Pep Guardiola has only been a top-flight manager for six seasons, yet he has already gained a reputation as perhaps the best coach in the modern game.
In four seasons at Barcelona and two (so far) at Bayern Munich, the Spaniard has won five league titles, three domestic cups, and two Champions League trophies in a run of success almost unprecedented in its dominance. Beyond the simple matter of victories and titles, however, his teams have also been almost universally lauded for the style and ambition of their play, with the Barcelona sides he put together in 2009 and 2011 regarded by many as two of the best teams ever to grace a football pitch.
Six seasons (having taken over the senior job at Barcelona in 2008 and leaving in 2012, he took a one-year sabbatical before joining Bayern) is both a long time for a young coach to learn and adapt to the demands of a particularly consuming job and simultaneously not long at all for a man whose life has been spent analysing football to reconsider or rearrange his many principles.
In many ways, Guardiola is the same coach now as he was when he started at Barcelona, yet in other ways, his views on the game and tactical approach have been refined immensely. Moving to Bayern, and the particular perceptions and characteristics of the game, has helped shape those changes.
A perception of the game shaped by his position
It is not a leap to suggest that Guardiola’s tactical beliefs are heavily shaped by the player he was and the youth system he grew up in. A product of the Barcelona academy—at this point, who hasn’t seen the photos of him celebrating club victories as a young ball boy?—Guardiola learned the game under the likes of Johan Cruyff, Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal.
It was Cruyff who is widely credited with defining Guardiola’s career, after switching him as a youth player to the No. 4 position (the mediocentro or pivote) at the base of midfield in the 4-3-3 formation that the Dutchman had brought to the club from his time at Ajax.
As Phil Ball wrote in his book Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football of a defining moment in the young player's life:
In his first week at the club, Johan Cruyff turned up unannounced at the "Mini" stadium, a venue just down the road from Camp Nou used by the youth and B teams. Just before half-time he wandered into the dug-out and asked Charly Rexach, the youth team manager at the time, the name of the young lad playing on the right side of midfield. "Guardiola—good lad" came the reply.
Cruyff ignored the comment and told Rexach to move him into the middle for the second half, to play as pivot. It was a difficult position to adapt to and one not used by many teams in Spain at the time. Guardiola adjusted immediately, as Cruyff had suspected he would, and when he moved up into the first-team in 1990 he became the pivot of the Dream Team.
That season the Spaniard’s quality would become apparent to all who watched him, with one English newspaper writing of the 19-year-old (per ESPN FC) that he was "a young midfielder of the vision and appreciation of space Graham Taylor [then-England coach] has spent the last two years seeking."
Opponents, invariably less prone to hyperbole than those paid to watch the games, also offered the admiration for the Catalan, who was firmly established by the time Barca won their first European Cup at Wembley in 1992. "He is Barcelona's heart,” Davor Suker, then of Real Madrid, said, via In Bed With Maradona. “Everything flows through him."
The role of the pivot was a vital one, not only as the shield in front of the defence, but as the player often tasked with restarting his side’s attacks. Possession—both recovering it and retaining it—was the preoccupancy of the role, two elements that would become Guardiola’s overriding principles when he made the move into management.
The new coach focusing on old methods
After a somewhat peripatetic end to his playing career (which took in stops in Italy and the Middle East), Guardiola’s coaching career began in earnest in 2007 after he had taken his coaching badges. Identified by a stumbling Barcelona regime as a player with the requisite passion and knowledge to reinvigorate the club, Guardiola was employed as the club’s B team coach that year.
Nowadays, thanks primarily to the example of Guardiola, the B team role is seen very much as a viable stepping stone to the first team job, but at the time, it was perceived as something of an afterthought to many around the club.
"I don’t view this as working in the third division, but working for Barca B,” Guardiola said upon his appointment (as noted in Graham Hunter's book Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World). “The players shouldn’t think they are playing in the third division, but pushing at the doors of the first team.”
The same perhaps went for the coach.
A player called Lionel Messi had already earned his promotion to the first team, but Guardiola was working with a talented crop of players, among them Sergio Busquets, Thiago Alcantara, Pedro Rodriguez and Giovani dos Santos.
Wasting little time imparting his methods, Guardiola stressed the importance of retaining and recycling possession.
