Part three of insights, highlights and little-known nuggets from Pep Guardiola’s Biography ‘Another way of winning‘ – by Guillem Balague. In this blog, I focus on the working relationships that Pep made at Barcelona – The good, bad and the ugly.
* Messi’s relationship and trust levels with Pep were low in the initial days. Messi felt loyal towards the previous manager, Frank Rijkaard, who had groomed him. Pep had replaced Frank as well as removed Ronaldinho. Ronnie was Messi’s guide, idol, mentor and (three houses away) neighbour. Pep had a tough time getting Messi on his side or to believe in his methods. Till he realized that allowing Messi to go for the summer Olympics 2008 (against the FCB board’s wishes) would act as a perfect ice-breaker. Messi dearly wanted to win an Olympic medal with Argentina. Pep granted him that chance and assured him that if he follows the tactics (while playing for Barcelona) he would score three-four goals every other match! While that bridging helped create arguably the greatest player in the sport, it also started a phase where Messi’s demands became paramount to any other alternatives or choices made by the club.
*While José Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson make efforts to know families, relatives or partners of players to find out more – if the player is upset with an ill child or partner is unhappy with the house; Guardiola seldom went personal. In fact, he wouldn’t intrude even in the players changing room aside from a 5-10 minute pre-game talk. His ‘fixing’ player issues involved taking them out for dinners. Thierry Henry was the most criticised player during Pep’s first year. In the 2008 summer, Samuel Eto’o was to be sold and Henry was to play the central striking position from there on. But Eto’o stayed and delivered; so Henry was again pushed to the left wing. Add to that his back injury issues and clearly, the Frenchman was having major self-doubts. Henry was at his lowest when Pep invited him for a confidence-boosting dinner. Next match, he scored a hattrick vs mighty Valencia. Together with Messi, the trio scored 100 goals in 51 games that season. Messi 38, Eto’o 36, Henry 26. Pep seldom gets credit for reviving the flailing career of Henry until recently when the Frenchman paid the ultimate tribute ‘At 30, I started learning how to play football again, under Pep’. After winning Champions League 2009, Henry moved over to the United States. Pep’s dinner and hours at the training ground had ensured he made a champion of a player, clearly on the wane.
* The Samuel Eto’o mood swings weren’t that easy to handle. It was getting on the edge for long. And when Pep invited him for dinner, Eto’o refused. That was also the time when Messi started demanding the central striker’s role and Eto’o had to be moved to the right. After Eto was substituted in one game, Pep broke his own rule and entered the dressing room to explain Eto what he was doing wrong. Pep was talking to him, but Eto refused to even look at Pep and continued chatting with Abidal. That was that. Eto’o started getting isolated from the squad. There came a point he was celebrating goals on his own. Towards the end of the season, with the La Liga title sealed, Pep was resting his players for the 2009 Champions League Final. But Eto’o wanted to play in every game to fulfil his dream of winning the Pichichi (La Liga top scorer) award and also become Europe’s top scorer. Arguments became more frequent and vs Osasuna, Eto’o and Gudjohnsen almost came to blows. Scoring became an obsession and Eto’o felt had Messi been chasing those individual dreams, then the club rules would have been different. He wasn’t wrong on that.
*Whatever Ibrahimovic has mentioned about the incidents with Pep Guardiola are all 100% true and dot as they transpired. Pep did give the homegrown players adequate control and Messi was stamping his authority more often. Ibra and Messi would often have conflict of positions – Messi would find Ibra coming in way of his mazy runs. Ibra wasn’t allowed to take penalties that he had earned and his frustrations meant Xavi and Iniesta were passing the ball more to the Argentinian, than to the Swede. Around that time, the ‘Eto’o problem’ resurfaced. Messi demanded sole central striker position and Ibra was no Eto’o. The relationship with Pep nosedived, the lunch invite didn’t work, as Ibra’s tantrums and rule breaches continued. Before leaving Barcelona (transferred to Milan), Ibra openly said he wanted to punch Pep in the face, in front of media.
