Martí Perarnau knows Pep Guardiola better than any other Journalist. Having become good friends with the Catalonian during his reign at FC Barceolan, Perarnau is well placed to reveal the founding principles of Guardiola’s success. Accompanying the Bayern-Munich coach for a year, he has studied his methods (book tip: “Pep Confidential”). For The Red Bulletin he analyses, what we can learn from the best football manager in the world: how to be athletic, kind, and fashionable.
1 KNOW GOOD IDEAS WHEN YOU SEE THEM. THEN STEAL THEM.
First and foremost, let’s demystify Pep. Everyone says that he has reinvented football. He hasn’t. His greatest talent might actually be something else: observing and listening closely. He can soak up his colleagues’ working methods like a sponge. He knows a good idea when he sees one, and he’ll steal it and make it part of a new whole.
I’ve often spoken about this with Pep and his friend, Ferran Adria, who is considered the best chef in the world and was the brains behind Spanish restaurant, elBulli. Adria makes a precise distinction: ‘Pep isn’t a creator, he’s an innovator.’
In the early days of his managerial career, Pep chiefly devoted himself to
two things: travelling and reading. He proceeded to what he called ‘initiation trips.’ On those trips, he would become engrossed in the work of other, very different managers. He would listen to them attentively for hours on end and distil what he needed to learn from each of them. He still remembers the lessons he learnt, all these years later. Time and again, his comments refer to the things he garnered from men such as Johan Cruyff, Cesar Luis Menotti, Juan Manuel Lillo, Marcelo Bielsa and Arrigo Sacchi.
He read a lot, and still does. He’s an expert on the history and development
of football. This expertise is what makes him able to seize on other coaches’ ideas and implement them at the right moment. Let me give you an example: they already had the false nine in Argentina and Hungary back in the ’50s. In 2009, Guardiola pulled the formation out of his hat on the eve of that season’s decisive Primera Division match between Real Madrid and his own FC Barcelona. Lionel Messi did the honours, and his team beat their great rivals in their own stadium by six goals to two.
2 HAVE A CHILDLIKE CURIOSITY
Pep reads everything he thinks might be of interest. It doesn’t matter if it’s about football, or other sports, or about how a piece of music came about. When he lived in Italy, Pep travelled hundreds of kilometres so that he could meet Argentinian volleyball coach Julio Velasco personally, simply because he had seen him in a TV interview and wanted to learn from him.
If he’s eating with important people, he’ll ask a lot more questions than he answers, regardless of whether he’s meeting a chess grandmaster, a Nobel Prize winner for economics, or the manager of a women’s football team. Unconcerned as to the position his interlocutor occupies, Guardiola asks questions again and again with the curiosity of a child. He doesn’t ask out of a sense of politeness, but out of personal interest. He is a filter for other people’s thoughts and ideas, and a genius at transferring them to his own discipline.
Here’s an example: through talking to Pep, I established that the way he analyses his opponents is very similar to chess world champion, Magnus Carlsen. He found the idea fascinating. Ever since then, he’s read anything about chess he can get his hands on, to make use of other parallels between it and football.
But Pep isn’t only a listener; he talks, too. When he’s with people he’s close to, he talks non-stop, chiefly proposing new ideas as a topic of conversation. His favourite sentence on that sort of occasion is, ‘And what would we do if…?’
3 HAVE CONVICTION IN WHAT YOU’RE DOING
I must confess I had my doubts when Pep became manager of Bayern Munich. For months – and I watched his coaching sessions very closely – it was clear how hard even he found it to get a new team to adapt to his style of play. And that it was spectacularly difficult for players who were used to a completely different style of football to learn Pep’s ‘new language’, as he put it.
But he had no doubts. ‘We’ll get there,’ he said every time I aired my own concerns. ‘Things have to get worse before they can get better.’ Because any rude incursion into the style of play of a successful team – and Bayern were the best team in the world when Peptook over – means initially taking a step backwards. There’s nothing illogical about that: you lose trust, you lose security, you lose dynamics. You need time and persistence to restore all that, bigger and better. Losses are the price
you pay for progress.
But beware: conviction doesn’t mean self-righteousness. You have to be obsessed with your own ideas, but at the same time you have to remain aware and self-critical. ‘You can criticise me as much as you like. You’ll never be as critical of me as I am of myself,’ Pep once said to me when we talked about a bad game his team had played. ‘The way I play is the way I play. But there are plenty of other ways that can also bring success. It’s irrelevant whether my way is the best way. But it is mine.’ That’s the way Pep Guardiola thinks.”
4 BE PASSIONATE IN THE WAY YOU COMMUNICATE
The core aim with any team is to turn the individual into the communal. And to that end, communication is the most important tool. It’s a hard tool to master, because if it’s misused, it can bring bad results from even the best of ideas.
It gets all the more difficult if you have to convey your ideas and convictions in a language that isn’t your mother tongue. There are six languages being spoken at Bayern training sessions: the stock language is German, which Pep has learnt, then there’s English; he also talks to players in either Catalan, Spanish, French or Italian. The conversations are visibly full of passion, and when oral communication isn’t enough, Pep resorts to gestures. He hugs his players, pats them on the back, kisses them, urges them on.
And they respond in a similar fashion. You only need to see how Franck Ribery or Jerome Boateng celebrate scoring goals with Pep to understand that good communication takes passion.
Guardiola suffers during a game. He goes through hell. He visibly ages. He swears at referees. And all that energy comes across to his players. They know that he is ready to fight with them and for them, to support them and to bring out performances in them that they didn’t know they were capable of.
Guardiola’s management technique is like oil being poured onto a flame, the result being an ever-greater fire.