Late summer 2008. Barcelona lose 1–0 in Soria against little Numancia on the opening day of the league season. A tough baptism for the debutant coach, Pep Guardiola, made all the harder when the result isn’t much better in their second game against Racing Santander, a 1–1 draw at the Camp Nou. Two weeks into Guardiola’s career in charge of Barcelona’s first team and they still haven’t won.
Pressure builds, the criticism is intense. But Guardiola remains steadfast. Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodríguez, then two virtually unknown players from Tercera División, Spain’s fourth tier, are in the team. There are doubts, of course. Concerns.
In the media, it seems that only one voice defends the manager, but at least it is the voice: Johan Cruyff. That softens the blow, his authority alone enough to challenge the doomsayers, but still they prophesise doom. “This Barcelona looks very, very good,” Cruyff writes in his weekly column for El Periódico de Catalunya. “I don’t know what game the rest of you watched; the one I watched was unlike any I have seen at the Camp Nou in a long time.”
Cruyff, the great ideologue of the Catalan club, its philosopher king, had seen Guardiola coach the B team and was impressed; now he stands against the tide, alone in defending him. “The worst start to a season in many years. Just one goal scored, and that was a penalty. That’s an inescapable truth, numerically speaking,” he admits. “But in footballing terms, this must be read a different way. And Guardiola is the first to read it differently. He’s no novice, lacking expertise, and he is not suicidal. He watches, he sees, he analyses and he takes decisions.”
Guardiola himself agonized over those decisions too. He was holed up in his Camp Nou office, down in the basement where there was no natural light, going over the situation again and again, rewinding and replaying the videos, re-reading his notes, wondering what to change but convinced of one thing: his idea, Cruyff’s idea, had to be maintained. He would persevere, however hard it became. And support was about to come from an unexpected source.
He was still going over it, endlessly, when he heard a knock at the door. “Come in.”
A small figure poked his head around the door, and spoke calmly. “Don’t worry, míster. We’ll win it all. We’re on the right path. Carry on like this, OK? We’re playing brilliantly, we’re enjoying training. Please, don’t change anything,” said Andrés Iniesta.
Guardiola couldn’t believe it.
The request was short, but heartfelt, deep. It caught Guardiola off guard, barely able even to respond. If it was a surprise that anyone should seek him out to say that, it was even more of a surprise that it was Iniesta, usually the silent man. And then he closed the door and left.
That’s Andrés. He doesn’t say much, only what he really has to. It’s like scoring goals: he doesn’t score often, either. But when it’s needed, there he is.
Guardiola will never forget Cruyff defending him in print. And he will never forget Andrés appearing at his door. He’ll never forget that they were right, too. At the end of the 2008–09 season, Barcelona had won six titles. All six.
“People usually think that it is the coach who has to raise the spirits of his players; that it is the coach who has to convince his footballers; that it is his job to take the lead all the time,” says Guardiola. “But that’s not always the case. It wasn’t the case at the Camp Nou for me, and in my first year at Bayern Munich something similar happened as well. It’s not often things like that happen and when they do, they rarely come to light. People always think the coach is the strongest person at a club, the boss, but in truth he’s the weakest link. We’re there, vulnerable, undermined by those who don’t play, by the media, by the fans. They all have the same objective: to undermine the manager.
“You start, you lose at Numancia, you draw with Racing, you just can’t get going, you feel watched and you feel alone and then suddenly, there’s Andrés telling me not to worry,” Guardiola continues. “It’s hard to imagine, because it’s not the kind of thing that happens and because it’s Iniesta we’re talking about, someone who doesn’t find it easy to express his feelings. And after he’d gone, I asked myself: how can people say that coaches should be cold when they make decisions? Impersonal? That’s ridiculous! How can I be cold, distant, removed with Andrés? Sorry, no way. Eighty-six per cent of people didn’t believe in me [according to an online poll]. Lots of people wanted Mourinho. We hadn’t won, hadn’t got going. And then Andrés comes and says that! How am I supposed to be cold? It’s impossible. This goes deeper. This isn’t cold, calculated, and nor should it be. There’s no doubt: Andrés will play with me, always. Because he’s the best. And because things like that don’t get forgotten. Why did he come to my office? I don’t know.”
Lorenzo Buenaventura is a part of Guardiola’s coaching staff, in charge of physical preparation. He has followed Pep from Barcelona to Bayern and from there to Manchester City. He shares this memory with Pep now, offers up an answer too.
“Why? I suppose because that’s the way he felt; I suppose because it mattered to him,” he says. “Andrés doesn’t do anything he doesn’t truly believe in; he does it because it feels right to him. He’s genuine, always.” Guardiola concedes: “Maybe he spoke out because he could see that there was a method we were following, that everyone was training well, that we explained to them why we did things the way we did, and above all because that was the kind of football that he had been brought up on, ever since he was little.”
