There is a renewed energy and motivation amongst the academy staff at Manchester City and perhaps they need to thank the club they play on Wednesday evening in the Champions League.
They can even go and pay homage at the mini-stadium opposite the Nou Camp, the mini stadium which is now replicated at the Etihad, complete with walkway to the main stadium.
It is of course there where Pep Guardiola took his baby steps in club coaching in the 2007-08 season, with Barcelona B. And it still feels extraordinary when you reflect on the fact that even 10 years ago Guardiola hadn’t started his coaching career; his influence is such that it feels like he has been around forever.
Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola will return to Barcelona in the Champions League
City opened a new state-of-the-art £200million Football Academy back in 2014
And you can draw a link between the mini Nou Camp and re-invigorated academy department at Manchester City. It is not that they haven’t been doing their job well at City’s academy for years; they have. And those who watch these games are convinced that the youngsters Manchester City have are among the best.
But, for the first time since City’s owners began overhauling their age-group teams, the manager comes to watch. Guardiola has already attended a number of academy games; he has even been to training.
It shouldn’t really be a shock, but it was almost never the case under Manuel Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini according to staff.
Guardiola is properly old school about all this. He already knows the name of many of the academy players.
It recalls the days when Alex Ferguson used to turn up on Thursday night to watch his Under 16s play in the gymnasium at The Cliff training ground and would already be on first-name terms with the parents long before their sons made the first team. That’s the difference between managing a team and leading a club.
And Guardiola has that difference in a way that few modern coaches do.
Guardiola welcomes youngster Jadon Sancho during a training session earlier this month
City have a mini-stadium as part of their Etihad Campus, which is similar to Barcelona’s set-up
You can’t blame most managers. Such is the insecurity of the job and fragility of your personal reputation that it’s hard to think of the long term.
Maybe Guardiola can because he has lived a relatively gilded managerial life and hasn’t had to worry too much about the sack, such has been the quality of the teams he has inherited.
Or maybe it’s because he himself knows that he would never have made it had not Johan Cruyff given him his chance when he was struggling in the Barca C team and everyone else said he was too small.
Without Cruyff, the Guardiola of today would not exist and you suspect he realises that and feels he owes young players their chance.
But Guardiola gets the need to nurture the next generation and thinks beyond his own reputation. That doesn’t make him a saint. There’s plenty to go at if you want to paint a fuller picture of Guardiola. But, in this respect, he does stand apart from many in the game.
Txiki Begiristain, Joan Laporta and Johan Cruyff (left to right) all believed in Guardiola
GUARDIOLA AT BARCELONA
Honours: La Liga (1990-91, 1991-92, 1992-93, 1993-94, 1997-98, 1998-99), Copa del Rey (1997, 1998), European Cup (1992), Cup Winners’ Cup (1997), Super Cup (1992, 1997)
Honours: La Liga (2008-09, 2009-10, 2010-11), Copa del Rey (2009, 2012), Champions League (2009, 2011), Super Cup (2009, 2011), Club World Cup (2009, 2011)
People don’t always appreciate quite how low-grade the move to coach Barca B was in 2007. They had just been relegated to La Tercera, the third tier of Spanish football, which meant they played in a regional Catalan league before qualifying for national play-offs: think Conference North rather than League One.
The team which had been relegated included Bojan Krkic and Giovanni dos Santos, so you would imagine the players had hardly been adequately motivated. All in all, they were at a particularly low ebb.
Add in the fact that the standard of the pitches was not at a level which would naturally encourage a team to pass out from the back, as Guardiola insisted; it hardly seemed ideal preparation for a glittering career.
The club didn’t really want him to take the post as they felt it beneath him; they wanted to find a more ambassadorial and glamorous role. But Guardiola insisted he wanted a real job and that he wanted the B team.
When he started, he would not give one-on-one interviews, only doing occasional press conferences. Pretty soon most journalists stopped coming to watch the team train, although all the sessions were open.
