Open Book #1 Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich

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When Pep Confidential first appeared on my radar via Amazon’s suggestion algorithm self published e-book based on an amateur’s observations of the Bayern Munich youtube channel came to mind. However, the title proved irresistible and Henry Winter’s referral further guided my mouse to the add to cart button.

The author, Martí Perarnau, was a mystery. He wasn’t orbiting my Raph Honigstein, Sid Lowe football author’s universe. But I quickly wiped the crusties of humble pie from the corners of my smile when I discovered not only is Martí a top journalist who made his way into Pep’s inner circle, but also a former Olympian.

Pep’s appetite for learning from other disciplines saw him open to Martí, giving him unfettered access, but with one stipulation:

‘You can write about everything you see and be as critical as you like in the book but during the season please don’t talk to the outside world about what you witness inside.’

Below are a few of my favorite bits:

The tactical revelation of Pep’s first year was shifting Philipp Lahm, football’s finest left back into center midfield. But to my surprise Pep wasn’t the first coach to play Philipp in the center of the park. His coach-turned-agent Roman Grill played him there in his youth team days:

Roman Grill played for Bayern II as a pivote and coached at youth level. ‘Obviously I have the advantage of having coached Philipp when he was a kid. I used him in the midfield then. His strongest qualities are his football intelligence and his ability to read a game tactically. That’s why he should be in the center. Philipp contributes a lot to the defensive organization but also to the fluidity of the game. As a fullback he had this ability to spot a team-mate and make exactly the right pass which, in turn, helped the whole group. And in the midfield he has even more opportunity to use that skill. ‘

Pep spoke of the world’s outstanding left back as if he’d been an organizing midfielder for years. One could switch out the name Lahm with Busquets and the adjectives would still ring true:

‘Do you see Lahm’s potential? Have you seen how well he anticipates the next pass? Have you seen how he turns and protects the ball? He can play on the wing or in the middle of the field.’ It is clear that he has just made one of the season’s biggest discoveries.

Despite the abundance of world-class players at Bayern, role players such as Rafiniah were vital:

One of the technical team comments: ‘Rafinha is just about the most important member of the team right now. If he got injured we’d have to really conjure up a solution.’

That’s how it is. Rafinha allows Lahm to play as organising midfielder, something which has been vital to the teams performance.

The detailed explanation of tactics makes Pep Confidential a page turner:

Playing out with three men from the back is very useful because it conditions the response of your rival. Even if they press you, it’ll be with the center-forward and second striker, obliging them to move into a 4-4-2 shape and you can therefore over-run them by achieving superiority.

The tactical evolution which I’d envisaged at that time with consisted of using the left-back to step forward and play as a second pivote. We already knew that the full-backs could move up as high as the pivote while he was bringing the ball out from the back, but without overlapping him until he’d already played the ball forward. The idea was to then leave the left-back paired with the pivote so that, if necessary, we could defend with a double pivote system in midfield – even though the team didn’t line up that way.

Despite being viewed as an idealist with a penchant for center midfielders Pep possesses a pragmatic edge:

‘Who are our unstoppable guys? The wide guys – Ribery and Robben. We have to use that weapon. We have to be superior down the middle of midfield, but open up the width with diagonal passes. That means we have to push the whole team up field in order to release Robben and Ribery, because they can’t be dropping deep to start the play.’ He will explain this over and over again.

Long ball is bad. Long ball is bad. Ok, but has anyone ever explained why? Pep does:

‘They lob the ball over the top of Thiago or Kroos and, if we aren’t in position, we’re lost. That’s why we can’t launch the ball and look to go up and support it, because that will leave Thiago and Kroos running up and down the pitch the whole time. We need to go step by step, all of us in unison. Lose the ball and – pam! – we win it back quickly because our positional play has us all tightly linked.’

Part of assembling the tactical framework includes improving a player’s individual technique:

Fitness coach Lorenzo Buenaventura explains:

‘There are aspects of your game you can improve at any age and one of them is basic technique. Paco Seirul.lo and I have talked about this a lot. When players come to Barça for the first time, they often struggle to adapt to that way of working. I remember David Villa’s early training sessions. He’s a quick, high-octane kind of guy, who already knew eight or nine player from the Spain team, yet he still battled to understand the dynamics of that particular group.’

“Pep deals with new concepts by introducing them from the warm-up, the simplest passing exercises onwards. Today he’ll share a few details and then give some more tomorrow. The day after that he’ll talk about how to choose what angle the body is at to receive a pass, then, next time, how to take the ball on the move, followed by how to practice passing off your weaker foot. Little by little the players start to understand and assimilate and very soon it’s coming easily and they’re putting it all together at speed.”