“I don’t want you all trying to dribble like Leo Messi—pass it, pass it and pass it again,” he told the team. “Pass precisely, move well, pass again, pass, pass, and pass.
“I want every move to be smart, every pass accurate—that’s how we make the difference from the rest of the teams, that’s all I want to see.”
The 4-3-3, with Busquets—the closest thing to a “new Guardiola”—at the base, was the basis of Guardiola’s play, but he added flourishes along the way and would duly win promotion with the side in his only season in charge—a landmark achievement for a reserve side that had previously been allowed to languish.
When Frank Rijkaard left the senior side in the summer of 2008, Guardiola was in the perfect position to take on the top job. Along with some of the players, many of the tactical flourishes he trialled with his reserve side would make the switch with him.
When Guardiola took the helm of the first team, Barcelona had been through two trophy-less seasons and, in the opinion of the new man, it was not a lack of talent that was the root cause. “The team has been through a time when not everybody was as professional as they should have been,” Guardiola apparently told the players, per Guillem Balague of the Telegraph, in their very first team meeting. “It is time for everybody to run and to give their all.”
That would be the crux of his approach, an insistence on not conflating the outcome with the work that had been put in. “I’m not asking results of you, just performance,” as he said. “Pressure!” became his mantra, the coach demanding a high pressing game to ensure the ball was won as high up the pitch as possible.
Beyond that, initially Guardiola kept things straightforward, relying on the 4-3-3 formation as his base with variations only as the situation demanded. Messi, his emerging superstar, liked to cut in from the right whereas Thierry Henry liked to hug the touchline high on the left, necessitating two different full-backs (Dani Alves to overlap Messi and provide width, Eric Abidal to stick to his defensive responsibilities) on either side.
The physically imposing Yaya Toure played Guardiola’s own role (albeit in a different manner), with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta the perfect players to fulfill Guardiola’s primary wish of retaining possession as much as possible.
Guardiola’s influence would be immediate, with the club winning every competition they entered (including the Champions League and La Liga) that season. Attackers committed more fouls than many of the team’s defenders (an indication of the strength of the side's press), as a squad almost identical to the season prior went on to achieve immeasurably more.
The crowning triumph of that year came in Rome, when Barcelona beat Ferguson's United in the final of the Champions League. It was also one of the most prominent early examples of Guardiola’s early willingness to tweak his tactics, with Messi moving into a central role during the game that would end with him scoring a rare header to clinch the match. That would sow the seeds of an eventual move to a “false nine” role, one that would extend Guardiola’s successful run.
That would take time, however, and in the interim, it seemed clear that Guardiola wanted his side to have a Plan B. That was evident in the summer, when Samuel Eto’o was allowed to leave and Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived from Inter Milan. The Swede, in theory at least, offered a different option in the central attacking role—while also ensuring the team retained some of the experience and physicality that would be lost as Busquets and Pedro replaced Yaya Toure and Henry in the starting XI.
Unfortunately, the Ibrahimovic move was doomed to fail from the start, not least because he lacked the versatility of Eto’o and so could not swap attacking positions with Messi or Henry during the game. Something of a diva, Ibrahimovic also struggled to get on with the manager and the star player, an issue that sealed his exit after only a season.
Unable (or unwilling) to rely on Ibrahimovic that season, Guardiola occasionally pushed the boundaries of his 4-3-3 system into something approaching a 4-2-4, with Iniesta (when fit) slipping across toward a left midfield role and Henry playing much more through the middle (with Messi and Pedro to his right).
This willingness to blur the lines of his basic system, to dabble in imbalances and asymmetry, would only grow as his coaching understanding and confidence increased.
The 2010-11 season would see another tweak to his attacking line, with Messi switching to the false-nine role on a more consistent basis and David Villa, a new signing, playing ahead of him in off the left. Other positional changes became more pronounced: In theory, the likes of Dani Alves and Busquets were playing the same position, but in reality, the full-backs were moving forward (and Busquets dropping deeper, almost to the point of becoming a third centre-back) to such an extent that you could as easily argue Guardiola was playing a 3-4-3 formation as you could a 4-3-3 (this was perhaps true earlier in his tenure, too—although less so to English audiences with a different perception of tactical setups).
