Spanish Inquisition: Is Pep Guardiola A Genius Or A Fluke?

Goal.com's Subhankar Mondal asks whether the Barcelona coach is really as good as he is made out to be.....
Frank Rijkaard had Xavi, Josep Guardiola had Xavi. Rijkaard had Andres Iniesta, Guardiola too had Iniesta. Rijkaard had Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Rafael Marquez, Yaya Toure, Lionel Messi, Eric Abidal, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o; Guardiola too had Valdes, Puyol, Marquez, Toure, Messi, Abidal, Henry and Eto'o. Rijkaard didn't have Daniel Alves, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Seydou Keita or Gerard Pique. Guardiola doesn't have Ronaldinho, Deco, Henrik Larsson or Ludovic Giuly.

Of Barcelona's starting XI against Manchester United in the Champions League final last May, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets were the only ones who didn't feature in their disastrous season of 2007-2008 when they finished third, 18 points behind Real Madrid and perhaps equally embarrassingly, 10 points behind Villarreal.

Guardiola assembled virtually the same set of players and won six titles in one and a half years. Six.

No, this is not to denigrate Rijkaard's legacy at Barcelona - after all, the Dutchman was responsible for the Catalans' first silverware in six years when the Blaugrana won the league in 2005 and also moulded Ronaldinho and Eto'o into world class footballers - but the radical transformation and reformation the club went under Guardiola in the space of just nine or so months is almost spooky. Even Sir Alex Ferguson took over a decade to win his first European Cup with United.

Pep, The Genius

Taught in the school of Total Football and mentored by Johan Cruyff, Guardiola 'simply' translated his playing style to his coaching method, demanding his players to play in the same way the Catalans have played since the days of the Dutch legend in the 1970's. Only, this time he added a touch of steel and made it more effective, but not defensive.


A 'Little' Pep Talk Has Done The Trick

Guardiola had to wrap skin on a skeleton - a skeleton on the verge of disseminating into a loose collection of bones perhaps, but a skeleton nevertheless. Which the 38-year-old did to marvellous effects.

Guardiola motivated his players, reinstated their self-conviction and asked them to play the way football is supposed to be played. Because he knew that he had the core of the unit that had bedazzled the world just over two years back. And results came, almost inevitably.

He made Xavi and Iniesta the best midfield partnership in the world, Toure a more intelligent defensive midfielder and Busquets his fierce competitor, Messi more versatile and an occasional withdrawn centre-forward, Henry an inside-left threat, Alves an 'outside' right-back, Pique a ball-playing central defender and Eto'o a less votalite character.

What made Guardiola the real 'Special One' in European football was his compelling obsession to play football the Barcelona way. Never for a moment did he betray his footballing philosophy and from start to finish in every game, his players were hungry for goals, goals and more goals.

The Help From Beyond

Calling Pep Guardiola a 'fluke' would be pushing it far too far, but there are a few factors that contrived to aid him in his 'sextuple'. Detractors would indicate that he has three of the best attacking/attack-minded players in the world, the best attacking right-back on the planet, an Arsenal God and a few defenders who are more comfortable playing with the ball than stopping the opposition from playing with it. Winning, therefore, is made easier.

Moreover, spending €80 million in the 2008 summer had strengthened the side in key areas and also blighted the notion that Barca's triumph came only because of home-grown players. Last summer he gave the green light for possibly the world's most expensive swap deal as Ibrahimovic replaced Eto'o at Camp Nou and added another much needed dimension to the Catalans' game.


Can Barcelona Repeat Their Feat This Season?

All of which is true and so is the fact that history and external factors helped Barcelona. Rarely have Barca and Madrid's successes coincided and in 2007-2008 Los Blancos were in institutional crisis. Their willingness to axe the branch they were sitting on augmented by the injuries to a number of key players contributed to Barcelona's domestic conquest. The game at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea would eternally remain a blot on Barca's European triumph and Guardiola was also lucky that his relatively small squad didn't struggle with too many injuries.

The In-Between

Yet Guardiola's achievements in 2009 cannot and should not be undermined. For those claiming that their grandma would have won the league with Barca's current squad should ask themselves whether they or their grandmas would have been able to manage the Blaugrana megastars. Perhaps Guardiola's coaching or managerial genius would be properly tested when he gets a less talented and more disorganised side but it is not easy to coach a team burdened with hopes and expectations either.

Moreover, Madrid's self-capitulation wasn't Barcelona's fault and whatever the conspiracy theorists suggest, Barca did not 'buy the referee' against Chelsea. There were fewer injuries because Guardiola imposed a strict fitness and training regime. He also imported discipline into the dressing room, crippling any germ of 'dissidence'.

But what now for the Santpedor-born? Where does he go from here? His contract with Barcelona expires at the end of the season and there are no discernible hints of a stay beyond the summer. Links with Manchester United have surfaced in recent weeks and Pep could be inclined to coach abroad. It is inevitable that it will alter him in one way or the other and could even belittle his legacy at Barcelona but for someone who didn't limit his playing career to just one nation, a challenge to coach in a foreign climate would be exciting.

Or perhaps he should heed the advice of this columnist's friend: "Call it a day, stop coaching and remain the most successful coach in football history, one who won everything in one year."

Subhankar Mondal, Goal.com