Pep Guardiola’s surprise announcement that he will heading to Bavaria next season came as a disappointment to many fans. It seems pretty clear that Guardiola was a long-term target for the board to become Chelsea manager – offers were reportedly made and rebuffed during last summer, with many speculating that these enquiries were the main reason as to why it took so long to appoint Di Matteo as head coach following May’s giddy Champions League triumph. In hindsight the warning signs were already there for the board’s lack of faith in the final decision to appoint the former Chelsea man. I’ve argued this season that some of the summer recruitment was even geared towards a Barca template, with smaller, technical players such as Oscar, Hazard and Marin headhunted. Further accommodations were made with Benitez’s interim appointment, the title making it abundantly clear to Guardiola’s advisors that a coaching position would be available come May 2013. The Barcelona philosophy of free-flowing football is coveted and emulated the world over with Guardiola’s method of coaching widely recognised as a vital ingredient – if the Barca style were to be replicated elsewhere it would need Pep. However the certainty in this thinking is questionable and Pep’s decision, rather than a disappointment, ironically might be just what Chelsea need.
So why is Guardiola, a FIFA World Coach of the Year and the most successful manager in the Catalans proud history, heading to Munich a good thing for us? The groundswell of opinion is that Guardiola is one of the greatest coaches currently in the game and it’s difficult to dispute that. Thirteen major titles in a little over four years at Barcelona is an incredible achievement in the game. As a manager he has won every single competition that was up for grabs. Even more than the impressive list of silverware it was the tika-taka style and panache that won plaudits around the world. Guardiola’s football philosophy and his modern coaching skills were credited to getting the very best out of a special group of players. He instilled a hard work mentality that saw the side dominate possession in the same way they dominated titles.
However I would argue Barcelona is a club with a unique, almost systematic set-up. The coach is one cog of a much wider and well-oiled machine. Despite Guardiola’s fantastic achievements at Camp Nou, there remains an unknown quantity as to whether he can bring the Barcelona style to another club and another culture. There remain genuine questions marks over whether he has the ability to operate outside of the Barca system. That system was first instilled by Johan Cruyff. A player honed by the fluid, Total Football approach of Ajax coach Rinus Michels he brought elements of that same philosophy to his managerial style but updated it and ensured that it was a philosophy that ran through every level of the club. Cruyff won four La Liga titles between 1991 and 1994 as well as memorably the European Cup at Wembley in 1992. Some of these players then went on to form the spine of the Barcelona coaching staff (Notably Guardiola and Txiki Begiristain) whereas others have developed a similar system and playing style elsewhere (such as Michael Laudrup’s success).
In addition to the tactical approach, absolutely key to Barcelona’s recent successes has been the development of the La Masia youth academy, the first academy in the world to train three finalists in the Ballon d’Or in the same year – Messi, Iniesta and Xavi. In 1979 it was Johan Cruyff who proposed a training centre that would rival the Ajax academy as a production line for talent. Guardiola was a graduate of that academy and the tika-taka philosophy was instilled in his game, both as a player and as a coach. This same school of excellence, that has a focus on home-grown talent, has also seen Spain dominate international football. I would argue that it is this quite deep-rooted, systematic approach to coaching, the culture of the La Masia, that is a huge catalyst for the tika-taka style and subsequent achievements.
It might just be that the coach is interchangeable and it is the system that prevails. Vicente del Bosque is a former Real Madrid coach but the national team dance to the beat of tika-taka. Guardiola’s departure, and the appointment of the relatively unknown and untested Tito Vilanova, has had little impact with the Catalans going on a record-breaking run of wins and leading La Liga at a canter this season. On the very same day Bayern were announcing Guardiola as coach his predecessor, Frank Rijkaard, was sacked as the national coach of Saudi Arabia. Rijkaard was a Champions League and La Liga winning manager – since leaving Barcelona he has been unable to win any silverware or match the heights of that side’s playing style. Is it the coach or is it the system? I guess we’ll find out more when Guardiola takes the reins in Munich next season.
Of course since Abramovich has came in Chelsea too have a set system, one that works and one that proves, perhaps more than any other, that a coach can be interchangeable. There have been ten managers since 2003, yet it is the most successful period in the club’s entire history. The Cobham academy is a training complex to rival any in the world. The same footballing philosophy and tactics are mirrored through all of the age groups, it is an academy that has followed the Ajax and La Masia blueprint. We’ve yet to produce a Ballon d’Or winner from the academy but must be mindful that La Masia did not start until 1979 – Cobham meanwhile is in its infancy.
For evidence of a coach making an impact, often in spite of and not because of an established system, I would argue that José Mourinho has undoubted proven pedigree. He has managed in different leagues with different cultures and different parameters but has consistently won the biggest trophies wherever he has went. At times the footballing style might not have been as easy on the eye as the tika-taka philosophy but it is the sign of a good coach measuring the cut of the cloth and finding ways to keep winning. It is arguable that a coach who can instil a winning team in a variety of circumstances is more valuable than one that has to embed a philosophy. For the reported £8.3m a year contract Guardiola could be a costly choice if things don’t go to plan as quickly as expected.
Guardiola is still a gamble worth making, given the track record of his short career. But we have to look at his reasons for choosing Munich. He is a man with a clear vision on how the game should be played, a man who wants to set up an ideology that runs throughout all levels of the club, a man of undoubted football principles. However to have a lasting mark, to impact on a current system, the process will no doubt take time, and patience from the board, to get right. As I’ve already mentioned, ten managers in as many years doesn’t make our club an attractive proposition for such a project. A club with more stability clearly is. So perhaps Guardiola’s choice might just make the board have a rethink on their current hiring and firing tactic with managers and understand that consistency is key, not only to the playing staff and to the fans, but to the whole image of the club.
My final point as to why Pep’s decision is a good one is that we can finally put the rumour mill to bed. Ever since he announced he would be leaving Barcelona Guardiola’s name has cast a shadow over Chelsea’s season. First Di Matteo’s position and now Benitez’s has been somewhat undermined by the spectre of Pep’s supposed will he or won’t he arrival. Now perhaps the coach and players can get on with concentrating on bringing success to the club this season without concern about who is being interviewed for the gaffer’s job.