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Domestic Dominance, Champions League Heartache and Lionel Messi: Pep Guardiola At 50

 

The evolving legacy of one of football’s all-time greatest managers.

By: Daniel Edwards

Pep Guardiola has won 30 individual trophies as a manager, averaging one piece of silverware for every 24 matches that he has taken charge of, in a career that has seen him dominate in Spain, Germany and England.

During this time he has managed and nurtured many of the best players of the modern era, whether it be Xavi, Iniesta and Messi at Barcelona, Neuer, Lahm and Lewandowski at Bayern Munich or Silva, De Bruyne and Agüero at Manchester City. And there are many, many more.

Guardiola still has his detractors, the opinion in some circles being that the talent he has had at his disposal could have led to even more success, particularly in the Champions League.

What can’t be denied is that he has done it his own way, sticking distinctly to a clear vision of how he wants his sides to play football.

What defines his legacy so far?

Domestic Dominance

In Pep Guardiola’s 12 full seasons as a manager, he has won nine league titles. He has of course overseen sides where that was at times an expectation, but anyone decrying his coaching prowess until he proves himself at Port Vale may want to look at his first-time promotion from Spain’s fourth tier with Barcelona’s languishing reserve team.

Even when he ascended to the first team, the Barcelona side that Guardiola inherited in the summer of 2008 was still reeling from a dreadful campaign under Frank Rijkaard, having finished in third place in LaLiga with just 67 points, some 18 fewer than champions and arch-rivals Real Madrid. By the end of 2009 they had won six trophies.

It took some audacity to hire Guardiola after just one year’s experience, but his revival of Barcelona B had enthralled many higher-ups within the club – chiefly former teammate, friend, and director of football Txiki Begiristain.

Guardiola edged out the likes of Ernesto Valverde and José Mourinho with the promise of returning the club to the halcyon days of the Dream Team era, of which Guardiola himself was a key figure.

When Barcelona lost their season opener 1-0 away to newly-promoted Numancia it must have been tough to envisage the grandeur that would follow, but there was no scepticism aimed at Guardiola from inside the dressing room and they didn’t lose again until February, embarking on their longest unbeaten run since 1984.

Barcelona led the league from matchday nine onwards and ultimately finished nine points clear of second-place Real Madrid, a 27-point swing between the two sides compared to the previous season under Rijkaard.

The club only grew stronger in Guardiola’s second season, earning what was then a record 99 points, and those dizzying points totals have become synonymous with his teams, hitting the 90-point mark another five times since.

Guardiola currently holds the third and fourth-highest LaLiga points returns, the second and third-highest in the Bundesliga and the first and third-highest in the English top-flight.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing. Guardiola was well beaten in 2011-12 by Mourinho, 2016-17 by Conte and 2019-20 by Klopp, but arguments can be made for Pep having raised the bar in those competitions. All three of those managers recorded their highest ever points returns in those seasons, with Mourinho and Klopp in particular having to take their sides to an extraordinary level to shake off Barcelona and Manchester City.

“After 97 points last year, everybody thought we were unlucky a little bit, but we respect City a lot and it was clear that if you want to be ahead of them, you need to be nearly perfect and the boys were nearly perfect, and that’s why we have 99 points.”

Jürgen Klopp after Liverpool won the Premier League in 2019-20

Style With Substance

Guardiola would never profess that the playstyles of his sides are independent to himself. He is openly enamoured with the tactics of Johan Cruyff, Marcelo Bielsa and Louis van Gaal, seeking advice from the first two during the early stages of his managerial career, and he has revised and redistributed formations and patterns from all three.

Despite all this, there are some sights on a football pitch that are unmistakably Pep: 10 outfielders packed in and around the opposition’s defensive third, wingers stood where you’d expect the linesmen to be, a full-back creating a numerical advantage in central midfield, or maybe a goalkeeper teeing off a goal-kick to a centre-back stood lateral to him.

Guardiola’s utilisation of his goalkeepers as a genuine option during build-up play has been a cornerstone of his style, so much so that their shot-stopping ability can at times feel like an afterthought.

Since Guardiola took the Barcelona job in 2008, he is the only coach whose goalkeepers have completed over 80% of their passes in league matches.

Maybe it would be insincere to suggest Guardiola is the lone revolutionary of the increased adventure of goalkeepers in modern football, as much will be owed to some interesting tactics from across the Atlantic many years ago, as well as the growth of football analytics, but he’s certainly shown it can be used as a successful approach at the very highest level.

