Pep Guardiola’s first league match, away at Numancia, was confusing in its lessons. Barcelona boasted 70 per cent of the possession, and had 26 shots – two of which smacked against the woodwork – but lost; Mario Martínez Rubio, simply Mario, scoring in Eric Abidal’s absence at the far post.
“We played badly,” admitted Guardiola. “We were undisciplined and people were not doing their jobs. You have to open the pitch when the opposition plays with 10 behind the ball and we did not do that. We did not attack well. It was our own fault, but we can correct the errors.”
A reaction to an unfortunate performance, not to take anything from Numanica, the Catalan media were up in arms – they usually are, such is their fanaticism. Johan Cruyff, in his column for El Periódico, was more patient. “I don’t know which game you saw, but I saw one of the best Barça performances in years. Football-wise, Barça were of the best. Positionally excellent, moving the ball with speed and precision, and pressing well. You draw your conclusions but, to me, this season looks very, and I mean very, good.”
Superlatives fail. Barcelona won the league, the Copa del Rey, and the Champions League. The latter was breath-taking: deprived of Dani Alves due to the UEFA rules that threaten this year’s final, Puyol was indomitable at right-back, Xavi masterful in the midfield, and Messi supreme in attack. Alex Ferguson’s face was drained of its characteristic purple hue, and Pep Guardiola lifted the European Cup. At the beginning of the next season, Barcelona collected the UEFA Super Cup, the Club World Cup, and the Supercopa de España. In little over a year, Guardiola had won everything there was to be had in Spanish and European football. That he stayed for a further three seasons is testament to his will to succeed, and should serve as a lesson to those who feel wronged by his leaving.
Guardiola could go anywhere. There has been interest from Massimo Moratti at the San Siro; Roman Abramovich has made no secret of his admiration; and the FA appear to have the Spaniard marked on their list of prospective England coaches. PSG have funds and ambition in equal quantity, Tottenham will likely be on the search for new management as speculation continues over the future of Harry Redknapp, and Liverpool have already made an approach towards Johan Cruyff’s services this season – why not Guardiola? It is all, of course, only conjecture. Guardiola noted on multiple occasions that he would be taking a sabbatical from the game when his time at Barcelona came to a close, and now that it has, he will step away. That won’t stop the talk, and in a year when he will likely re-emerge, every club on the planet will clamour for him.
It is entirely possible that, when he returns, vacancies will exist in Manchester. Roberto Mancini could be sacked at any moment, despite his success, and Alex Ferguson may well call time on his career – only to continue for another five years. Old Trafford looks a likely destination. “If Manchester United and Barcelona share a philosophy”, Guardiola says, “it is simply because we both think that attacking football is the best way to win. The only thing which interests us is achieving the victory.”
His admiration for Ferguson and United is clear, though he will not be given the same limitless respect that he enjoyed at the Camp Nou. Wherever he chooses to go, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Alves, Pique and Busquests will not be with him – they appear tied to the club for life. The foundations to his game existed in Barcelona, laid by Cruyff as he was playing; elsewhere they will not. Richard Williams of The Guardian comments “it would be interesting to see him coming to terms with the need to synthesise different styles of play into a winning approach, rather than refining the focus as tightly as he was able to do at Barcelona. Never again, one imagines, will he be in charge of so homogeneous a group of players, with so much in common in terms of their background, attitude and core skills.”
It has been coming; his departure, and he admitted yesterday that he discussed it with the club as early as September last year. “The reason is very simple. It’s been four years and with time everything wears down. A coach needs to be strong.
“That passion so necessary to continue, so the players listen to you disappears after four years,” he said. “You can only recover that by resting. It would have been a bad idea to continue. Perhaps we wouldn’t have gone wrong but I had the perception it would. I could not run the risk that it would go wrong. It is my time to go.
“I think that sincerely that the next person will have things to bring that can’t. Every day during four years, the demands are very high, the pressure, the necessary energy to push the players and enjoy it. I need to rest and move away. I have thought a lot about Abidal, and Keita, who has been my ethical, vital barometer. I have felt every word I have told my players, every idea was because I believed it myself, I saw it and they made it come true. I leave in peace with myself.”
For most neutrals, and Barcelona fans the world over, the loss of Pep Guardiola will take some time to overcome. Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta watched on at his press conference yesterday. Carles Puyol was transfixed; Victor Valdes in a reserved shock. Lionel Messi confessed he did not want the cameras focused on him, and did not attend, such was his emotion.
This, Guardiola said, was the right time to leave. Rather than feel resent for his departure, we should appreciate what we have had. Barcelona are by no means finished; indeed, next season under Tito Vilanova will be fascinating. Instead, they enter into a new era: Guardiola will no longer grace the touchline, but his legacy will remain as the Blaugrana take to the field each week. He has defined the club he has spent 25 years of his life with and, even if he never does return, his vision will see Barcelona to unlimited successes.
Thanks Pep. It’s been beautiful.