It’s easy to believe that the now famous rondos are a fun warm up game of monkey in the middle, but with Pep everything has a purpose:

After that they do the rondos, an absolute imperative for Guardiola. There won’t be a single session this year when they miss them out. ‘Once the warm-up is finished the rondos are next. Apart from once per week – either the day before a game or the morning training session before the game – when we are a bit less demanding. The rondos normally put emphasis on one aspect or another: one day on who should play in the middle of the circle, then on how to win the ball back, another on how to support the man with the ball, or on how to find the third-man movement.

Pep’s kids:

There’s no homesickness at all. Pep’s kids are the most important factor for him. He’s obsessed with the importance of them studying abroad and learning lots of languages. He always insists that the best thing he can do for them is give them a good education and lots of language learning.

Maria and Marius are his teachers. Pep always tells them every detail of his matches and his kids love it. They are both fanatically interested in tactics and, what’s more, never hold back if they think he is wrong.

Yes. Pep Guardiola has weaknesses:

Guardiola’s Achilles’ Heel is his anxiety. He carries with him a deep fear of coming under attack, which was probably born during his playing career. He was physically fragile and lacked athleticism – rather on the puny side. Working alone to cover an enormous section of the pitch, he was an easy and exposed target for the opposition. If they tackled Pep and succeeded in neutralising him, the whole structure of Barça’s game would collapse. He carried this fear throughout his whole playing career, but was also smart enough to develop the ideal antidote. Pep found that he could cope with his fear by playing with a touch of audacity.

A quote from Diego Simeone because well, it’s Diego Simeone:

Buenaventura, too, believes that passion is fundamental to victory in football. ‘If you talk to Diego Simeone he’ll tell you something which pretty much stands out: “I’m the footballer who got the most out of the least resources. You know why? Because I have passion! How the hell was I going to get 100 games for Argentina? As a player I was a bit of a lump, but everything I achieved was down to my passion.”

Get down from that tree son, I see you up there! In Germany you can put the binoculars away. Scouting, in particular, sharing match videos between clubs is commonplace:

It is absolutely vital to record matches in situ in panoramic format so that the action can be studied from a tactical point of view. ‘In Germany, scouting is considered a part of the job and not some form of espionage. The clubs themselves even pass footage to each other. It’s normal practice here,’ Planchart explains.

Champions League regrets against Real Madrid:

Pep had been more than clear. ‘We dominate the play when all the good players are together in the middle. And if I end up losing it won’t matter. I’ll go home happy to have done it my way.’ And yet, on this, the most important day of the season so far, he has betrayed his own belief system. He has failed to play the football he believes in and has not even attempted to build the kind of game he considers vital to attack and win. It’s true that he was perhaps missing the men best qualified to deliver his style of high risk football, a game that must be executed with the utmost precision. Even so, it is evident that Pep’s own decision was the catalyst for this catastrophe. Today, Pep betrayed his own principles.

And

‘I spend the whole season refusing to use a 4-2-4. The whole season. And I decide to do it tonight, the most important night of the year. A complete fuck-up’

We’ll close on a complete fuck-up.

Pep Confidential is not a typical footballer biography, but rather a journey of the tactical reinvention of one of the most dominate Bayern sides ever. A tale of relentless self-improvement by one of the great coaches of our times. And that in itself makes it a worthy read.

Pick up Pep Confidential here and also pre-order Martí’s follow up book – Pep Guardiola The Evolution.

Record Players, Polaroids, and the #9

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Like vintage technologies of yesterday the old-fashioned #9 is back.

Wasn’t long ago the only place you’d find a record player was at a yard sale or thrift store. CDs, and for an even younger generation Ipods left the vinyl scratching table weight irrelevant.

Polaroids the same. The original Instagram, albeit with a 2 minute lull, was the awe of the image capturing world, with visionaries like Andy Warhol lending it artistic credibility.

Who could’ve predicted it’s final demise would come from a seemingly completely different technology – the phone?

Football can be seen through the same lens. Spanish success at club and international levels rewrote the tactical legislation and possession became law.

Coaches across the globe scrambled to copy their law books. Lumping it forward to the big man had become sinful.

Still, the #9 could be found. Not in the green pastures of the starting 11 but rather swinging their legs on the end of benches and scattered about in transfer market bargain bins, often listed under a new name – Plan B.

But the past year has seen a revival of this proud footballing tradition. This back-to-goal forcefield, this net bursting specialist.

The target man of 2015 can play a delicious reverse pass, chip it over a highline, and even defend corners.

But that’s not we’ve missed. We want the Harry Kane hat tricks, the Lewandowski scissor kick purple patches , the O.Giroud flick ons.

We want the penalty box porn star, scoring at will.

Vinyl, polaroids and the big man up front are enjoying a renaissance. But will it continue?

P.S. Big shout out to the retiring Abby Wambach. While the #9 is returning, this legendary #9 is walking away. All the best Abby.