Either way, it was effective, with Barcelona again defeating Manchester United (this time at Wembley) to become the kings of Europe.
Creating different options, and adding to the squad’s depth, was seemingly the primary focus ahead of Guardiola’s fourth and final season in charge at Barcelona, as the club signed Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas (and also, over time, began to incorporate Thiago Alcantara into proceedings). Both offered more direct attacking play, with Fabregas able to play a variety of different roles as required (in both 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 systems).
Those additional options had their moments, but they never quite meshed perfectly at Barcelona, and Guardiola would leave the club—citing the unrelenting pressure of the role—after failing to win La Liga for the first time in four seasons.
A new challenge, the same high expectations
After a one-year sabbatical, during which Guardiola traveled the world and absorbed knowledge from experts in many different fields, the Spaniard agreed to become the new coach of Bayern Munich in 2013. Between agreeing to the deal and starting the job, his task became much harder: Bayern won the treble under predecessor Jupp Heynckes, meaning Guardiola would now be judged against an almost impossible scale.
In that light, if it had been anyone other than Guardiola implementing the tactical tweaks he brought to Bayern at the start of the new season, they would have been accused of jeopardising the club’s immediate prospects in order to establish himself as separate from the previous regime. Guardiola did not avoid these criticisms entirely, but his history of tactical evolution while at Barcelona was evidence enough that this was always going to be his approach, regardless of the success Heynckes had enjoyed.
Also, it was what the club wanted.
“Now, under Pep, we're changing to more flexible positioning,” Paul Breitner, a legend for Bayern as player, said soon after the Spaniard arrived at the club. “We’ll be circulating the ball more and aiming to produce non-stop fluid movement, very much in the image of what Barca were doing…at their peak.”
Breitner was speaking to Marti Perarnau in the latter's book, Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola's First Season at Bayern Munich, which is perhaps the most exhaustive insight into Guardiola’s first season with Bayern.
Having spent the vast majority of his career (as a player and a coach) in Spain, Guardiola was immediately confronted by a squad with particularly Germanic qualities. Cultural stereotypes are invariably too broad to be truly accurate, but it remains true that Guardiola was immediately confronted by a realisation that he needed to find a way to blend the quintessentially Spanish elements of his philosophy with the markedly different German mindset that many of his players possessed.
The language of possession, the key to all Guardiola's tactical thoughts, was not quite the same at Sabener Strasse.
“It’s like we’re showing the numbers first, then the days of the week, then verbs,” Domenec Torrent, Guardiola’s assistant, told Perarnau (also in Pep Confidential) in their first pre-season at the club. Rondos—essentially, piggy in the middle one-touch passing drills—became an essential part of every training session, as Guardiola sought to develop his side's harmony with the ball.
Guardiola made some broad changes to the team to make it more like his previous one, installing his old position, the No. 4 (or No. 6, as it is often known in Germany), in a team that had previously played with two holding midfielders. He started with a 4-3-3 formation, but over the course of his first season, he would often switch to 3-4-3—thanks in part to the discovery of Philipp Lahm's tactical versatility and ability to play the pivote.
That meant the team shared many similarities with his old Barca sides, while he would also move the defensive line forward—five metres higher up the pitch than it had been the previous season—to help increase the effectiveness of the pressing game he wanted.
He would also resume the false-nine experiment that had worked so well with Messi, identifying Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery early on as players that could fulfill the role (although Ribery, perhaps the most suited to the task, would also be the most reluctant to try it). The biggest change, however, would be psychological—with Guardiola letting go of the rigid positional structure of Heynckes' systems and allowing his players more fluidity.
His desire was for every player to always offer the man with the ball a passing option, creating nine possible directions for the attack to move. This way, possession was retained and protected, but also used to greater effect.
The system was generally successful, helping Bayern to a comfortable league title, but it fell apart in the semi-finals of the Champions League when Guardiola opted for a 3-4-3 system (“the biggest mistake of my career”) that Real Madrid ruthlessly exploited.
Real would then strike another blow to Guardiola, as they signed Toni Kroos away from Bayern in the summer. The loss of Kroos, a brilliant conductor in the middle of the pitch, necessitated a slight tweaking of the system, even after Xabi Alonso made the move in the other direction.
