Pep Guardiola an Influencer
Pep Guardiola man. city boss is in a Premier League title race against his former assistant, while his old captains are on course for league glory elsewhere. In conversation with, the Manchester City boss discusses his influence and how the game has changed.
Towards the end of Pep Guardiola’s playing career, his time in Europe already at an end, he lamented the changes in the game that had left him, both tactically and literally, redundant. “Players like me have become extinct,” he declared.
In 2004, the role of the deep-lying playmaker was no more. Guardiola recognised a little of himself in Andrea Pirlo but saw the Milan maestro as the exception who proved the rule. The game had moved on and it craved other qualities from its midfielders.
“My skills have not declined,” Guardiola explained. “It is just that football now is different. To play just in front of the back four now, you have to be a ball-winner, a tackler, like Patrick Vieira or Edgar Davids. If you can pass too, well, that is a bonus.”
He was prophetic, in a sense. Claude Makelele would help Chelsea to back-to-back Premier League titles, even having the role named after him. Guardiola, only two years older than Makelele, would have an unsuccessful trial for Stuart Pearce’s Manchester City.
In 2022, as he prepares to take his own City side to face a Crystal Palace team coached by Vieira, everything has flipped. It is the football being described by Guardiola back then that would appear unrecognisable to younger readers.
At Selhurst Park on Saturday evening, Rodri is likely to be the deepest midfielder on view. He is more physical than Guardiola ever was. But he will be in his position primarily because of that same ability to pass the football. There have been 2046 of those passes completed by Rodri in the Premier League so far this season – 314 more than any other player.
When Guardiola opted to give Sergio Busquets his Barcelona debut at the base of his midfield, conducting the play alongside Xavi in what was the coach’s first home league game in charge, unbeknownst to all, he was setting football on a different path.
Reciting Guardiola’s own quotes back to him now, two decades and 10 major league titles later, he is not as strident in his views. Understandably so. The argument has been won. Football bent to his will. But the sentiments remain broadly the same.
“Maybe they would give me more vitamins, I would eat better or sleep better. I could be stronger, I do not know. But I had this feeling that the players in that period, they were quicker in the legs.”
Guardiola about the players
“I think the players take care much better than before. The nutrition is incredible, much better. The training on the pitch, off the pitch, the gym. It is monitored perfectly, 24 hours. In those days, you play a game and go home. We did not have more than two physios, one doctor, less games. Now, you know that every football player is like a machine. That is why it is a little bit different.”
And yet, for all the physical prowess of the modern player, the statistics show that there are fewer tackles in the Premier League than there were even a decade ago. The man who arrived in England and soon declared that he was ‘not the coach for the tackles’ has found the game in agreement.
Passes, meanwhile, have risen and risen. Up by almost 50,000 in total in the Premier League in the 10 years from 2011, the year of Guardiola’s apotheosis at Barcelona with their second Champions League triumph over Manchester United.
His success in showing that there was another way has been so total that it is easy to forget how sweeping the change has been. And now, he risks becoming a victim of that success as those inspired by his ideas have emerged with new energy of their own.
It is Mikel Arteta, his one-time assistant at City, whose Arsenal side top the Premier League table. Arteta is doing so, in part, thanks to the deployment of a former City player, Oleksandr Zinchenko, as an inverted full-back.
It is a tactical concept that it is difficult to believe would have been possible – for either player or coach – were it not for Guardiola.
“I do not know,” says Guardiola himself, smiling while clearly unwilling to take any credit. But the answer, surely, is obvious. Arteta was described recently by the former City captain Vincent Kompany as “definitely an extension of Pep” – the two men so in tune about how the game needed to be played.