Old allies and teammates are enemies again for 90 minutes as Catalan faces a rival manager with a better record in their previous clashes.
Chance for Guardiola to outsmart friend Koeman as Manchester City host Everton
Long before they took up residence at either end of the East Lancs Road, Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman were roommates and teammates.
The Dutchman is more than seven years older than the Spaniard, driving a Mercedes when the younger man had a second-hand Opel, and he remained the senior figure in their relationship. It was Koeman who scored the goal that made Barcelona’s Dream Team European Cup winners for the first time in 1992 and Koeman, scorer of 239 goals in his club career – Guardiola got a mere 26 – who made the more headlines.
A quarter of a century later, does that still have a pertinence? Perhaps.
Guardiola may defer to few but Koeman, another man schooled by Johan Cruyff at Camp Nou, got the better of his old friend last season. Everton secured an unexpected point at the Etihad Stadium last season. They inflicted Guardiola’s heaviest ever league defeat in the rematch at Goodison Park, a 4-0 thrashing that also remains the Dutchman’s best result as Everton manager.
If their relationship has changed over the years – Guardiola, presenting himself as the junior partner, has said he used to have a glass of water ready for Koeman when he woke up – the older man has argued he is not a mentor anymore. “He doesn’t pick my brains now,” he said last season.
Instead, Koeman has used his insight into Guardiola’s philosophy. Their 1-1 draw in Manchester ranked as the first time Guardiola configured City with a back three.
Most were surprised. Koeman was not. “I know my good friend Pep,” he said. “I said we need to expect three defenders.”
The Everton manager still needed to change tactics mid-match when his side seemed to be getting overrun, but he began with an initial advantage. That began with an understanding of Cruyff’s thinking.
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If Koeman, courtesy of the free kick at Wembley 25 years, secured his counterpart’s greatest managerial triumph, Guardiola has done most for his legacy.
“He loved the way Cruyff wanted to play with Barcelona,” Koeman recalled last year. He has excelled in forging a side to stop one that resembled his old team.
Guardiola is the unashamed purist. Koeman has more of a pragmatic streak. He is prepared to play without the ball. Everton had 27 per cent of possession in the 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium, just 29 per cent when winning 4-0 at Goodison Park.
“I expect they play the same way,” said Guardiola, who has vowed not to change his own tactics, on Friday.
That thrashing prompted him to concede City title hopes were over and to declare that they were not good enough in either penalty box. Everton were their opposites, excelling where it mattered most.
It is a moot point how much Koeman’s prowess against Guardiola was simply a consequence of goalkeeping. Maarten Stekelenburg saved two penalties in Manchester, whereas Claudio Bravo conceded four goals from as many shots on target in Liverpool.
Indeed, while Guardiola’s two biggest defeats as City manager came to Barcelona and a Barcelona teammate, both also featured Bravo, who was sent off in Camp Nou. It brings a focus on Ederson, who has displaced Bravo, and Jordan Pickford, two of the three most expensive goalkeepers ever.
Guardiola and Koeman have prioritised the position. Men who were antitheses in last season’s meetings are again united in their thinking. They often have been. Friends who see each other socially now could have been colleagues after their playing days ended.
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When Lluis Basset stood for the Barcelona presidency in 2003, he planned to make Guardiola his sporting director. And he, in turn, had contacted Koeman, then in charge of Ajax, about becoming manager.
It provides an intriguing alternative version of history, one where they teamed up again in the dugout. Instead, old allies are enemies again for 90 minutes as Guardiola is pitted into a rare position as he faces a manager with a better record in their previous clashes.