Pep Guardiola- The Evolution of the Masterclass Tactician

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Pep Guardiola
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 29: Pep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City reacts during the Carabao Cup Semi Final match between Manchester City and Manchester United at Etihad Stadium on January 29, 2020 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Pep Guardiola is currently on course to win another incredible treble. When we speak of the greatest managers of all time, it’s hard to argue about anyone else but Sir Alex Ferguson. Often lauded as the greatest to ever do it, Sir Alex Ferguson’s position in soccer history has always been cemented. However, two close names enter the fray as the most certifiable challenge to that throne, particularly of course- Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola.

Jose Mourinho has won multiple leagues in different countries, he’s won the Champions League, Europa League, and the Club World Cup, it’s hard to not consider him one of the greatest 3 managers of all time. The man in focus today, however, is the Spaniard Yoda, Josep “Pep” Guardiola Sala. Guardiola is in many eyes the greatest tactician in modern-day football.

The man who revolutionized football from the great minds of Johan Cruyff and Frank Rijkaard, and continues to tweak and update his tactics to maintain global football dominance. For all of Sir Alex’s accomplishments, this is purely down to total football tactics. How has Pep Guardiola changed his tactics from the great Barcelona side that won an amazing 6 trophies in a single season? How has Man City played differently from his all-conquering Bavarian team?

Below, we break down his three clubs, and the tactics he employed to win regularly at the highest level. It’s important to notice that each year Guardiola changed his tactics, but for the three clubs, the overall philosophy has been the same.

Barcelona

At Barcelona, Pep Guardiola employed a 4-3-3 system following the departure of Frank Rijkaard. Guardiola was a new manager that  had just impressed with the Barcelona B side but was given the reigns in a move that would change football forever. Following the succesfull treble season, Barcelona had won everything. They boasted the best Spanish players in the world and Spain had just won the World Cup, Pep was now under pressure. How was he to maintain that winning mentality?

“I will never forgive myself, I have failed,” mentions Guardiola to Manel Estiarte, his assistant, after Barcelona’s triumph over Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League final. Pep focused on bringing in some fresh blood to the team: Mascherano from Liverpool, David Villa from Valencia, Adriano from Sevilla, and Ibrahim Afellay from PSV.

Barcelona started in a bad way, losing to Hercules at the Camp Nou and trailing behind Mourinho’s Real Madrid, who seemed to be on verge of breaking Barcelona’s dominance in Spain. This would be a season where they produced one of the most exquisite styles of play the football world ever witnessed in recent time.

Juego de Posición – Positional Play

Positional play is the canvas on which the master Pep Guardiola displays his art. The way he trained his team to utilize positional play was extraordinary and never before seen from any team. Pep had conditioned his players to be smart with every move on the ball, thinking ahead about every pass, every single movement that they made had to be considered. 

He changed the way the players think and operate on the pitch, the pivot became a center-back, the full-back became a winger,  the winger became a striker, and the striker became an attacking midfielder. All this chaos was created to allow them numerical superiority around the ball.

Numerical superiority allowed them to move the ball around and create chances whilst at the same time, disrupting the defensive stability and shape of the opposition. “Tiki-Taka” is what it would be known as,, but instead of just passing the ball around (which is what happened to Barcelona eventually), there was a purpose to it, it was a means to an end.

Messi was used as a false nine, the wingers pushed higher upfront, the full-backs became wingers- each move and position was tailored to allow them to gain dominance in the midfield, in different zones that Pep Guardiola felt are important to dominate and create a free-flowing play.

They employed a sweeper keeper in Victor Valdez which allowed the midfield three to receive the ball at will, the engine of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets were indestructible and the ball was their tool. The team played in triangles and kept the long balls to a minimum, quick short passing that was purposeful, artistic and devastating.

Pep Guardiola not only revolutionized how they attacked, but also how they defended. They employed a high pressing counter attack when they lost the ball, which is what many of the successful teams currently do, but they also defended by keeping the ball.

A strange way to defend, but with a team that was so tactically sound, and brilliantly comfortable on the ball, Barcelona rotated the ball throughout their 11 players on the field, especially when they were 1-0 up. This both frustrated and tired out the opposition whilst utilizing less energy running and trying to force chances.

Bayern Munich

At Bayern Munich Pep Guardiola once again broke records and transformed the way German football was played. He arrived at a team that had just won the treble and the main question was how to improve an already phenomenal team. Unable to achieve and replicate the success of the treble-winning side was the biggest regret of Pep, ultimately losing in the semifinals three times to Spanish opponents. However, the football he enveloped at Bayern, due to his extreme obsessiveness,  and attention to detail coupled with precise tactical knowledge, was never-before-experienced in Germany.

Bayern choked the life out of opponents with their coach’s ultra-possessive style, yet entertained fans with extraordinary  great team goals. Pep Guardiola took the best of Heynckes’ ideas, successfully Incorporated his philosophy, and turned Bayern into the most dominant force in German football history, taking them to the ultimate level.