* Despite all this, much against Pep’s own wishes he handed Ibra starts in Champions League semi-final clashes against Inter Milan. The team was handicapped as they had to take a strenuous 18-hour bus route from Barcelona to Milan (due to the 2010 fly ash problem) – a fact that is conveniently overlooked today while giving credit to Inter coach Jose Mourinho’s tactical acumen. On top, Ibra was the worst player on the pitch, both legs, as Barcelona crashed out. Inter Milan, assisted by key refereeing decisions (One Diego Milito offside goal allowed and one Dani Alves penalty claim denied – both at Milan) sailed as Mourinho ran all over the Camp Nou to mock at Barcelona who had rejected his managerial candidature, couple of years ago. Ibra tried to start afresh the following season but it was clear, the two-year-old topflight inexperienced manager, Pep, didn’t have it in him to manage a personality of Ibra’s stature. It was difficult for Guardiola too as the player he had signed with astronomical sums would need to be lost. President Sandro Rossell told Ibra it was the worst piece of business he had ever done. The player was purchased for 66 million euros and now being sold for less than one third the price. Ibra replied “That’s the consequence of terrible leadership.”
* Pep did make Messi the best player in the world, perhaps in the sport ever. But there were constant efforts (and more) always made to ensure Messi was comfortable and happy. Eto’o and Ibrahimovic suffered from that initiative. Pep once noticed for the World Club Cup 2009 Tokyo, the rising Brazilian wunderkind Neymar came with a special haircut, fancy watch and a Japanese inscription added to his boots. But Messi came as Messi. Messi never competed to be in magazines, appear in adverts or attract girls. He always competed against himself to win matches and trophies. Hence the desire to keep him happy became paramount. Messi was unique – quiet, demanding, unflappable. Yet he cried loudly in corner of the dressing room after every Barcelona key eliminations (from titles) during Pep’s reign. He could not be rested for any game, lest the Argentine would throw tantrums without uttering a word. He didn’t celebrate the 2011 Liga title (despite being the guy who deserved to touch the trophy first) as he was rested for the game that mathematically sealed the title. His best friend Manuel Pinto got a new contract, not for his goalkeeping abilities. When the discussion for the Ibrahimovic playing position came, Pep told: “And what am I supposed to do with him, after all the money we paid?”. Messi was adamant “I play here or I don’t play at all, stick the others out on the wing.” Guardiola had indeed created a monster with the Argentinian lad wielding absolute power and sometimes out of place behaviour. Cuenca, Tello, Villa – didn’t matter the name, Messi did shout at them more than once on the pitch. Even the Neymar signing was finalised after Messi gave his go ahead. This was no way the ideal state and not in synch with the Barcelona philosophy. But that was the conundrum. A player like Messi comes once in a century. The club could only let him be the way he massacred opponents best. Messi gave his worst performance in Pep’s last season. When Pep ultimately resigned he did mention “If I continue, we will end up hurting each other”. The general perception is that line was for Messi, Pique (who had grown into a superstar figure) and the need to sell Cesc and Xavi.
* Gerard Pique was not a Pep signing but a (now late) Tito Vilanova initiative. Manchester United didn’t want to sell Pique but the player came over and within months Pep made Pique and Puyol a deadly central defensive duo. Pique’s form and attitude dipped badly in Pep’s last season – more due to his off-field rising stardom – till the player realised his mistakes in the summer of 2012 and came back a much better player.
* Javier Mascherano swapped Liverpool’s starting XI position to be on bench for Barcelona. With time he grew to be one of the legends for FC Barcelona.
* Cesc Fabregas was so determined to go Barcelona that he reduced his annual wages by one million euros and put that money into his transfer fee. President Sandro Rossell wanted to sign ‘twinkle toes’ / ‘merlion’ David Silva but Barcelona’s La Masia contingent, the World Cup winning Spanish’s team bonding and Fabregas’ own wish to play for Guardiola made everything open. Cesc’s arrival wasn’t a matter of if, but of when. After more than a year-long haggling process, Pep came back to sign the star midfielder. But a free role at Arsenal vs a role filled with tactical complications, overload of information and compulsory demands to win every game with style, took its toll on Cesc. To compensate for the ‘picking Ibra blunder’ in 2010 Champions League semifinals, Pep listened to his heart and played Cuenca and Tello in Champions League Semifinal fixtures vs Chelsea in 2012. Sanchez and Fabregas sat on the bench for most parts of those 180 minutes. Barcelona hit the woodwork four times, Messi missed a penalty, the team gave away three goals, each of them during injury times (a sign of concentration lapses) and that was that. Needless to say, when a Pep team gets eliminated, it stays in mind forever and the opponents glorified longer. Because that was abnormal. Great leaders or players are always known for the one-off errors or failures. Like Messi hasn’t won a World Cup! Like Zinedine Zidane lost his cool and headbutted in a World Cup Final. The not so great leaders or players are known only for their select moments of glory. Those are repeated and replayed for them often.
…to be continued … Final Part.