Pep Guardiola's success at Barcelona owed much to Lionel Messi... the Nou Camp might hail the manager but the forward's return matters more.
He oversaw the greatest four-year spell in Barcelona’s history. Players recall him creating a brand of football never seen before. And the coaches who faced him remain in awe of how impossible it was to beat his team.
But players and coaches also agree on one other thing. Pep Guardiola’s success owed much to Lionel Messi and he’s the reason why they have kept on winning since.
‘No, it’s not just another game. It’s always good to go home,’ said Pep Guardiola at an event in Catalonia last week to launch Johan Cruyff’s autobiography.
He was on the last leg of a mini-marathon of promotional events and sounding tired and even a little grumpy.
He surprised one questioner when asked if he had learned anything new in the book about his mentor by admitting he had not actually had time to read it yet.
‘Cruyff the father, Pep the son and Messi the holy spirit,’ was L’Equipe’s famous front page take on the thread that runs through Barcelona. And whenever Guardiola goes ‘home’ he is often asked about the other two.
Two years ago in the Champions League semi-final Guardiola didn’t have to talk about Messi - he had to defend against him and it did not go well. He warned in the build-up to the first leg that the Argentine was ‘unstoppable’. And he proved it by scoring twice in a 3-0 home win over Guardiola’s Bayern Munich.
Messi was back on Saturday after less than a month out injured and as a second-half substitute it took him just three minutes and three touches to score.
‘Of course we miss him when he’s not there. He’s the greatest player in history,’ said Luis Enrique who is currently on the same six trophies in two seasons run that Guardiola managed when he took over. The football is not as mesmerising but the results are the same.
Former West Brom coach Pepe Mel, who faced Guardiola’s team while managing Real Betis says: ‘You put Messi into a team that is already very good and it becomes a great team. I’m sure Luis Enrique is a better coach because he has Messi. Pep was a better coach with Messi. I would have been a better coach with Messi.’
Mel’s Betis were not the worst against Barcelona during Guardiola’s golden reign. They played them in the Copa del Rey in the 2010 and won the second leg 3-1 at home, becoming the first team to beat them that season. But only after losing the first leg 5-0.
‘I said to the players: “We’re going to lose; do you want lose enjoying yourselves or playing defensively for 90 minutes?” So we went for it and we were magnificent which sounds a daft thing to say for a game that ended 5-0 but they didn’t score the first until the 40-minute mark,’ he says.
‘We lost the next five games after winning that second leg. The mental and physical exhaustion of beating them really ok it out of the players. You had to press them the way they pressed you and you realised how hard that is to maintain.’
The feeling that defeat was almost inevitable, and exhaustion guaranteed, was felt by most coaches at the time. Jose Luis Mendilibar’s Osasuna team were beaten 8-0 in 2011.
‘We were 10 minutes from half time and it was only 2-0,’ he recalls. ‘But it was 5-0 by the time the break came. They could destroy you in just five minutes. What do you say to players at half-time in that situation? You just try to avoid yellow cards or injuries in the second half.’
Guardiola’s game plan was behind such one-sided wins. Mendilibar says: ‘[Dani] Alves, Xavi and Messi ganged up on us down their right-hand side creating the famous “numerical superiority” and even though we spotted it, it was very difficult to do anything about.
‘But without Messi they would not have been the same. You only have to see now with the Argentina national team – it’s not just that they are not winning without Messi, they are losing.’
Messi’s brilliance does not take away from the innovation of Guardiola’s four-year period. Quique Sanchez Flores, the former Watford coach who is now at Espanyol, says: ‘He has rewritten the text books and what really sets him apart is that he has gone to other clubs and they have played with 60 or 70 per cent of possession right from the start.’
It is also to Guardiola’s credit that his Barca have spawned countless copies, most of them awful according to several La Liga coaches.
Sanchez Flores says: ‘What we have now is this great confusion and it makes me laugh a lot. The idea that to have that numerical superiority you just stick another midfielder on the pitch. It’s fun but that’s not the essence of it at all.’
Gus Poyet, now at Betis, agrees: ‘After Guardiola’s Barcelona everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon that their teams play good football, because they pass the ball four times from one side of the pitch to the other. No one can compare themselves to that Barca.’
Most of Guardiola’s former players recognise that he lifted them to another level.
‘He taught us that the simplest things are the most effective,’ said Alves, now at Juventus.
‘I never thought that a team could pressure the ball for 90 minutes. Pep’s greatest success isn’t the way that Barcelona play but getting them to pressure: putting into the heads of players, even great players, that pressure has to be done like this.’
But even that assessment brings things back to Messi.
‘The first person to lead the pressure was our best player, Messi,’ Alves says. ‘Messi is the one who defends first.’
Xavi has echoed the sentiments of Alves. No one speaks more highly of Pep than the Spain midfielder who had half a foot out of the door by 2008 when Guardiola was given the first-team coach’s job and told Xavi he would build his team around him.
But Xavi also agrees that the greatest defining factor in Barcelona’s incredible 10 years has to be the greatest player ever to play for the club.
‘The incredible thing about Leo is that he can do everything,’ he told Diario AS. ‘It’s an honour for me when people say he now plays more and more in my former role. But he can also play like Andres Iniesta. He could do Gerard Pique’s job if he had to. He can win the ball, he is very quick and he has incredible upper body strength. He has everything: the technique, the speed and the brain. He is just extraordinary.’
On Wednesday, if there is a moment to applaud Guardiola then the Nou Camp will rise to do so. But it is Messi’s name that will be chanted from all corners of the stadium. He’s back for his first start after almost a month out. That matters far more than Pep being back with his new team. Daily Mail