Pep rejected your reality and substituted his own. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Doubtlessly by now you have heard the news: Josep Guardiola has stepped down as the manager of FC Barcelona after four incredibly successful years. That such a young manager, in such a short time, became the most successful coach in the illustrious history of the club is incredibly impressive in itself. That he did it by aggressively introducing tactics that were considered almost completely dead just a few years earlier is borderline unbelievable. But the man did it.
Josep "Pep" Guardiola was born in central Catalonia, in a town that became part of his nickname, El Noi de Santpedor (The Boy from Santpedor). He joined the La Masia youth academy and eventually rose to the Barcelona B team where he began making a name for himself as a right midfielder. The story goes that the then-senior team manager, Johan Cruyff, suggested to the then B team manager, Charly Rexach, to move Guardiola to the defensive midfield role. As Cruyff expected, Guardiola adapted wonderfully to the new position.
It wasn't long before Pep was in the first team playing as a pivot and becoming a centerpiece of the early 90s Barcelona "Dream Team." At the age of just 21, Guardiola helped Barca lift their first European Cup title, among other successes. Meanwhile, he became the hero of several young Cules - including one Xavier Hernandez, one Andres Iniesta, and one Cesc Fabregas.
He won six league titles as a player, among other successes. He was considered an essential part of the Spanish national team for years. But at the relatively young age of 30, he came to be considered a good player but no longer elite. Pep moved on from Spain to Italy. He was very good for Brescia, so much so that Roma picked him up the next season. But Fabio Capello did not see a place for him at Roma and he was sold back to Brescia in the winter transfer window.
The next year he moved to the Qatar Stars League, quite a drop in competition level. He was very good for Al-Ahli and later for Dorados de Sinaloa in the Mexican League, but of course, this was a different, lower level. He retired at the rather young age of 35.
The strangest part of all this was that his skills had not diminished too much. Sure, he was older, but physical attributes were never his strong point and he was in good shape. His passing, crisp and thoughtful, was as keen as ever. It was the world of football that had changed. It had come to be dominated by faster, stronger, less technical players.
"I haven't changed... my skills haven't declined. It's just that football now is different. It's played at a higher pace and it's a lot more physical," Guardiola lamented in a 2004 interview in The Times of London.
At age 36, he began managing the Barcelona B team. He helped them gain promotion from the Tercera Division to the Segunda Division B. Mimicking his meteoric rise as a player, he became the first-team manager a year later.
The world has fond memories of the Ronaldinho era, but the reality was that the team was struggling at the time. In the least season under Frank Rijkaard, Barca were third in the league, 10 points behind second place and 18 behind Real Madrid. They hadn't won a single trophy since winning the Supercup at the beginning of the previous season.
The greatest fiction is that Guardiola inherited the world's best players and simply rolled the ball out, sat back, and enjoyed their success. Oh sure, Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi were around before Pep became manager. But they were not nearly as successful. None were starting for the Barca team that won the 2006 Champions League Final. Messi's goal total in Rijkaard's last season was 16. The first season under Guardiola saw him find the net 38 times.
Guardiola did not shy away from implementing his vision, which meant radical change. He let go of Edmilson, Zambrotta, Giovani dos Santos, Thuram, Oleguer, Crosas, and Ezquerro. Most shockingly, he wanted to dump Barca's highest-profile players: Samuel Eto'o, Ronaldinho, and Deco. Eto'o convinced Pep to keep the Cameroonian forward around, but Dinho and Deco were sent packing.
Guardiola made some important signings that year, too. Some bad, some good... and some great. He paid a fortune for Dani Alves, and it ended up a bargain. And the mere 5 million he gave up for Gerard Pique seems like grand theft now.
He implemented a system of short-passing that gained worldwide fame, tiki-taka. And he employed Xavi and Iniesta, two Guardiola-esque players, as the world's greatest exponents of the style. He promoted a little-known B team player, Sergio Busquets, to become his successor in defensive midfield. He set out with a team created in his image, breathing his philosophy, to conquer the world.
And conquer the world they did. The midfield of Guardiola disciples dominated possession with short, thoughtful, intricate passes. The team won every competition available, finishing off a memorable sextuple that included the third European Cup / Champions League in team history.
Barcelona retained the La Liga title as Busquets went from first-team option to surefire starter for club and country. Xavi and Iniesta operated a similar tiki-taka style in the Spanish national team that won the 2010 World Cup, Spain's first. Fabregas picked the #4 jersey because it was the number his boyhood hero, Guardiola, wore. And it was Fabregas who assisted Iniesta to score the World Cup-winning goal. Seven of the 11 starting Spanish players that won that game were Barcelona players.
In 2011, Barcelona won their third league title in a row and won their fourth European Cup / Champions League title. The most telling stat: Guardiola has participated in three of those four triumphs.
The next season was not as he had hoped. Injuries, form, and complacency did their part as Barcelona have all but lost the league title and have been knocked out of the Champions League. Even in a down year, Barcelona have already won three trophies and are in the final for a fourth.
Guardiola is ready to take a break from the pressure of managing such a high-profile team. Even so, his impact is undeniable. No one can devise an invincible strategy. But Pep came darn close. Tiki-taka may be in its decline, or it may be a bump in the road preceding another 10 years of dominance. Either way, its reign can't go on forever. All strategies are eventually countered and thus lose power, but the mere fact that such a reaction happened is a testament to their genius.
Make no mistake about it: "genius" is the appropriate word. But if there is a message to take from all this, it's to be loyal to your own style, to paraphrase Fabregas's comments after the loss to Chelsea. That is what Pep Guardiola did. His style was considered obsolete, but he didn't back down. He worked on it, improving it, until the world had to conform to his will.
It's that same perseverance and self-belief that Barcelona must learn from in their quest to reclaim the Spanish and European crowns next season.