Alonso’s presence allowed Guardiola to often play just two defenders at the back, with the Spaniard dropping between them and the full-backs, usually Lahm (or Rafinha) and David Alaba, pushing into a midfield. The 3-4-3 was becoming almost a 2-3-2-3, with Ribery and Robben playing either side of Robert Lewandowski, another summer signing, in attack.
Formations give observers a shorthand idea of what is going on, but in reality, positions were becoming almost irrelevant to Guardiola’s system, merely a rough starting point from which players interchanged and moved around depending on the flow of the game and the position (and possession) of the ball at any one point.
At times since his arrival at the Allianz Arena, the club have been credited with playing formations ranging from 3-3-3-1 to 3-3-4 to 2-3-3-2—which perhaps tells us more about an outsider's inability to adequately translate tactical setups into numerical arrangements than anything about Guardiola's variations.
At times, Guardiola would overload players (often Lahm and Rafinha) on one side of the pitch, targeting an opponent's weakness even if it left his team lacking in balance. Symmetry was no longer a concern for him, merely creating the most attacking danger he could against teams, in the Bundesliga especially, who would pack defences.
Again, Bayern were utterly dominant in the league, but again, they ended up falling short in Europe—this time, Guardiola’s old club, Barcelona, and his old charge, Messi, eviscerating them in the first leg of their semi-final at the Camp Nou.
"He is the best player of all time, I compare him with Pele," Guardiola said, per the BBC, after Bayern’s exit had been confirmed. "He is back, he is there where I had the privilege to train him. He is definitely back at his best.”
With Messi back on top form, Barcelona were once again champions of Europe. They had done it without their old manager, but Guardiola has yet to do it without them.
Further refinements in future?
The late, European Championship-winning Spain coach Luis Aragones once said that cup finals were for winning, not playing—a sentiment that Guardiola’s modern coaching counterpoint, Jose Mourinho, would seem to agree with. Guardiola, however, has always shown plenty to suggest he remains more romantic than pragmatic in even the biggest occasions.
"They're for winning," Guardiola conceded, when asked about Aragones’ quote, per Sid Lowe of the Guardian, "but I don't see how you can win without playing."
That was said a few years ago, and it is tempting to wonder if Guardiola has amended his viewpoint given recent events. Twice in recent seasons, the coach has seen his Bayern side dumped out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage, results accentuated (if not necessarily decided) by a determination to continue playing by attacking principles even in moments when caution might well be the better part of valour.
As Mourinho said recently in an interview with the Jonathan Northcroft of the Sunday Times: “If you never play counterattack then it’s because you are stupid. Counterattack is a fantastic item of football, an ammunition that you have and when you find your opponent unbalanced you have a fantastic moment to score a goal.”
Guardiola, however, seems to see any approach that might be considered defensive as either an admission of defeat or some sort of grave artistic offence. Instead, in the biggest games when other managers would employ counter-attacking principles, he has instead sought creative variations on his existing tactics to unbalance opponents in another way, yet so far at Bayern, he has seemingly either picked the wrong variation or simply confused his team by making such changes.
“Guardiola is unquestionably an extremely clever manager,” as Michael Cox, he of Zonal Marking, wrote for the Guardian during the 2013/14 season, “but sometimes he can be rather too clever for his own good.”
Perhaps this month’s Champions League final between Juventus and Barcelona effectively illustrated where Guardiola has been already in his career and the point he is now trying to get to. At Barcelona, he had an effective system his players already knew intimately and that, thanks to the brilliance of Messi, was very difficult to stop regardless of what the opposition tried to do.
Juventus, meanwhile, got to this season’s final (and won their domestic league) less through the brilliance of a few key players (although they have a few of them) than by shifting seamlessly between different tactical setups, playing with a three-man defence for much of the season before finally settling on a more traditional four-man unit toward the end of the campaign.
Guardiola probably does not want to emulate their exact tactics, but it certainly seems he wants his team to have the same ability to move effortlessly between tactical systems, to know their responsibilities so well that changes can be made on the fly. With some basic tenets remaining constant—possession, pressing, work rate—his theory appears to be that a fluid, well-understood tactical structure can counter any threat.
Without the one defining player of a generation to rely on (although he still has a lot of great players at his disposal), he seems to feel that is his best path to success.
But he will surely continue to tinker with that idea further along the way.