Pep Guardiola the perfectionist

The former Barcelona manager would get guarantees denied others at Stamford Bridge but would he really fit there?


The day Zlatan Ibrahimovic left Barcelona he walked out of the Camp Nou offices, gathered the media round him and let rip. “The philosopher broke my heart,” he spat. The philosopher was Pep Guardiola and the phrase explained much, even as it explained nothing at all. Ibrahimovic had arrived the previous summer on a deal officially valued at €69m and now he was gone. There was no explanation other than the fact that Guardiola didn’t want him any more. Nor did there need to be.

The previous summer Samuel Eto’o had been released to Internazionale as part of the Ibrahimovic deal. Guardiola said that it was a question of “feeling”. He offered no other reason. It did not appear to be a question of football: Eto’o had been central to Barcelona’s treble-winning side but it did not matter. He, too, was gone. Pretty much the first thing Guardiola had announced when he took over as Barcelona coach was that it would be better if Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto’o left. The former were pushed out immediately; Eto’o was gone a year later.

There were reasons and many of them were an open secret – from a lack of professionalism to dressing-room confrontations and the coach’s own tactical evolution – but there were never any explanations. There did not need to be: that was what Guardiola wanted, end of story. And if Barcelona were going to do things his way, they were going to do things his way. Xavi had played with Guardiola and he claims that he knew that Barcelona would be a success: “Pep is a perfectionist. If he wanted to be a musician, he would be a great musician.”

He has done things his way and his way is different. He is different. When he has made up his mind, it is unalterable. From the one-year rolling contracts at Barcelona, to the year’s sabbatical. As a player he had spells in Mexico, Qatar and Italy. There has been a kind of moral hue to the path his career has travelled down, to the image he has projected of himself.

It helped that Guardiola’s way was Barcelona’s way. “We chose a philosophy not a brand,” says Laporta. The day Guardiola arrived, he did not promise titles, but he did promise that Barcelona would be “faithful to our philosophy, to a way of understanding the game”. He was true to his word. “His success was making us believe in his ideas. More that training us, he taught us,” says Andrés Iniesta. That philosophy was Cruyff’s. “Pep suckled from the teat of Cruyff,” says one of his collaborators. Few sides have had an identity so clear, so rigid, so immediately apparent. So different.

Guardiola gave no explanations while Barcelona manager, not publicly at least. This week it emerged that Roberto Di Matteo was forced to give explanations after every game; he also felt obliged to play certain players. Guardiola would not accept such interference. He was not for turning when Barcelona did not win their opening two games under him, nor when Eto’o scored the opening goal in the European Cup final. When he decided Ibrahimovic’s time was up he was implacable.

Guardiola holds the cards now in a way that he never did in 2009 and his position is strong. He is unlikely to face the same obligations that Di Matteo did. Or have a £50m player turn up unrequested, as happened to Ancelotti. He may be told that Hazard, Mata and Oscar were signed with him in mind and he would no doubt get promises and guarantees denied to others. But watching events unfold at Stamford Bridge, he is entitled to wonder whether he really fits there. Style and substance both matter; neither fully fit. The ground is being prepared but will Guardiola like the lie of the land?

Read the rest of Chelsea beware: Pep Guardiola the perfectionist holds all the cards by Sid Lowe

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