HE BUILDS AROUND A CONDUCTOR
At Barcelona it was Sergio Busquets; occasionally Xavi or Andres Iniesta. For Bayern, Thiago Alcantara, Xabi Alonso and Philipp Lahm have performed the role. In every game, Guardiola picks his avatar – the player whose job is to keep the play moving, as he did.
In his 2001 autobiography he wrote: “[Ex-barça boss Johan] Cruyff used to tell me that if I was fouled, it was my own fault because I’d held onto [the ball] too long; I had to let it go much before.”
Yet Guardiola also demands what he calls “players with a pause”. Capable of holding onto the ball for half a second longer than your average midfield clogger, they lull the opposition into a positional error. He did it better than most himself. “I tried to trick the opposition into thinking I’d pass it wide again,” he says in 2014’s Pep Confidential, Marti Perarnau’s account of Guardiola’s first season at Bayern, “and then – boom! – I’d split them with an inside pass to a striker.”
It was this understanding that prompted his decision to play Lahm (right) in midfield instead of his customary full-back position.
“He is super-intelligent,” Guardiola has said of his elegant captain. “He understands the game brilliantly; knows when to come inside or stay wide. The guy is f**king exceptional.”
In short, Lahm is his organising midfielder, the fulcrum around which the whole team moves. Only the most intelligent players can pull off this difficult role, which demands one player that does everything that both holding midfielders do – the ball retention, positioning and intercepting – in the 4-2-3-1 setup that Guardiola seldom uses because it’s not attacking enough.
When he really wants total domination of the ball, he chooses his former Barcelona protégé Thiago as conductor, the player he demanded oder nichts (“or no one”) when he took over from Jupp Heynckes in 2013.
“The basis is there: maintaining possession and playing the ball out from the back,” Thiago explains to Fourfourtwo, comparing Guardiola’s two teams. “Of course, every team is different, but any Pep team is always going to be based on ball retention. It’s his mentality.”
Busquets became Pep’s conductor at Barcelona