FourFourTwo - - PEP GUARDIOLA -

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

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