Pep Guardiola employed a 4-1-4-1 system and changed roles within the team. Notably, Philip Lahm, who was moved from full-back to holding midfielder. One of the hallmarks of Peps Bayern teams was the use of a single pivot. However, Pep Guardiola would use inverted wingbacks to help defend against fast counter-attacks used in the Bundesliga. Bayern would play more possession-based football and utilize the pace of Arjen Robben and the finesse of Frank Ribery to break down defenses.

Ultimately, Bayern Munich broke records and dominated domestically, but failed miserably in the Champions League on multiple occasions. Pep Guardiola could not replicate his previous successor, nor his own at Barcelona. It was time for a change, and Pep decided to leave the Bavarian giants for a new challenge, the English Premier League.

Manchester City

Pep Guardiola had a good start at Man City before being humbled by the pace, and intensity of the world’s greatest league. Admittingly, Pep Guardiola said that he had underestimated the league and had a lot to learn within his first 12 months. Learn fast he did, Pep then went on to completely dominate the league and transform Manchester City into one of the world’s best teams, with the most stylistically beautiful playing football, and outscoring oppositions like Childs-play.

We will analyze the current season (2020-2021) as this is probably Pep’s best season in England, and is on course to win the treble with the blue team from Manchester. The arrival of Ruben Dias is said to have covered for the void left by former long-serving captain Vincent Kompany, coupled with the resurgence in form by John Stones, Manchester City have been sound in defense all season.

Utilizing a 4-3-3, and at times a 4-1-4-1 to counter for the lack of center forwards due to injury, Man City did not drop off pace throughout the entire season. Ahead of the back-four, Rodrigo’s finally fulfilling the incredibly hard-working shoes of Fernandinho, but has been massively helped by his partnership in midfield with Ilkay Gundogan. An excellent ball-playing midfield maestro, with a natural ‘6’, ‘8’ and ’10’ in their lineup, City were allowed to chop and change their 4-3-3 to seamlessly transition into a 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, or a 2-3-5 with inverted fullbacks as part of the ‘3’.

That natural number ’10’ in their line-up also happens to be City’s best player, Kevin de Bruyne, who himself could play anywhere on the pitch to aid in their title quest. The Belgian international has scored 3 goals with 10 assists so far, creating 3.2 chances per game. Only Villa’s Jack Grealish has created more, although City has been better finishing off De Bruyne’s chance creations than Villa from their captain.

Pep Guardiola has instilled in his City players the art of interpreting space. Much of that space interpreting comes in central areas, especially when they are trying to play through their opposition and find a route to goal. With the eight outfielders plus Ederson that operate in these areas during City’s build-up, no other team in the league has adopted a more vertical approach to their attack this season.  City therefore have a practically fool-proof plan to engage their most talented ball-players regardless of how well the opposition covers the space. 

Although all three defenders are exceptional passers and progressors of the ball, they are also excellent defenders, capable of winning duels aerially and putting a foot in to win possession back for the Sky Blues. Aymeric Laporte is perhaps the most exceptional of all City’s players in the air, but this hasn’t been dearly missed this season as a result of the presence of the other three.

The position that Rodrigo fulfills and Fernandinho held before him, is therefore a very difficult one to fill. It needs to be a player with a myriad of talents, including on-the-ball intelligence, astute awareness of how to cover space in transition, and an aerial presence. Rodri is one of very few players in the world who possesses all three of those attributes, and so it’s no mystery why City made the decision to sign him from Atletico Madrid back in 2019.

Expanding on the Spaniard, the main reason why his possession percentage is lower than that of Dias and Stones is that he is more likely to try out a dangerous, longer pass. No City player has completed more per game, despite seven others attempting more per game

Pep Guardiola has usually been hounded as a “Transfer market merchant” and his successes have been built on the funding of expensive players, but if this season has shown anything, it’s not how much you spend, but who you spend it on. The arrivals of Ruben Dias and Rodrigo have possibly altered their entire season and allowed him to make tactical changes to not only play intense, smooth football following the Covid-19 break but also to keep challenging on all fronts despite key injuries- the same problem that halted the likes of Liverpool, Spurs, and Everton.

Ultimately, Pep Guardiola has proven to be one of the greatest tacticians the game has ever seen, and he continues to revolutionize football, should he win the treble with Manchester City this year, no manager would have won the treble more times than Pep Guardiola. One question to ask, is what is next for Pep Guardiola? Perhaps it would be to singlehandedly revolutionize and help with the resurgence of Italian football? who knows.

Pep Guardiola certainly cemented his name as one of football’s greatest, and people will talk of the great Spaniard that revolutionized football in the 20th century and created teams that were almost unplayable, who perhaps went on to the national team and ruled the footballing world from his throne of genius mastery. Although a proud Liverpool supporter, one can simply not deny Guardiola all the plaudits that he deserves this season, and cement his name, as football’s greatest manager.


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main image credit Embed from Getty Images

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