I remember a lot from Pep Guardiola. “In important matches,” he said to me, “I just pick my best XI.” You have to listen carefully, the sentence contains the core of what football is about: individual quality. Guardiola is a top coach. He loves the skills and talent of his players.
Some coaches seek to reduce the complexity of football. Guardiola, though, wants to master it. One can compare his task with a chess grandmaster or with an orchestra director who gets the best out of each instrument. The only thing is that a football ensemble does not play according to given musical notes, and the paths of a footballer are more variable than those followed by the rook and the knight. It isn’t all that easy to recognise what someone is doing and can do on the pitch. It’s also hard to describe.
A great coach quickly knows who can do what and who his central player will be. He then communicates to each player their strengths and their weaknesses, along with those of the others. He works on the role of each individual every single day. Guardiola does this with a passion I have never experienced in anyone else. Until everyone, even those who don’t get playing time, knows the manager is right. And that grants him absolute authority.
A team needs help, especially during matches. Guardiola actively coaches, so he wins them over. Key players such as Kevin De Bruyne take his influence on, and his ideas pass from them to the other players. He has also made the defender Kyle Walker, not a typical Pep player in terms of his disposition, better and better. Guardiola proves to be loyal to everyone. He gives everyone security.
Ilkay Gündogan is a Pep player through and through, always understanding his team’s situation. He always behaves correctly; his runs are perfect in attack and defence. He knows when to keep the ball in his own ranks, and when the time has come to push into the penalty area. That is skilful risk management. He often knows where action will end. That’s why he suddenly scores goals. Guardiola needs such players. Gündogan particularly benefits from his coach because he internalises and enjoys the setup that is created under Guardiola.
This creates a unit. Guardiola teams can be recognised immediately, even if the TV pictures were black and white shots: running free, the sequence of the passes, the positioning in the box, the dribbling, the way his team carries the ball forward together and push the play entirely into the other half. It’s not something a coach can simply achieve by issuing orders in the locker room. You have to work hard to achieve such superiority every day.
When he started at Manchester City in 2016, he rebuilt the squad. Following a third-place finish, the team won two Premier League titles and then finished second. Now he is again on top, and it’s not particularly close. His team never fall below a certain level, so he minimises coincidence in 38 games. For English clubs the league is the decisive competition anyway, and that is where the flow of money is broadest. The competition is stiff. Of the 11 clubs in the world with the largest turnover, more than half come from England. The best six to eight teams each have at least three or four players of exceptional quality. This concentration is unique. In the past decade five clubs have won the league. Only Guardiola’s City have managed to defend it, once, in 2019. He has also won five out of 10 domestic cups.
To win the Champions League, however, you need luck in the draw and in the knockout games. From the last 16, the 10 big clubs in Europe are usually there. If not all top players are fit in April and May, it can be difficult. Highly talented players are also very important. At Barcelona, Guardiola had four or five who would make a world XI. At Manchester City he doesn’t have that, despite big investments. As Guardiola once stated, wunderkinds such as Kylian Mbappé and Neymar still prefer metropolises such as London and Paris or clubs with a glorious history. Measured as a squad, City would not be the favourites. Especially since Sergio Agüero, his player with the special talent, is not at full strength any more because of injuries.
If you bear in mind Guardiola’s high point in Spain, you will see he is adapting. Barça were a well-composed team, where almost anyone could play any instrument. When they won titles in 2009 and 2011, they suffocated the opponents. This style was possible because the entire club follow Johan Cruyff’s idea of total football. Guardiola sees himself in this tradition. He would like to pick 11 Andrés Iniestas. Elsewhere he made compromises with his idealism. In Munich he let the specialists Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben play on the wing. Instead the two full-backs moved into the centre when the team had the ball.
In the evenly balanced Premier League Guardiola wouldn’t be able to achieve the same level of dominance he had with Barcelona and Bayern Munich. City now play a more defensive style, relying on athletic defenders with a presence in the air. The team sometimes give the ball, withdraw, defend in the penalty area, breathe, wait for the counterattack.
He has also learned to appreciate simple goals from corners or from long-range shots – also that they are attractive. He isn’t just adept at the ultra-attacking tiki taka. Rather, Guardiola develops his players’ abilities on both sides of the ball – he thinks offensively and defensively for each of his players. I was an attacking defender so maybe that’s why we get along so well. Under his direction, City’s defenders organise the defensive more precisely. Even Jérôme Boateng has said Guardiola taught him pivotal lessons. We players at Bayern benefited from Guardiola individually, but also as a collective.
Under Guardiola, everyone has to contribute in the interests of the whole. He even invents a position for absolutely exceptional players. So he let Lionel Messi, who grew into a kind of wonder of the world under him, reinterpret the centre-forward position. He just knows that big matches are decided by big players. Creativity is more important than a scheme. His football is a celebration of individuality. Guardiola pays tribute to his players and elevates neither himself nor some system like 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 above his players. He is a friend to them; he is their servant.