The graphic below hints at Guardiola’s impact in this regard throughout his career. Short passes by goalkeepers have climbed in Guardiola’s respective league in nine of the last 10 full seasons.

With Guardiola goalkeepers possessing so much on-ball ability, games played against his sides can have somewhat of a suffocating nature. That extra option can make good sides feel like they’re playing a man down, with an angle always on for a pass out of a tight spot.

Having this technical ability shared throughout a whole side, coupled with the intense press that Guardiola sides are famed for, can result in very high possession figures. In fact, of the 10 highest seasonal figures for possession since Guardiola took the Barcelona job, eight belong to him, with only Enrique’s Barca and Ancelotti’s Bayern making an appearance. Pep’s teams dominate.

This isn’t possession for possession’s sake, with Guardiola reportedly becoming frustrated with his style constantly being termed as ‘tiki-taka’, this is possession with a purpose – to manipulate the shape of the opposition. Draw them close and take advantage of the gaps they leave.

“People say that ball possession might not be the most important thing but for me, it is the most important thing. It’s the first step and then the second, third and fourth steps can come after. With the ball, you have more possibilities to create something and to concede fewer chances.”

Pep Guardiola after Bayern Munich beat Arsenal 5-1 in November 2015

The Champions League – The Highs and the Lows

Pep Guardiola’s results in the Champions League have long drawn criticism, so it may be a slight surprise to hear that he actually holds the best win percentage of any manager in the competition’s history (62%).

The reality is that in a knockout format not all matches are equal and beating Shakhtar Donetsk for the millionth time in the group stages doesn’t hold much value when you’re beaten by the underdogs in the quarter-final.

Looking purely at the knockout stages, Guardiola’s 51 percent win rate drops him from first to fifth. It’s still good in the grand scheme of things, and better than the likes of Klopp (48%), Ferguson (47%) and Mourinho (45%), but it’s not a strength of his. Did his early success lead to slightly unreasonable expectations?

Guardiola won the Champions League in his first season with Barcelona. On their way to the title they beat Bayern Munich, Chelsea (last season’s runners up) and Man Utd (the holders).

Man Utd went into the game as very slight favourites with the bookies – they had just won a third consecutive Premier League title – but they lined slightly conservatively, using Park Ji-sung as an extra body in midfield at times. They wanted to press a makeshift Barcelona defence that had Yaya Touré at centre-back, and used Cristiano Ronaldo as a striker in attempt to make the most of that.

Despite a strong start their plan was dealt a quick blow with Samuel Eto’o opening the scoring in the 10th minute, and while chasing the game they ultimately played into Barcelona’s hands, conceding again through Lionel Messi in the second half.

It was a strong performance from Barcelona, and they became the first side to beat Man Utd in a European Cup final, but it paled in comparison to their 3-1 defeat of them in the 2011 final.

In 2011, save for Carles Puyol, Barcelona’s starting XI was the one you would most associate with that era: Víctor Valdés, Dani Alves, Javier Mascherano, Gerard Piqué, Eric Abidal; Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta; Pedro, Lionel Messi, David Villa. Not bad.

When Man Utd had the first shot of the game in the third minute there must have been a feeling that they could correct the errors of 2009. Javier Hernández tackled Busquets on the edge of the box and fired off a quick shot from outside the area after a return pass from Michael Carrick. It wasn’t to be, and Barcelona had 20 of the game’s next 21 shots.

They took a lead through Pedro before the half hour mark. Xavi found far too much space behind Carrick and Ryan Giggs, feeding in Pedro with the outside of his right foot, who duly sent Edwin van der Sar the wrong way with a near-post finish.

It was surprising then, when Wayne Rooney put Man Utd level six minutes later. Rooney played a quick one-two with Carrick, then another with Giggs, and suddenly he was inside the box, finishing confidently with a first-time effort.

That was the last glove that Man Utd laid on Barcelona, not having another shot until the 71st minute, by which point goals from Messi and Villa had already taken the game away from them. They were thoroughly outclassed.

Barcelona sparkled. Dominating opponents was par for the course with this side, but to outplay a team of Man Utd’s stature to this extent in a Champions League final was a statement and a half.

The average position maps for either side go some way to showing just how much Barca ran United ragged. Where Barca’s structure is typical of how you’d imagine their positions, United’s highlights their inability to gain any footing in the match, constantly having to put out fires.

