We’ve all heard all the same comments made towards Pep Guardiola throughout his career:
“Pep’s a fraud”
“They are strictly 4-3-3”
“He lives and breathes tiki taka”
“They love to play out from the back”
“It’s all about the overlap and keeping the width”
There are many things attributed to the Man City manager, most being true. But I feel these things get bandied around too often without a true grasp of what it means in the context of the whole team. To appreciate the well-oiled machine that is Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, we must begin by looking at their components in isolation. Similarly if we wanted to see how a clock worked we might examine the individual cogs interacting with each other to gain a better understanding. But first, some history.
The History of Total Football
The roots of Guardiola stretch back to Ajax in the early 20th century. Jack Reynolds is regarded as the pioneer of what would forever be known as Total Football or Totaalvoetball. This attractive style of playing demands fluidity, adaptability and the efficient use of space. From the early 1920s through to the 1950s, while managing Ajax, Reynolds’ ideas developed and were soon adapted with great success throughout other parts of the footballing world. Most notably with Hungary, led by prolific goalscorer and captain Ferenc Puskas in the 1952 Olympics and 1954 World Cup.
Where Totaalvoetball began, it was also later revolutionised. At Ajax, former player Rinus Michels led the team to tremendous success with the legendary Johan Cruyff up top from 1965-76 with a four year spell at Barcelona in between (with Cruyff also following Michels there). Ajax were encouraged to press at such high intensities to force errors from the opposition through a reduction in space. Michels encouraged players to play with freedom and fluidity, with less emphasis on player positions and more importance on intuition and natural football intelligence. It was this that moulded Johan Cruyff not only as one of the most important players in footballing history but in management also. From 1985-88, the Totaalvoetball of Michels returned to Ajax but under the management of Johan Cruyff. The possession-based style of expanding and contracting space in a fluid manner was as effective as ever. In a similar turn of events, Cruyff went on to have an incredibly successful career managing Barcelona from 1988-96 where he developed key players such as Pep Guardiola, a product of Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy. It was here he won 11 trophies during these eight years. From 1997-2001, Louis van Gaal’s adaptation of Totaalzoetball brought short term success to Barceona with a somewhat poor run following over the next seven years overshadowed by the Galacticos era of rivals Real Madrid. It was in 2008, a year after managing Barcelona B (and winning promotion) that Guardiola would succeed Frank Rijkaard and rekindle the spirit or Total Football with the senior team.
To keep things brief, many factors combined to form Barcelona’s Golden Era. Firstly, the foundation laid down by Cruyff in the 80’s for youth development in La Masia, had now produced tactically-minded, gifted and intelligent players such as Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi (key factor). Changes to the offside law in 2005 also contributed to Barcelona’s success around 2008, the game now benefiting intelligent players who were able to move within spaces and off the ball very effectively, such as those mentioned above. Needless to say there was a cultural impact too; with the Catalan culture knitting many of these players together as a team, something that Cruyff had always revered.
Guardiola in Spain
Guardiola’s management career with Barcelona can be (perhaps naively) summarised into a few terms; high defensive line, possession, tiki-taka, midfielders, widemen, false nine. When these terms are explained in Part Two, we can understand why. Essentially, Guardiola won 14 of a possible 19 trophies in his four-year period at Barcelona. Such an incredible achievement was brought about from his use and adaptation of Cruyff’s Totaalvoetball. Guardiola in an interview once said, “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restored or improved it” – an attestment to Cruyff’s genius and perhaps Guardiola’s modesty. His first two games in charge, however, saw a 1-0 away defeat to Numancia followed by a 1-1 home draw to Racing Santander. Barcelona would then go on a 22 match undefeated run, eventually winning the league as part of the treble for Guardiola in his debut season. It is probably better at this point to list what Guardiola learned rather than what he achieved in terms of trophies during his time at Barcelona.
First and foremost he learned the importance of the midfield; having intelligent players both capable and comfortable on the ball. Linked to this was that the team needed to be adept in spatial awareness and the concept of space in football. This triangulation of passing and moving became synonymous with Barcelona. A final point was also about the balance between fluidity and rigidity in the team. While this sounds contradictory, it is a comment on how every player needed to know their role and perform it. The midfield of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta could be fluid with the likes of Busquets being a more rigid and pivotal player. This added a more disciplined approach to Guardiola’s tactics which he wanted to be adhered to. By 2011, he had realised that players of individual brilliance such as Ibrahimovic can be extremely problematic when egos are involved. At the end of his final season, Guardiola realised his team could be nullified, revealed through the battles fought with Mourinho’s Real Madrid. This made him spring tactical surprises and experiment at times by moving players such as Mascherano or Busquets to centreback. An exhausted and mentally drained Guardiola then moved onto a new venture in 2013.
