says time and time again. Naturally demonstrative, he likes to give his players little slaps on the cheeks and smacks or kicks up the behind. It’s just the way he is and, although it can come as a bit of a surprise initially, his players tend to get used to it eventually.
Guardiola’s achilles’ heel is his anxiety. He carries with him a deep fear of coming under attack, which was probably born during his playing career. He was physically fragile and lacked athleticism – rather on the puny side. Working alone to cover an enormous section of the pitch, he was an easy and exposed target for the opposition. If they tackled Pep and succeeded in neutralising him, the whole structure of Barça’s game would collapse. He carried this fear throughout his whole playing career, but was also smart enough to develop the ideal antidote.
Pep found that he could cope with his fear by playing with a touch of audacity. Pep has developed enormous courage precisely because of this fear. During his time as Barcelona coach he explained a hundred times that he preferred to face teams who play tight around their goal area, who create a kind of bunker. “In those games the ball tends to stay far from my goal and that feels much less threatening.” In other words, those teams scare him less.
He compensates for his anxiety with a level of audacity that can sometimes become excessive. He has developed the antibodies to deal with his fear and now, as a coach, has a capacity for extraordinary courage and single-minded determination. He doesn’t like being attacked, so he goes on the attack first. It’s his way of correcting this weakness.
Today Pep is very down. Yesterday’s match has really discouraged him. Pep was concerned that he was failing to get his ideas through to the players. He was failing to help them give their best. When he is like this – depressed, silent and brooding – it’s because he blames himself for something. He isn’t about to blame the Bayern players for their weak performances. He holds himself responsible for not managing to bring out their potential, for not finding the right words or exercises, for not putting them in the correct positions or providing the launch pad they need to express themselves. Pep is the son and grandson of a paleta, as it’s called in Catalan. His father, Valentín, is a bricklayer in Santpedor, near Manresa, in central Catalonia. He taught his son to stand on his own two feet and take
responsibility for his actions without blaming others. Pep might be one of the most respected coaches in the world, in charge of one of the world’s biggest clubs, but he is still a bricklayer’s son and he takes responsibility for his own actions.
This is Guardiola at his fascinating, volcanic best – post-match Pep.
Immediately after dealing with the media he goes to the players’ restaurant in the Allianz, takes a glass of champagne, spears a few cubes of parmesan cheese and spends the next half hour talking about the match. Usually he stays on his feet or occasionally sits down at one of the tables. But, although he won’t have eaten all day, he’s nowhere near ready to eat yet. Once the game finishes he’s voraciously hungry but he’s still not in the right frame of mind to relax and eat the dish of marinated salmon he loves so much. First he needs at least 30 minutes to burn off the adrenalin accumulated not just during the match but over the previous couple of days.
So he gets right down to it. He talks almost incessantly about everything that has happened during the match. Everything has stuck in his memory. ‘Did you see what Rafinha did in the 18th minute? He moved two metres inside and closed off the channel where they were queuing up to attack us.’ Pep is blessed with an almost photographic memory which allows him to remember and analyse everything that has happened in the match. Guardiola remembers every move: how it developed, what happened, which players got involved and what the consequences were.
During this pretty amazing half hour, standing in his corner of the restaurant, gesturing wildly as if he’s still mid-match, Pep reproduces most of the preceding game. He breaks it down and it’s like he’s performing an autopsy. The skeleton is stripped of every muscle and tendon. He’ll analyse his players, the opposition, each phase of the game, every important move. Then he’ll spool back a bit, still eating chunks of cheese but with the champagne almost untouched. This is Pep at his most passionate, and it is a joy to be around him.
Pep says: “How do you seduce your players into listening to you and accepting new concepts? And I mean ‘seduce’ not ‘motivate’. What happened at Barça was not that I failed to motivate them – they are wonderful footballers and marvellous people. No, I failed to seduce them! I had introduced a million tiny tactical innovations over the four years and the next step wasn’t going to be easy. You look into your players’ eyes and it’s a bit like looking at a lover. Either you see passion and a willingness to be seduced or you watch as the passion ebbs away. It’s all in the eyes. It’s all about seduction.”
For me it’s fascinating to see how Pep behaves in the face of defeat. These defeats add dimension to the victories and it is no accident that one of his bedside books is Saber Perder (Knowing How To Lose) by his friend, the filmmaker David Trueba. For him defeat is also a catharsis, a revelation. As the journalist Isaac Lluch explained to me one evening, referring to Bayern’s defeat in the Super Cup, it is a necessity. “Starting off with a defeat gives Pep the right element of epic drama, exactly what any hero needs as he embarks on his quest.”
Pep Confidential by Martí Perarnau is published by Arena Sports