Interviews

Let’s Talk: Pep Guardiola with Rafa Hernández

With the dust finally settling after Monday’s explosive announcement, we decided to speak to Rafael Hernández, a renowned and respected journalist and a founding member of the Grup 14 site. As a lifelong Barcelona fan, and a keen follower of Bayern’s progress over the past couple of seasons, he’s become something of a Pep aficionado in recent times. He seemed a perfect place to start when we decided to source a little more insight into what this groundbreaking move could mean for the future of the club. We discussed his methods, the transfer plans, Pep’s love of reinvention and the future of current stars at the Etihad…

Firstly, your take on this. Is it the right move for Pep? Will he adapt to life in England and Manchester well?

Yes, this is the perfect decision by Pep Guardiola considering he wanted to move to England. Manchester City after the Mansour takeover were indeed acting like “noisy neighbors”, the nickname given by Sir Alex Ferguson, but that quickly turned into one of the most interesting projects in world football. Signing Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain to emulate Barcelona’s successful formula during the Laporta years was one of the first signs the club was ambitious beyond mindlessly spending money in the transfer market, and the patience shown with Mancini and now Pellegrini shows that club decisions aren’t taken mindlessly. Now with the best youth academy in England in terms of structure, and set to eventually lead a new generation of youth development in the country, it’s crystal clear that Manchester City are following a carefully established plan.

Guardiola won’t struggle with adapting to Manchester. Much is said about the climate, but at the end of the day it’s a mere detail in the grand scheme of things, every professional has its true priorities. As for his family, they have moved from New York to Munich and I reckon they are used to this lifestyle.

How will things change at City? Tactically and stylistically. In your opinion will there be a complete overhaul of City’s current methods.

Much will change at Manchester City in both aspects, it’s as dramatic as it sounds. Pep brings something different not only to the club, but the entirety of English football. His tactical innovations have only gotten better in his time in Germany and now he’s a more experienced coach, and it’s easy to claim he’ll bring “Barcelona’s football”, but that would be incorrect.

Pep’s style is based on controlling matches and he believes the best method for achieving it is through possession football, but he’s hardly a slave of it, a typical misconception stemmed from this assumed philosophy. Matches like his 3-0 away win at Borussia Dortmund illustrates that nicely, his team sat deeper and sought the counter instead of going head on vs. Klopp’s energetic pressing style. His contest with Tuchel at the Allianz Arena this season is another good example, with Boateng using long balls to beat BVB’s lines. A Guardiola team using long balls isn’t heresy, he’s quite the pragmatist, just in different ways.

Tactically, Manchester City will become the sharpest team in the country, of that I have no doubt. After Barça’s 7-0 demolition of Valencia, I was recalling some of Bayern’s exceptional performances, picking apart Roma and Werder Bremen, and I wondered if we are going to see City carefully dismantling opposing teams – probably a matter of when. The euphoria surrounding Guardiola is justified, he will surprise and delight football fans. The Premier League lacks modern tactical nuances like La Liga and Bundesliga, one of the actual reasons of the recent struggles in Europe. Pep has the personality and drive to become a trailblazer in the league, the first since Arsene Wenger.

City noted that this was a continuation of talks from 2012. Is it your belief that this was perhaps agreed and something in place as far back as three years ago before he joined Bayern?

Manchester City aimed to bring the Catalan to Manchester even before he left Barcelona, contacts took place more than once, but Pep was decided on taking a sabbatical year. If I were to hazard a guess, there was no agreement between club and coach, but a promise to his friend Txiki Begiristain is certainly possible.

Do you see a vast overhaul of his squad? Any notable casualties? Any surprise benefactors of his methods?

The only things that we could conclude now would be assumptions based on the little we know about the players and manager, and they are yet to even talk. Robben’s case is a good example, many assumed the Catalan was never going to allow an “egoist that barely passes” in his squad, but he quickly became enamoured with Pep and featured among the players that benefitted the most.

I’m confident that a young, rough diamond centre-back like Denayer will greatly benefit, and you can add Mangala to that, but if I were to bet on a single player that might catch everyone by surprise it’s Nasri. The Frenchman has his problems, but he’s a known Guardiola admirer and his strengths could work nicely in possession-based football.

The only one we can be sure that will leave is Yaya Touré, due to his agent’s derisory remarks, not due to their relationship, which was never proven to be bad in the first place. Navas and Bony also appear to be “victims” of his appointment, with both lack footballing IQ.

Is a style like Pep’s suited to the Premier League? There’s a small train of thought that the directness of the English league may surprise him. Do you think he’ll compromise a little?

