Last year Manchester City seemed to be light years ahead of the Premier League pack. Can they emulate that success or even improve upon it this season? Professor Damian Hughes, an expert in winning cultures has spent the past three years studying coach Pep Guardiola’s methods.
Here he gives an assessment of the man considered by many to be the greatest coach for a generation.
In the decade since his largely unheralded appointment to the Nou Camp hotseat, Pep Guardiola has not only raised the bar in respect to football management, he has shifted the goalposts, taking the netting with him.
It was early summer 2008 when a 37 year-old, with just one year of reserve team managerial experience under his belt, took the reins of his beloved FC Barcelona, a club he had served with distinction as its midfield playmaker.
Despite his celebrated status, many of Barcelona’s notoriously discerning cules were distinctly underwhelmed by the appointment, as were some sections of the Spanish media - his appointment was relegated to page 13 of the El Pais newspaper.
In short, Guardiola’s appointment as successor to the much maligned Frank Rijkaard, was seen as a huge risk, so what happened in that first incredible season as a senior manager that has led him to become the undisputed king of football coaches?
What he did first was to focus on the culture of the club he knew better than most; how people are expected to behave. Txiki Begiristain, who is City’s director of football and fulfilled the same role at Barcelona, explained to me, Guardiola’s message has always been clear: “Your talent will get you as far as the dressing room. How you behave determines if you will stay there.”
As someone who has worked with a variety of elite sports teams and blue chip companies, I always seek to impress upon management the importance of culture. The results bear this out. Research suggests that culture can have as much as 22 per cent impact on performance. Guardiola’s current boss, Ferran Soriano emphasised this point, “Culture is a crucial ingredient in all organisations” and is especially crucial at football clubs.
Guardiola stepped out of the shadows of coaching Barcelona B for a season to re-instil a culture that had been prevalent when Johan Cruyff - his mentor - had been at the helm. He took inspiration from Cruyff’s teachings but had his very own interpretation of what doing things the Barcelona Way actually meant. It was centred around three trademark behaviours: humility, hard work and putting the team above your self interest.
Guardiola did this several ways but it was his ruthless treatment of the club’s then star triumvirate of Deco, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o which signalled the dawning on a brilliant new era. In his first press conference, he announced the end of the trio’s Nou Camp careers with the first two leaving soon afterwards and Eto’o departing 12 months later. This allowed Guardiola to build the club around Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique - all products of its La Masia academy.
These were his cultural architects, the ones who would role model the trademark behaviours. His long serving assistant Manel Estiarte was charged with observing these behaviours at all times. He would watch the reaction of players sat on the substitutes bench. Those who didn’t react to the game’s ebb and flow were deemed to be sulking and were swiftly told to FIFO: Fit in or Find a Way Out.
The rest is history and Guardiola led his brilliant charges to the treble in his first season, becoming the youngest Champions’ League winning coach in the process. The parallels with what he did at the Etihad are obvious - he quickly dispensed with Hart and Nasri and allowed an ageing Toure to drift to the fringes of the first team, whilst allowing the humble de Bruyne, quick witted Silva and the selfless Fernandinho to emerge as key figures within the dressing room. When his team scores, note how the scorer will always seek to point and acknowledge the role of the person who created the chance. It is a small, but telling example of how he is ridding the culture of egotists and instilling a sense of the team coming first..
Although success hasn’t been instantaneous at City - his debut season in Manchester was his first without a trophy as a coach - what we witnessed last term suggests that he has nailed the commitment culture.
As is the way that they play - with all Guardiola’s teams, possession is law. In away league games alone last year, the City record breakers boasted an incredible average of 82 per cent, meaning they will win most matches by passing - last season nearly 9 out of 10 City passes were accurate.
“Without the ball there is no pass, without the ball there is no control, with no control the fewer opportunities you have to score” were words written by a 24-year-old Guardiola in 1995.
It is worth remembering that he stuck firm to his tried and tested principles during that first season of huge transition in the North West of England and simply refused to countenance a different approach. “I don’t change,” he remarked at one press conference. “If they don’t like it, I leave.” He sets an example that all have to fit in or they can head for the exit.
Warren Buffett, the world’s best known investor, advises businesses to apply a simple criterion when appointing a leader. “They must possess intelligence, energy and integrity. If they only have intelligence and energy, don’t touch them!” It is the third quality - integrity - the courage to stay true to their ideals which makes the difference. Pep Guardiola exemplifies this final quality. He seeks to convert English football to his way, the Barcelona Way.
Damian has worked with many sports teams including most recently the Scottish Rugby Union team. He has written several books, including the acclaimed How To Think Like Sir Alex Ferguson.
His latest book, The Barcelona Way, is released this week and is published by Macmillan.