And among the players he coached that season were Sergio Busquets and Pedro. Between them the pair have won two World Cups, two European Championhsips, six Champions League titles, 11 La Liga medals, seven Copa del Rey titles and five World Club Cups. Busquets is perhaps the most-accomplished holding midfielder in the world.
Guardiola began his coaching career at Barcelona B (left) and took Pedro into the first team
And so it would seem that their rise through the ranks would have been inevitable. When Xavi played in Barca B, everyone raved about him; it is true that a disconnected group of club executives almost sold him before Louis van Gaal put him the first team but his talent was undeniable. Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta pretty much bypassed the B team and went straight into the first team.
Busquets and Pedro were ugly ducklings by comparison. Busquets wasn’t even in the first XI of the B team in the early parts of the 2007-08 season. Pedro had originally been in the C team, which had to be disbanded and amalgamated with the B team when the B team was relegated, because they couldn’t have two teams in La Tercera.
Neither was earmarked for glory. These were players who might end up at Girona or, with luck, Real Sociedad. There did not appear to be any inevitability about their rise as there was with Messi and Iniesta.
Yet Guardiola saw something and he believed in them. And when he took over the first team in 2008 – which in itself was another huge act of faith in youth from President Joan Laporta, Director of Football Txiki Begiristain and, lurking in the background as mentor, Cruyff – he took them with him. Not only that, he played them.
Guardiola helped Sergio Busquets develop into arguably the world’s best holding midfielder
Sometimes it really is that simple. Dominic Solanke, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathaniel Chalobah must wonder where their careers will take them, as Josh McEachran contemplates Brentford’s game at Derby on Tuesday night. You can’t help but wonder what kind of players they might be now had Guardiola been persuaded by Roman Abramovich to take over at Chelsea.
Some managers get it and some don’t. Mauricio Pochettino does. Louis van Gaal, the man who gave Victor Valdes, Iniesta, Xavi and Carles Puyol their debuts at Barcelona, did. And for all that he got wrong at Manchester United, he went with Marcus Rashford once he had found him and Jesse Lingard.
We need more of them in English football, wherever they come from. Less managers and more leaders.
All through the Premier League’s lean years in the Champions League, we have consoled ourselves with the fact that it was not the lowering of standards, the acceptance of mediocrity and the failure to keep up tactically which was letting us down.
No, it was the sheer intensity of the Premier League which cost us. The fact that anyone could beat anyone and the speed at which the matches were played. Not the same in La Liga or the Bundesliga, where Bayern Munich, Barca and Real Madrid dominate and can stroll through match days in second gear, we told ourselves. And it was a lovely comfort blanket to cuddle through the dark days. It wasn’t that we were poor. It was almost as if our very excellence was damaging our chances.
Now Pep Guardiola is under some amount of pressure this year to win the Champions League, not having done so at Bayern Munich and having been handed the resources to do so at Manchester City.
Guardiola puts his arm around Kevin De Bruyne as Manchester City train on Tuesday morning
So in order to ease the pressure somewhat, to lower expectations on himself, you might have expected him to subscribe to the above theory. What better way to explain a possible quarter-final exit next year? The sheer competitiveness of the Premier League is to blame; not me.
Yet he is also a man who has actual experience of La Liga and the Bundesliga. And offered the chance to endorse the above view of the world on Saturday, he seemed less convinced.
‘I hear a lot of times about that intensity in the Premier League when none of you have been in La Liga and in the Bundesliga to know how intense it is,’ he said.
John Stones (L) and Raheem Sterling stretch as they prepare to face Barcelona on Wednesday
‘So here the problem is maybe more games. But how they play in Germany, is amazing. And I think you have to have respect for the other leagues and the way they play. Every league has its points but it is the quality of the players which makes the difference.
Why in Spain in the last six, seven or eight years have (their clubs) arrived in all the semi-finals and final of the European competitions; it is because they play good and are good players. And I think that is the reason why and nothing else. The intensity in Italy and other places is quite the same.’
In short, Guardiola is not buying that lame, self-justifying excuse from the Premier League. And he is a man who actually knows.
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