By Paul Morrissey, in Madrid – Follow on Twitter here
For some he’s a demi-deity-philosopher; for others, an opportunist charlatan who was in the right place at the right time. That’s the rub of Pep Guardiola’s trophy-laden reign as tecnico of FC Barcelona : just how much credit does he deserve for the team’s historic success?
To use the Messi adage which is now embedded in the football lexicon – could Pep do it on the touchline at Stoke on a wet and windy Tuesday night?
After reading Guillem Balague’s biography of Pep Guardiola, Another Way of Winning, the short answers are : ‘Yes’ to the latter; ‘a lot’ to the former. The above reductive perception of Pep is one I never subscribed to anyway, much less after reading Balague’s book.
Balague takes us back to where it all started for Josep Guardiola i Sala, in the municipality of Santpedor, the close-knit Catalan community where everybody knows your name. How the call came and how he was chosen for the Barça cantera. The angelically good boy that he was, this is a little uneventful, and so thankfully sped through by Balague, and fast-forwarded to his professional playing career.
This too is a bit of a preamble before finally reaching the book’s raison d’être : his movement into management and precocious promotion to the throne of FC Barcelona.
Balague puts Pep’s formative success with Barça B into clear perspective – again, the notion persists that winning with either half of El Clasico’s reserve sides is a foregone conclusion, when really it’s anything but. Both Barça B and Real Madrid Castilla are hindered by the Catch 22 of trying to win while also pandering to the needs and whims of the first team (as seen recently with Mourinho’s public slating of Toril). Guardiola took a hangdog, sorry bunch of losers from nowhere men to immediate promotion.
His tactical nous was imprinted all over the side, with multiple mid-game formation changes to unexpected diversification of personnel (Sergio Busquets as a false striker).
”This is Barça, gentlemen. You have to give your all.”
Moving onto his swift promotion to the first team (which is more than can be said for Balague’s meandering detailing of will he-won’t he meetings), the club was in greater disarray than I’d imagined.
It was lawless, incestuous even (Ronaldinho seeing Rijkaard’s daughter). It was the Wild West and it needed a new Sheriff to put the house back in order; to sort out some of the ‘son’s of bitches’ (Cruyff’s words not mine).
The guidance provided Messi is well documented, but a lesser-told tale is that of, in my opinion, the most important person in this Barça story : Xavi. The ease with which Humphrey Bogart took to the Pep Revolution means we tend to forget just how much his career arc had stagnated. Yes, he’d just won Euro 2008, but he was still only a very, very good player at that point, one who hadn’t even played in a Champions League final. Pep picked him up, made him believe again and made him a Great.
Balague deftly narrates this, piecing together bits of dialogue from the relevant people, interspersing anecdotes with dramatizations, which gives the book a bit of a filmic edge.
It’s no hagiography, however : Balague remains as objective as possible throughout, and is clear on the failings of Pep’s final year. Without directly criticising him, he leaves some interesting questions hanging there, most notably the one of Messidependencia.
The epilogue is a bit drawn out, and a bit too faithful to the tabloidy editorial line at Balague’s Spanish daily AS.
The skinnys about Abramovich wanting Pep after his sabbatical, the regurgitation of the managerial merry go-round; it all lowers the tone of the excellent earlier analysis: a) We already know all this, and b) it doesn’t really have its place in a biography.
The ‘shoulda woulda coulda’ that both opens and closes the book rings almost as hollow as it transpires; Balague obviously didn’t anticipate (nor did anyone) Vilanova would take the reins so seamlessly and guide a rejuvenated side to a record breaking semester.
Another Way of Winning is a thoroughly enjoyable read that taps into the psyche of a managerial prodigy. It’s just that read in the current context, Pep’s presence probably isn’t missed as much as the book needed it to be.
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To win a copy of Guillem Balague’s Pep Guardiola biography, just answer this simple question:
Where is Pep Guardiola spending his sabbatical?
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