Pep Guardiola documentary: A study in football idealism

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A new BBC documentary – Pep Guardiola: Chasing Perfection – dives deep into the mind of arguably football’s greatest and most influential coach.

There are few superlatives left to describe 53-year-old Guardiola. In four years at Barcelona he won 14 trophies, including three La Liga, two Champions League and two Copa del Rey titles.

At Manchester City, he has won five Premier League trophies in six years and last season he became only the second manager in the English game to wrap up the Treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.

His brand of possession-based football has influenced the way the game is played all over Europe.

Chasing Perfection is an hour-long study into a footballing idealist. We hear from players he has coached, such as Manuel Neuer, Robert Lewandowski, Rodri and Kyle Walker.

We also get insights from top journalists and prominent figures in his coaching team past and present – such as Manchester City director of football Txiki Begiristain and former assistant manager Domenec Torrent.

Here are just a few takeaways.

Barca gambled on Guardiola over Mourinho

It may seem hard to imagine now, but Barcelona’s decision in 2008 to appoint a relatively untested 37-year-old represented a considerable gamble at the time. At that point, Guardiola only had a year’s experience managing in Spain’s third division with Barcelona B.

The other candidate for the job was Jose Mourinho, who had recently won two Premier League titles for Chelsea, after conquering the Champions League with Porto in 2004.

Barcelona treasurer Xavier Sala-i-Martin says that “unfortunately, Jose Mourinho doesn’t fit what we call Barcelona DNA”.

Guardiola enjoyed a fierce rivalry with Mourinho while the Portuguese manager was at Real Madrid. His record record against Mourinho is 12 wins, six draws and seven losses

Mourinho had Barca history – he was an assistant manager to Louis van Gaal and Sir Bobby Robson at the Nou Camp in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, Guardiola was a graduate of La Masia Academy and, as a player, won the 1992 European Cup with Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team.

Putting Messi in midfield changed history

Under Frank Rijkaard, Lionel Messi had been deployed with some success as a playmaking number 10 and on the right wing.

However, it was Guardiola who arguably unlocked the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner’s potential when he first decided to use him as a false nine in a match against Real Madrid in May 2009.

“Pep was watching Real Madrid games and he realised when the midfielders put pressure on the midfielders of the other team, the defenders stayed behind, therefore opening up a space of about 30 metres,” reveals Sala-i-Martin, explaining that Guardiola then had the idea to play Messi “not in the centre-forward role” but, rather, “in the midfield, with 30 metres to run”.

Under Guardiola, Lionel Messi developed into the player who would win eight Ballons d’Or

Ex-assistant coach Torrent remembers wondering “why on earth” his boss wanted to mess with things in such a crucial game.

On the day, Barcelona recorded a historic 6-2 win over their most fierce rivals, Messi scoring twice. That season, they completed a historic sweep of La Liga, the Champions League and the Copa del Rey.

“That day I think changed the history of football, the history of Barcelona and the history of Messi,” says Sala-i-Martin.

Regretting asking players for advice at Bayern

In April 2014, having taken the head coach job at Bayern Munich, Guardiola faced his old foes Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final. The German champions had won the trophy the previous year under Jupp Heynckes and there was pressure on Guardiola to do the same.

Bayern dominated possession during the first leg at the Bernabeu, but went on to lose 1-0.

Munich captain Neuer reveals that Guardiola had an uncharacteristic wobble and decided to canvas his players’ thoughts on how they should approach the second leg.

Manuel Neuer believes that he and his fellow players should not have convinced Guardiola to stray from his principles

The team fed back that they would like to go all out in attack. They ended up losing 4-0 at home.

“We strayed from the philosophy we’d had all year,” says Neuer. “But then we realised we shouldn’t have done it. He didn’t listen to himself and asked us too much.”

Sala-i-Martin believes this was a turning point, when Guardiola decided he would from then on trust in his own footballing ideas.

Rodri and the 2021 Champions League final

In 2021, Guardiola steered Manchester City to the club’s first Champions League final.

Guardiola had not got his hands on that trophy since he won it with Barcelona in 2011. Eyebrows were raised, then, when he gambled by opting not to field either of his outstanding holding midfielders, Rodri or Fernandinho.

Rodri reveals his manager “didn’t explain” why he was being left out, saying that he had already decided his team “two or three days before the final”.

Rodri was the player of the match during City’s 2023 Champions League final win

After Chelsea won via a goal from Kai Havertz, critics accused Guardiola of having overthought things.

Ex-City defender Ilkay Gundogan defends his former boss, though.

“He was always like that,” says the German, adding: “I don’t think it was something he was doing especially for the Champions League or big games.”

In 2023, City made it to another Champions League final. Rodri played this time. He scored the only goal of the match.

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