Pep Guardiola the extra-special one adds realism to romanticism

I have a say

Posted Wednesday, February 16, 2011 by

The Barcelona manager is determined that his gifted side will attack the kindred spirits of Arsenal at the Emirates with 'good movement and quick feet'

Pep Guardiola the extra-special one adds realism to romanticism
'I like watching Arsenal but I don't like playing them,' says Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona manager.

Pep Guardiola is José Mourinho with imagination, with art. Young, intense, lean, charismatic and stubbly, the two are separated by the great cultural wall that keeps Barcelona and Real Madrid apart. But it would be an error to juxtapose Guardiola as a pure romantic with Mourinho the joyless strategist.

Barcelona's spectacularly successful coach was a thinker before he was a dreamer. The late Sir Bobby Robson, who managed at the Camp Nou for a year, remembers Guardiola piping up at half-time with tactical suggestions. "I liked Pep. He was a great player. He knew the game and he knew how to conduct himself," Robson said. "Some footballers wouldn't stand up for anything. They can't see beyond themselves. You'd have no chance of engaging them in any kind of sensible debate but Pep had class. He had bearing."

Guardiola brought those qualities to Arsenal's rain-drenched Emirates Stadium on the eve of a potentially thrilling Champions League rematch with Arsène Wenger's side. The first half of last year's quarter-final first leg in London passed into artistic legend. In the opening period of a 2-2 draw Barcelona were scintillating. But now their leader says: "We can't look at ourselves in the mirror. What we did in the first half last year we try to do every time, This is my job. I'm going to tell my players we need to attack Arsenal. We want to play attacking football all the time: passing the ball, good movement, quick feet."

The "fulcrum" of Johan Cruyff's Dream Teams, Wenger's touchline rival trades a nice line in rhetoric but is not so far removed from Mourinho's mathematical methods that he can be cast as a smug preacher. Albert "Chapi" Ferrer, the former Barcelona right-back, and now manager of Vitesse Arnhem, says: "Guardiola was always really involved in the decision-making side of the team. The manager would always consult him and his opinion always counted. He'd give his point of view and it was a highly developed perspective for a player.

"Pep could see things and think very quickly. As soon as he received the ball he knew what he wanted to do with it and always saw several options. The way Barcelona play today is the very essence of Guardiola."

After their run of 16 consecutive wins broke Real Madrid's 50-year La Liga record a 1-1 with Sporting Gijón at the weekend spoiled the sequence. With so much to be arrogant about, Guardiola chose the build-up to this last-16 tie to play the humility card, eulogising Arsenal.

"The experience of last season is very fresh for them. Mr Wenger has a lot of experience of these games," he said. "Every year they play in the Champions League. In Spain we admire his style. I prefer teams who don't want the ball. Arsenal are well prepared and sometimes against them you have to chase shadows. I like watching Arsenal but I don't like playing against them. Walcott has good moments, Wenger is an incredible coach. Nasri is an incredible player."

To play "in the future", a Guardiola player is expected to know where the ball ought to go even before it reaches him, which, in case anyone considers this revolutionary thinking, is how Ron Greenwood taught Trevor Brooking and company to approach possession at West Ham. But under the youngest coach to win the European Cup Barça have developed ball retention into a religion. Ferrer told the official Champions League magazine: "You're left with the impression that it's OK for players at other clubs to make basic errors, to give the ball away. Here at Barcelona it's unforgivable. If players here give the ball away they feel awful because they know the standards expected of them."

All this may point to an almost anal obsession with denying the opponent time on the ball. Cruyff's teams were marginally more inventive and less geometrically fixated. Pushing the principle to its extreme, Guardiola has adapted a Dutch style to the game's current realities, instructing his players to hound the opponent until the ball is recovered. Thus the blue and claret shirts move in packs and almost snatch the ball back from those brave enough to borrow it in the first place.

No one could question Guardiola's educational background. He joined the club in 1983, aged 13. At 20 he won the La Liga title (he harvested six in all), the European Cup and an Olympic gold for Spain at the 1992 Barcelona Games. As a metronomic and clever central midfielder he played with Romário, Rivaldo, Luís Figo, Ronaldo and Hristo Stoichkov. A long seminar in brilliant attacking football unfolded in front of him.

As a coach he learned his trade with the Barcelona B side from 2007-2008, then graduated to Frank Rijkaard's first-team job in May 2008. Twelve months later his hands were on the league, Copa del Rey and Champions League trophies. In all he has swept up eight trophies in two seasons and has scored five consecutive victories in El Clásico, including this season's 5-0 win over Mourinho's Real.

Plonked in the middle of that rampage is a sizeable failed experiment. In his first summer he culled Deco and Ronaldinho and came close to selling Samuel Eto'o. He also promoted Sergio Busquets and Pedro from the academy. But after the first-season clean sweep he bet the farm on a change of style, dispensing with Eto'o and bringing in Zlatan Ibrahimovic for €49m (£41m), before correcting that miscalculation with the purchase last summer of the zippier, more agile David Villa.

If this match is a final referendum on Cesc Fábregas's desire to return home to the Camp Nou one day, Guardiola is staying out of the debate. "Cesc is an Arsenal player and Wenger has said many times he is an Arsenal player. If one day Arsenal decide Cesc can go, then we can decide." More broadly he speaks of Wenger's team as kindred spirits: "Arsenal pass the ball beautifully and play very dynamically. For a long time they've played in a particular way and that's why they've signed the kind of players they have. With [Robin] Van Persie up front they're going to play differently. They try to play on the counterattack but they have very fast players like Walcott. I have a lot of respect for them. They are very strong in certain areas but they have weaknesses as well."

This last remark is a gentle swipe at Arsenal's defensive vulnerabilities, a weakness Guardiola has tried to eradicate in his own side by stressing ball recovery as well as retention. "We play for our spectators. We try to play attractive football because our team has been trying to play attractive football for the last 20-25 years," he said. So much about his work is hidden by that boast.

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