Pep Guardiola and the cult of the manager


It’s a near certainty that Pep Guardiola will manage in the Premier League next season, with Man Utd, Man City and Chelsea forming a not so orderly queue for his services. With the recent downturn in the fortunes of his old rival Jose Mourinho, Guardiola would probably now be most observers’ pick as the world’s premier manager. But, is everybody completely missing the point about his success and what lies behind it? Do managers matter that much.

The mythology that surrounds Guardiola is illustrative of the over emphasis on individuals that persists in football. A powerful idea grips clubs and supporters that if only the right manger can be recruited, success will surely follow. This idea was perfectly demonstrated in the delirious reaction that greeted the recent appointment of Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. There remains a strange lack of attention to the environmental and systemic factors that breed success on the pitch.

Now let me be clear, this isn’t contrarianism for its own sake. I’m not saying that Guardiola doesn’t know a thing or two about organising a football team. That would just be silly. But, there is a lazy narrative and an absolute consensus on him that warrants some scrutiny. At Barcelona,* his record is really very similar to that of his immediate predecessor and successors. The club have done well whoever has been in charge and, importantly, regardless of their managerial credentials.

Prior to being appointed Barcelona boss, Luis Enrique boasted a relatively modest managerial CV. Time at Barcelona B was followed by an unsuccessful year at Roma and a creditable season with Celta Vigo. In his first year at Camp Nou, Enrique matched Guardiola’s treble winning debut and looks well on course for another hugely successful year.

In his only campaign in charge, the late Tito Vilanova managed to amass 100 pts in La Liga, more than Guardiola ever managed. What is more, this was achieved with Vilanova taking an extended leave of absence midway through the season for cancer treatment. Vilanova’s only previous experience as a number one consisted of a year in Spain’s fourth tier that ended in relegation.

The much maligned, trophyless Tata Martino would appear to be the exception. An odd choice, having never managed in Europe before, even he ended up with the exact same points total that Guardiola achieved in his first season. The difference being that Martino’s efforts were good enough only for second place.

There are two charges that can be levelled against the above. Firstly, Guardiola is exceptional because this was the house that he built and secondly, I’ve neglected his Champions League triumphs.

On the first point, Guardiola was building on already very solid foundations laid by Frank Rijkaard (whose only previous club management job incidentally was a year at Sparta Rotterdam who were relegated) The Dutchman revived Barcelona, established a similar playing style, brought through Iniesta and Messi and generally left things in a far better state than he found them. A disappointing end to his tenure was mainly due to a period of squad transition and his star player losing interest in training. The dead wood had all been removed by the start of Guardiola’s first season. Strangely Rijkaard never seems to be linked with any jobs these days.

As for the Champions League, Rijkaard and Enrique won it as well and Guardiola had four attempts to Vilanova and Martino’s one. There’s also the much understated element of luck in cup competitions (anyone that scoffs at this this should remember that Avram Grant and Roberto Di Matteo have both been to one more CL Final with Chelsea than Mourinho) and few could argue that in his first campaign, Guardiola wasn’t fortunate in the extreme in the semi-final against Chelsea.

The point here is not some feeble attempt to discredit Guardiola or to detract from his achievements. It’s rather to say that the lessons of Barcelona’s incredible success over the past decade seem to have been misunderstood by many. The Catalan club have hit upon a winning formula that rejects the idea of big name manager recruitment – ironic given Guardiola’s current status in the game. In Guardiola himself they hired a managerial novice. A succession of unheralded managers have done enormously well. The easy narrative is the one about great men but really it’s a story of systemic rather than individual triumph.

The common thread that runs from Guardiola to Vilanova to Enrique is that they are all products of the Barcelona system. All three represented the club on the pitch at one level or other. They earned their managerial stripes with Barcelona’s B team. They were/are steeped in the club’s traditions, practices and playing style. They represent continuity. It’s instructive that Tata Martino, by far the most experienced yet least successful of the last four managers, was the only outsider.

Rather than fixate on a marquee name, Guardiola’s suitors in England would perhaps do better by attempting to implement their own versions of Barcelona’s in-house recruitment system.

* It’s more difficult to assess Guardiola’s time at Bayern Munich. Firstly, because he’s still there. Secondly, Jupp Heynckes’ last season in charge was so dominant that Guardiola was always on something of a hiding to nothing. Domestically he has carried on where Heynckes left off but in the CL he has, relatively speaking, disappointed. There are parallels with Vilanova’s succession of Guardiola at Barca.