Pep Guardiola: “Puyol is undoubtedly one of the best players in Barça’s history. I was lucky to work with him, first as player, then as coach”
Blessed with a long deadline and in an overflow press seat at The Emirates, it was fascinating to watch Guardiola without the distraction of having to actually do any work. The man is positively restless. He changes the shape of his team constantly, from large adjustments to formation to small individual tweaks.
For every action in a game, he has a reaction. When Nacho Monreal replaced the injured Kieran Gibbs, Arjen Robben trotted over from the left wing to the right, briefly teaming up with Phillipp Lahm and Mario Goetze in an attempt to triple-man the Spaniard as he tried to adjust to the pace of the game.
Five minutes later, a cross from that flank led to the defining incident of the game — Wojceich Szczesny’s dismissal. Mission accomplished, Robben duly trotted back over to the left.
In the second half, as it became apparent that Mesut Ozil was for all intents and purposes asleep, Guardiola was on the touchline, ordering his players to direct everything down the right side.
In a matter of minutes, Ozil was overwhelmed, his enormous eyes two saucers of swirling anxiety, his teammates raging at his futile efforts to track runners.
Bayern have such a vast pool of interchangeable players that Guardiola’s biggest problem is keeping them all happy, but even here, his touch has been perfect.
In January, Mario Mandzukic was so put out about the impending arrival of Robert Lewandowski that his efforts in training slumped. Guardiola summarily dropped him from the squad to face Borussia Monchengladbach and he was left out of the starting lineup against Stuttgart the following week. He returned to the team at the start of February and has scored six goals in five games.
Thomas Mueller admitted that he was disappointed to be left on the bench for last week’s clash with Arsenal, but that he was too “clever” to complain. He was right. Back in the team on Sunday, he scored twice.
Guardiola isn’t perfect. Even against Hannover, there were numerous moments when Bayern’s ambition left them completely exposed at the back, and there is always a nagging suspicion that his endless quest for perfection will undo him. It is something that was evident in his final season at Barcelona, when he seemed determined to invent a formation with no defenders, but it’s hard to dislike a man for always wanting to do it better.
And, of course, it helps that Guardiola is particularly charming. On Wednesday, having already taken questions in German, English and Spanish, a journalist asked if she could deliver her question in Catalan.
Bayern’s media officer objected, saying that there was no translator available to aid the other journalists. “It’s OK,” he said. “I’ll do it.” And he did. Four languages in the space of 10 minutes. Harry Redknapp sometimes struggled to speak one.
There was a feeling in the summer that Guardiola’s arrival in Bavaria was a little like a young artist arriving at the Sistine Chapel and announcing that he was just going to improve the ceiling a bit.
However, the more you look at that ceiling now, the more it becomes apparent he was right. It really does look better now."
And let’s not forget that this season Bayern’s three best players, Ribbery, Robben & Schweinsteiger have been in the starting line-up together for very few games due to injuries. I can’t wait to see how Pep’s team plays when those three are all healthy and in form. Can you say “Bayrische Fussball Dampfwalze!”
There is a glint in Joan Laporta’s eye as he recalls the conversation he had with Pep Guardiola in the spring of 2008. The decision had already been made that Franck Rijkaard would not continue beyond the end of the season and Barcelona’s then president called in the B-team coach to tell him that the board thought that he, a 38-year-old with no first-team experience, was the ideal man to take over. “And do you know what he said to me?” Laporta grins. “He said: ‘You haven’t got the balls’.”
As it turned out, he did have the balls. But the decision wasn’t just about courage, it was also rooted in conviction and calculation. Laporta considered Johan Cruyff but had been persuaded otherwise and a thorough search began. The sporting director had played with Guardiola in Cruyff’s “Dream Team”, closely monitored Barcelona B and came increasingly to see Guardiola as the best candidate. Not just for who he was but also for what he represented: former ballboy and captain, defender of a particular style and promoter of youth. “We chose a philosophy,” Laporta is fond of saying.
Who will win the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League?
THE MAN WHO became one of Europe’s best midfielders in his spare time
You are Pep Guardiola. You are manager of the treble winners. You have Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez, Toni Kroos, Mario Gotze and Thiago Alcantara all to choose from in your midfield, among others. What do you do?
The answer, apparently, is you take your right-back and stick him in there too. Why not?
So far it has worked out very well. Operating in a deep-lying midfield role, Lahm has casually gone about becoming one of Europe’s best midfielders this season, using his exemplary technique, positioning, awareness and all-round football savvy to brilliant effect.
His passing is crisp and his reading of the game is almost unparalleled, leading Guardiola to call Lahm the most intelligent player he’s worked with to date. Superb against Manchester City at the Etihad, Bayern’s captain is another player Arsenal must quell if they’re to dethrone Europe’s best side.