“There were other players who sent us little messages,” Buenaventura insists. “That’s true,” Guardiola admits. “But Andrés’ message was powerful. How could I forget that? I can still see him standing there at the door, looking at me. Telling me we play very well. And then he left. I thought: ‘Well, if Andrés says so …’”
Andrés and Cruyff were proven right; Guardiola’s decision to maintain that philosophy was vindicated. In week three Barcelona scored six against Sporting Gijón and never looked back; everything fell into place, it all worked so smoothly. Within a few months, they had become a model to aspire to. Not just because of the results – no one had won a treble in Spain before, still less six trophies from six – but because of the way they played, the way they treated the ball, fans, even opponents. Theirs was a different approach, a way of seeing and expressing football that was embodied by players like Iniesta.
“We never seem to treat Andrés the way we should; we don’t seem to recognize him. He’s the absolute business as a player,” Guardiola says. “He never talks about himself, never demands anything, but people who think he’s satisfied just to play are wrong. If he thought he could win the Balon d’Or one year, he’d want to win it. Why? Because he’d say to himself: ‘I’m the best.’
“I think Paco defined him perfectly,” Guardiola says. Paco Seirulo was Barcelona’s former physical coach, the man from whom Lorenzo Buenaventura learnt; now Guardiola makes Seirulo’s description his own. “Andrés is one of the greats. Why? Because of his mastery of the relationship between space and time. He knows where he is at every moment. Even in a midfield where he’s surrounded by countless players, he chooses the right path every time. He knows where and when, always. And then he has this very unique ability to pull away. He pulls out, then brakes, then pulls out again, then brakes again. There are very few players like him.
“There are footballers who are very good playing on the outside but don’t know what to do inside. Then there are players who are very good inside but don’t have the physique, the legs, to go outside. Andrés has the ability to do both. When you’re out on the touchline, like a winger, it is easier to play. You see everything: the mess, the crowd, the activity is all inside. When you play inside, you don’t see anything in there because so much is happening in such a small space and all around you. You don’t know where the opposition is going to come at you from, or how many of them. Great footballers are those who know how to play in both of those environments. Andrés doesn’t only have the ability to see everything, to know what to do, but also the talent to execute it; he’s able to break through those lines. He sees it and does it.
“I’ve been a coach for a few years now and I have come to the conclusion that a truly good player is always a good player,” Guardiola says. “It’s very hard to teach a bad player to be a good one. You can’t really teach someone to dribble. The timing needed to go past someone, that instant in which you catch out your opponent, when you go past him and a new scenario opens up before you … Dribbling is, at heart, a trick, a con. It’s not speed. It’s not physique. It’s an art.”
Lorenzo Buenaventura says: “What happens is that Andrés brakes. That’s the key, the most important thing. People say: ‘Look how quick he is!’ No, no, that’s not the point. It’s not about speed, about how fast he goes; what it’s really about is how he stops and when, then, how he gets moving again.”
Guardiola adds: “Tito Vilanova defined him very well. Tito used to say: ‘Andrés doesn’t run, he glides. He’s like an ice hockey player, only without skates on. Sssswishhh, sssswishhh, sssswishhhh …’ That description is evocative, very graphic, and I think it’s an accurate one. He goes towards one side as if he was skating, watching everything that’s going on around him. Then, suddenly, he turns the other way with that smoothness he has. Yes, that’s it, Andrés doesn’t run, he glides.”
Guardiola adds: “Sometimes in life, it’s first impressions that count and the first impression I have of Andrés was the day my brother Pere, who was working for Nike at the time, told me about Iniesta. I was still playing for Barcelona myself and he said: ‘Pep, you’ve got to come and see this kid.’ It was before the final of the Nike Cup. I remember getting changed quickly after training and rushing there, dashing to the stadium. And yes, I saw how good he was. I told myself: ‘This kid will play for Barcelona, for sure … he’s going to make it.’ I told myself that, and I told Pere that too.
“On my way out of the ground after that final when Andrés was the best player on the pitch, I came across Santiago Segurola, the football writer. I said to him: ‘I’ve just seen something incredible.’ I had this feeling that what I’d just witnessed was unique. That was my first impression of Andrés.
“But later,” Guardiola admits, “I came to really value something else Andrés does, something that he had made me see with time: the importance of attacking the center-backs. No one does it. But watch and you see it. If the central defender has to step out, everything opens up; the whole defense becomes disorganized and spaces appear that weren’t there before. It’s all about breaking through lines to find space behind them. Open, then find.
“For example, we set up our attack so that Leo Messi could attack the central defenders,” Guardiola explains. “We had to attack in such a way as to get the ball to Andrés and Leo so that they could attack the central defenders and that opened them up. When we managed that, we knew that we would win the game because Leo scored goals and Andrés generated everything else: dribbling, numerical superiority, the ability to unbalance the game, the final pass, both to the outside and filtered through the middle. He sees it all and he has that gift for dribbling that’s so unique to him. That dribbling ability is everything today. And it was Andrés who opened my eyes to the importance of an inside forward or midfielder being able to dribble too. If he dribbles, if he carries the ball and goes at people, everything flows. With time, I saw that.”
The Guardian Sport