If Pep compromises in how he sees football even a little, he will fail. What makes Guardiola special is how he views and thinks football, if he were to cede to certain outdated methods and tactics he would betray himself. What I expect Pep to do, much like he did in the Bundesliga, is adapt his tactics to common trends in the league. In Germany, he learned how to cope better with counterattacks and counterpressing, but still was Pep Guardiola, with the ability to see football like no other coach in the game can.

What Pep definitely won’t do is make his team to play direct football like we saw in the hectic Liverpool vs. Leicester this week. He will exploit the abundant space in the Premier League, and his Juego de Posición (Positional Play) will pose a problem that most of the players and managers in the league never dealt with before.

Who will become his ‘Philipp Lahm’ at City? The one player he’ll mould into something exciting and new…

De Bruyne appears to hold that potential. His first season back in England has been good, but he’s truly exceptional and can do more, I have the impression that Pellegrini’s tactics don’t accommodate him enough to fulfill all of his strengths and although Hazard is commonly seen at the top of the Belgian golden generation, De Bruyne can take his place.

Agüero too, but first he needs to be fit for longer periods. If Sterling has as much drive to learn as we have read, he will also become quite special.

The big guns, Silva, Yaya, Aguero and so on. Are they necessarily compatible to his style?

Manchester City’s core players are intelligent footballers and have the right mentality – even if Touré doesn’t appear to due to his agent – the hardest part when it comes to being compatible with Guardiola’s systems.

His record of integrating youth was startling at the Barcelona, but perhaps lesser so at Bayern. How do you think he’ll use those waiting in line at the CFA?

Unfortunately, Bayern’s academy has been below par and will eventually be overhauled. The brightest talent at their youth teams was Højbjerg and Pep had taken an special interest in the player’s development, but the club decided to send him on loans rather than keep him at the club.

Denayer and Iheanacho are two expected to be given chances in the beginning. As for those that are in the waiting line, Manu García and Brandon Barker are good bets, especially the latter.

Do you see any basis to the rumours around the likes of Weigl, Stones and Gundogan?

Among the mess of empty transfer rumors and transfer war chests, Sky Sports made the first logical report: “There will be no limit on what Pep can spend at City and his targets will be considered on their merits and impact rather than price.”

Manchester City have their own scouts and a sporting director. Guardiola can’t step in and demand to bring Pogba because he likes the player, an assessment needs to be made and he would decide it with Txiki, much like happened at Barcelona.

Right now, it’s better to ignore all transfer rumors. But it seems Manchester City will need at least a new full-back, a winger and most important of all, a dominant central midfielder. If I were to speculate good targets – and possible signings – based on what Pep did at Bayern and Barça: Gundogan, Pogba, Samper (MFs) – Ricardo Rodríguez, Gayá (FBs) – Sané, Deulofeu, Mahrez (Wingers) – Stones, Laporte, Süle (CBs).

The obvious question. Messi. Is this a pipedream? Or does it become more possible now there’s the Pep link. Similarly, there’s been some quotes from Neymar recently about his desire to work with Pep one day…

Messi will continue at Barcelona, and he’s set to renew his contract beyond 2018 this year. The links will continue but there’s nothing to suggest the player would really seek a move away from the club he’s comfortable at and owes so much – he said so himself after the Golden Ball ceremony.

Neymar isn’t impossible. The financial and emotional toll taken by his tax problems could lead the player to seek peace away from Spain, but now that the biggest tax case against him is in Brazil, there’s no running away from it. If he leaves, I think Manchester United would jump in to pay his €190m clause – something that the club have told Neymar’s father – but I don’t see City doing it, especially post-Financial Fair Play restrictions.

And finally, is this the move that will see City truly elevated into the game’s global elite. The club has been on the cusp now for years – can Pep be the man to tip City over the edge?

I think he already has. Manchester City landed the most sought manager in the world who also interested Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and even Real Madrid after all! The signing of Guardiola sends a clear message to all of Europe’s top clubs. If you add the whole structure that is being put in place by the City Group – which includes the academy and the kind of planning that still appears to be alien to most clubs – you have an absolute powerhouse of a club.

Guardiola’s mission is to bring that to the pitch. Doing it in the Premier League should come naturally. Don’t expect me to say clichés like “Guardiola will find it harder on the Premier League”, as if a top level coaching job is easy anywhere especially if you are Guardiola, a perfectionist. Many in Spain claim that Pep could be to English football what Cruyff was to La Liga and Barcelona, and that’s a bold but far from unrealistic expectation. His job will be tougher in Europe, but Manchester City will come to be respected, something that one could claim they’re not right now. Winning the Champions League is a combination of numerous things beyond the manager’s control, so we’ll have to wait and see.

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