New Delhi: Pep Guardiola’s four years at Barcelona yielded 14 trophies, including two Champions Leagues and three league titles between 2008 and 2012, making it the most successful era in the club’s history.
The Catalan’s tenure at Camp Nou also coincided with the Spanish national team’s dominance in international football, with La Furia Roja winning two European Cups, and the 2010 World Cup.
And, the winning streak for the two great sides is not a mere coincidence.
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Guardiola was the tactical maven who took Barcelona to great heights, and it was his strategy at the club level that Vicente del Bosque successfully adapted for the national team to guide them to glory in South Africa and, later, in Ukraine.
Guardiola enforced the club’s traditional 4-3-3 system and instilled a relentless passing regimen. If they lost possession of the ball, his team were drilled to get the ball back within six seconds and start their passing carousel all over again. Del Bosque took over Luis Aragones’ 2008 European championship-winning side and infused it in Barcelona regulars.
Six Barcelona players started the 2010 World Cup final against the Netherlands, including Andres Iniesta, who scored the only goal of the match.
The Spanish team’s tiki-taka was a direct import of Guradiola’s ideals. The fact that so many of Del Bosque’s starting XI came from the same team also helped him save time in creating systems or building an understanding. Managers of national teams often get very less time for this.
After a one-year break following the 2012-13 season, Guardiola moved to Germany and signed up for the Bayern Munich job in the summer of 2013. During his three years at the Allianz Arena, he helped the team to win three league titles and two German Cups. Even though he could not win the Champions League, he guided the team to the last four in all the three seasons.
And, as was the case with Spain, the bulk of Guardiola’s men at Bayern provided the core of Joachim Low’s German side that won the 2014 World Cup.
Guardiola’s emphasis on possession has been a constant since his playing days at Barcelona under the Dutch master Johan Cruyff. It continued at the Allianz Arena. The other key feature in his armoury, the less talked about, is his ability to spot ideal positions for his players.
It was Guardiola who transformed a defensive midfielder in Javier Mascherano into an effective centre-back, besides pushing Javi Martinez from the defensive midfield to central defence. But perhaps his most-telling move was to use Philipp Lahm, who had played his entire senior career as a full-back, as a central midfielder. Lahm was described by his manager as “the most intelligent player", he had ever seen. And he had seen plenty of talented footballers, including the likes of Lionel Messi, Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez.
Low took inspiration. His German team in the 2014 final against Argentina also had six players from Bayern. That was not all. Lahm started as a central midfielder in Brazil—a clear nod to Guardiola’s methods. It was only an injury to Shkodran Mustafi, which forced the German manager to install his captain as a right-back.
Guardiola’s insistence on possession has seen him being labelled as dogmatic. But the former defensive midfielder was quick to adapt to the direct footballing style of Germany, his 4-3-3 of Barcelona made way for 4-1-4-1 at Bayern, and there was less aversion for a long ball from defence.
That’s not all. He has continued to innovate during his two years at Manchester City, playing different systems, depending on the opposition and the availability of his personnel. There have been a variety of formations on display, including 3-5-2, which is exactly the system England manager Gareth Southgate appears to favour for the campaign in Russia.
Unlike in Spain and Germany, there is an even distribution of top English talent across the big Premier League sides, which would not allow Southgate to play a significant number of players from any one team. But his team will draw heavily from Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool.
Apart from the much-improved Raheem Sterling in attack, two of Guardiola’s defenders, John Stones and Kyle Walker, are likely to be part of the three-man English defence, and both have been very charitable about Guardiola’s impact on their playing styles.
“He has changed and simplified everything. It’s how he explains things to you which makes it very easy for you," Stones said about Guardiola in a recent interview to the Guardian. “You can sometimes get overcrowded with information and think too much. The simplicity of it is a great thing that he possesses."
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Walker, too, attributes his enhanced positional awareness to Guardiola’s methods. “Could I have played in this position a couple of years ago? Probably not. I have to take my hat off to Pep Guardiola for what he has taught me over the last year. It has been an education."
Despite not being at the last two World Cups, Guardiola’s methods have been instrumental in helping both Spain and Germany become world champions. England may not be as strong as those two champion sides, but they will surely try their own adaptation of the Catalan’s methods.
Southgate might not provide England’s deliverance, but his adoption of Guardiola’s system is a story of its own. This is a third straight World Cup with a team built on Guardiola’s principles. As they say, once is chance, twice is coincidence, but third time is a pattern.