Guardiola in Germany
Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern had just won the treble; the Bundesliga, Deutsche Pokal and the Champion’s League. So thankfully there was no pressure on Guardiola to succeed when he took over for the 2013/14 season. It was a successful campaign, but perhaps falling short of expectations for many, including Guardiola himself. In his first season, the team struggled to adapt to his style of play, angering many fans who were told by Guardiola that he would be the one to adapt to the players’ style, rather than the other way around. Despite this, he still managed the double – winning the Bundesliga, Deutsche Pokal and reaching the Champions League semifinal, losing heavily to Real Madrid. The following year he also won the league, but disappointingly lost the cup final to Borussia Dortmund on penalties (all of which Bayern missed). Their Champions League journey reached an end once again in the semifinals – this time to Guardiola’s former club Barcelona. Finally, in the 2015/16 season, Bayern achieved the double once more, winning the league and cup, beating Dortmund on penalties. However, for a third time, Bayern exited the Champions League in the semifinals, this time at the hands of Atletico Madrid on away goals. Where Guardiola excelled on a European level in Spain, it was in Germany that he struggled, ironically to Spanish clubs. But what did Guardiola learn during these three years?
Firstly, Guardiola learned that to be successful in Europe was not an easy feat. German teams had been instilled with a certain way of playing, and transforming them into the Barcelona of 2008-12 was not going to be easy. For the team to be more successful, both the players and Pep would need to reinvent themselves. Guardiola slowly became more direct with how the team moved the ball, but ensuring they stuck to the two main philosophies of keeping possession and using space effectively. The wingers in Robben and Ribery were very different to the wide forwards of Pedro and Villa at Barcelona. The style became more traditional; picking out the wingers more directly and relying on their pace and crossing ability to create scoring opportunities. In this sense, Guardiola reinvented his style. Another issue was the ‘false 9’ role. At Barcelona he had the ever-reliable Messi, but now at Bayern, Mario Gotze was obviously not as reliable as the Argentine. Quite often, Bayern would need a ‘Plan B’ up top, something he rarely needed before. For this reason Mandzukic, and later Lewandowski, became more traditional striking options and a target for the wingers to aim for. Player roles were also reinvented; fullbacks were inverted to become central midfielders such as Lahm and Alaba. Similarly to Busquets and Mascherano, Javi Martinez was often played as a centreback. Most notably was the role of Manuel Neuer who perfected the role of sweeper keeper under Guardiola as part of his system. Lastly, from his duels with Klopp’s Dortmund he learned a lot about his style’s weakness and how quick countering through Gegenpressing often saw them concede. Guardiola played a high line similarly to Klopp and also counter-pressed but for different reasons, which will later be discussed. In February 2016, it was announced that Guardiola would manage Manchester City for the new season.
Guardiola in England
This essentially brings us to the current era, where Guardiola has arrived and attempted to apply what he has learned throughout his time in Spain and Germany to Manchester City in England. Expectations were high in his first season with the club, but disaster ensued. For the first time in his management career, Guardiola failed to win a single trophy in a season. He placed third in the league, failing to make the final of either domestic cup, and was eliminated from the Champions League in the first knockout round on away goals to Monaco. We can speculate why it happened. The players brought in were very young, but talented, and needed time to adjust to a new league. The fullbacks at his disposal were all over 30 and not as versatile. The centrebacks were not accustomed to playing out from the back. The team was also coming from a 4231 system that jumped to 442 at times. Another reason was the lack of a quality sweeper keeper. Claudio Bravo seemed to fit that role on paper when he first signed but made plenty of mistakes and his pass accuracy was only hitting around 70%. Yaya Touré was much older now and not capable of playing the style Guardiola desired, and likewise Nasri was a traditional number 10 who could not fit into the 4-3-3 style. Pressing from the front three was not consistent which put the system at risk of being exposed. Finally, although Man City were averaging 60.9% possession, when Guardiola’s teams dominated it was usually a lot higher. This lower rate of possession combined with a lack of concentration from defensive players was a huge wake up call for Guardiola after his first season. Ultimately it was a huge failure for Guardiola and the team needed a major overhaul. So what exactly changed that saw them win the double the following year in 2017/18 and then the domestic treble last season? We will look at this in Part Two.