Though barely into his 40s, Pep Guardiola has already made an indelible mark since taking up the reins at his beloved Barcelona. Under his remarkable stewardship, the Catalan giants have won every trophy there is to win, doing so in a captivating style that has made their young coach a role model in the global game.
A born winner, Guardiola is as tactically astute as they come, a man with a gift for expressing his ideas with clarity off the pitch and executing them with deadly precision on it. Saturday's thrilling Clásico win over Real Madrid provided just the demonstration of his and his team's extraordinary capabilities, and ahead of his side’s departure for Japan, where they will run out in the FIFA Club World Cup, Guardiola spoke exclusively to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Pep, it’s been one success after another in your three and a half years in charge at Barcelona. What’s been the secret?
Pep Guardiola: There’s nothing special about it really. First of all, I’ve tried to be faithful to the history of Barcelona, which is a great club in every respect. And then it’s just been a question of making good signings and blending them in with the homegrown players, handling them in the right way and not being scared to give the youngsters a chance when the time’s right.
You made an instant impact when you took over. How did you manage that?
I was an unknown quantity when I came in, and the first thing I asked the team to do was to put their trust in me. I told them everything would work out fine. I wanted the fans to see that the team was going to work hard, run, play good football, and take pride in their work on the pitch. People want to be entertained. They don’t want to be cheated. The fans can accept a poor performance but they won’t take it when you choose not to put in the effort. The team’s come one and we’ve made changes and tweaked a few things here and there. The idea is still the same, though: to attack, score as many goals as possible, and play as well as we can.
You’ve reached the FIFA Club World Cup again by winning the UEFA Champions League for the second time in three years. Looking back, how do you rate that achievement?
It was important to win the group. That’s always been a priority for me in the Champions League, because the knockout rounds are tough and you never have it easy. A lot’s been said about the semi-final with Real Madrid, and there’s no question that was a big hurdle for us. Sometimes it’s even harder for us than the final. Just look at the semi we won against Chelsea three years ago, then Inter and now Madrid.
Midfielders are intelligent players who have to think about the team as a whole. They’re selfless players who understand the game better than anyone.
But then you went and turned it on against Manchester United in the final, which was perhaps one of Barcelona’s greatest ever performances.
That’s true, but it’s important to remember that finals are usually very close games, which is what made our performance against Manchester United stand out even more. There have been other games when we’ve played really well, but it’s always more difficult to do that in a final because of the emotional factors that come into it and the quality of the opposition. Our preparation for that game was crucial. We went to London a good few days before, made ourselves feel at home there, and went into the match in really good shape. Things like that tend to get overlooked but they make the difference in big games.
Turning to this season now, you’ve made a few tactical alterations. Why change something that works?
People talk about tactics, but when you look at it, tactics are just players. You change things so that the team can get the most out of the skills they have to offer, but you don’t go any further than that. When it comes to tactics you have to think about what the opposition does and the players who can hurt you. What I’ve done this season is a response to the game plans our rivals are now adopting against us. As time goes by, people get to know you better. They pose problems for you and you have to come up with solutions.
Finding intelligent players must be a priority for you then.
Absolutely. The problem is you can’t always get them. You can sign players on the recommendation of friends and colleagues and based on what you see on TV, but it’s only when they’re out on the pitch with you that you find out if they can do what you want them to. It’s not easy. Sometimes it’s worked for me and sometimes it hasn’t.
You also need versatile players because your squad’s not as big as those of other teams.
I’ve never been worried about having a small squad. In fact, being a little short on options is probably better for us than having a lot, especially as I’ve got players with so much quality to call on. I’ve got complete faith in the team and my philosophy is that there’s a solution to every problem. Whenever there’s a potential problem I’ll always look at the alternatives I’ve got in the first team and even among the youngsters.
A lot’s been said about the way you use midfielders in a range of different positions. Where did that approach come from and what do you hope to achieve by it?
The midfield is a crucial part of any team. Midfielders are intelligent players who have to think about the team as a whole. They’re selfless players who understand the game better than anyone and the more midfielders you have, the easier it is to slot them into other positions. That’s how they become versatile and that helps us to have smaller squads that are still able to offer more options.
As a coach, how much have you learned from Johan Cruyff, and have any other coaches influenced you along the way?
Cruyff’s been my biggest influence. I spent six years with him and I learned an awful lot. Juan Manuel Lillo has also been an essential figure. He was my coach for just six months in Culiacan, Mexico, but we had a great time and I learned a lot. I think highly of him and I’m very grateful to him, because he was very generous and passed his knowledge on to me. And he knows a lot too.
In a recent interview, Lionel Messi spoke about your attention to detail, how you came in and changed the players’ diets straightaway.
Rest and a good diet are essential when you depend on your body for your job, so the idea is to be in the best possible shape. That’s why we try to get the players to rest at home, play well and eat well too. The fuel that powers the muscles is very important, and that goes for any player, not just Messi.
You’ve also bucked the modern trend of getting your team together in a hotel the day before games.
People don’t spend the day before they go to work locked up in hotel. We just try to make things the same for them. If they don’t rest, they’re not looking after themselves and that means they’ll play worse and lose their jobs. I judge my players on the work they do, not on their private lives. I’m not a policeman. I’m in bed at ten o’clock and I’ve got no urge to go and check up on my players. That’s why I’d rather have them at home and not cooped up in a hotel with nothing to do. We’re just trying to use our common sense. You wanted to know why we keep getting good results? That’s the answer: common sense.
Part two of this interview, in which Guardiola discusses his team’s bid to win the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011, will be published on Wednesday.