Barcelona

Man Utd

 

As a team Man Utd completed 286 passes. Xavi, Iniesta and Messi completed 340 between them. From there, it must have been hard to imagine that almost 10 years later Guardiola would not have reached another Champions League final, never mind winning one.

Guardiola was eliminated at the semi-final stage in all three seasons with Bayern Munich, failing to score a single goal in the first leg of any of those ties. At City he’s gone another step back, having been eliminated in the last 16 in his first campaign, they’ve gone out at the quarter-final stage in each of the last three seasons.

The underperformance is all the more concerning when you look at the opposition – Guardiola’s sides have been clear favourites in many of those ties, and the defeat against Lyon last season is the nadir of Guardiola’s Champions League story so far.

There’s a lingering suggestion that Guardiola overthinks these bigger games due to his recent record, and the Lyon defeat would suggest so. City played 59 games in all competitions in 2019-20 and only strayed from a back four in just five of them – one of those being the defeat to Lyon. It was actually the first time in eight months that City had lined up with a back three, with the previous occasion being a home defeat against Man Utd in the League Cup.

What Guardiola can’t be blamed for is the poor finishing of his players, and there was plenty of that. Based on expected goals, City had three of the four best chances in the game, and they didn’t even force a save with any of them.

Raheem Sterling missed a chance with a 0.42 xG value in first half stoppage time that would have sent City in level, and perhaps forced some more daring substitutions.

The next two misses would have hurt more because of what followed.

Gabriel Jesus missed a 0.55 xG chance in the 77th time minute and Moussa Dembele put Lyon 2-1 up only 71 seconds later. Then, in the 86th minute, Sterling missed the best chance of the game (we can all picture it) – coming in at 0.62 xG. It would’ve put City level with a handful of minutes to snatch a victory. Instead, Lyon went 3-1 up 59 seconds later through another Dembele goal.

Small margins.

Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi is obviously the greatest player Pep Guardiola will ever manage, but Guardiola is also the best manager the Argentinian will play under. They have both had an extraordinary impact on each other’s careers.

Messi’s early Barcelona years came under Guardiola’s predecessor, Frank Rijkaard, who used him primarily as a right-winger. His rise to the top was telegraphed from an early stage, but whether he would have become so good so quickly without the hiring of Guardiola is a question worth asking.

In his final season under Rijkaard, Messi scored 16 goals at an average one every 185 minutes – in his first season under Guardiola he scored 38 goals at an average of one every 103 minutes. His career ignited under the Spaniard, winning the Ballon d’Or in four straight years following his arrival.

Guardiola knew from day one that the team had to be built around Messi, and many great players have had to play accommodating roles in order to achieve that. Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, David Villa and Zlatan Ibrahimović, four of the greatest forwards of the 21st century, were often used in roles that differed from any other stage in their careers to allow Messi to fully blossom as what was termed a ‘false nine’. And some weren’t happy about it.

Messi’s ability grew year on year under Guardiola, scoring 38, 47, 53 and then a record-breaking 73 times in his four seasons under his tutelage. Those numbers are even more extraordinary when you consider he was aged between 21 and 24 over that period.

In total Messi scored 211 times and set up a further 79 goals for Barcelona under Guardiola, all his personal bests under any coach. In fact, his 290 goals and assists accounted for 45% of the club’s goals over those four seasons (290/638).

Messi’s brilliance correlated directly with Barcelona’s success. Those four seasons brought in an astounding 14 trophies, almost half of the 33 that Messi has won in total with the club.

The greatest years of football’s greatest ever player hold an important place in the history one of the game’s greatest ever managers. And there could still be time for a reunion.

The Future

You wouldn’t blame Guardiola for being tired of football by now. At the age of 50 he’s played in over 500 matches and managed more than 700.

Since joining Barcelona’s academy at the age of 13, he’s had only two years away from football – one in between his retirement as a player and his taking of the Barcelona B job, and another in the form of a sabbatical in between his spells with Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

It has at times felt like he may have lost the enthusiasm that made him shine during his earlier years in management, and that’s why it was a surprise to many when he recommitted his future to Manchester City in the form of a contract extension in November, one that could see him remain at the club until 2023.

He had previously claimed that he planned to retire early in order to focus on other interests, but whether anyone really believed him is another matter.

Guardiola is a man you suspect is hyperaware of how he is viewed, and to retire before he gets his hands on another Champions League trophy would only serve to feed his detractors.

For now his future is in Manchester, but there is a club in Catalonia who would do anything to bring him back one final time, and you can’t deny it would bring a satisfying end to an extraordinary career, and cement his legacy forever.


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