x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Jury still out on Ronaldo but Guardiola has his winner ready

The first day of Globe Soccer kicked off with adulation for the ultimate football superstar, but it closed with arguably the most important figure in world football today extoling the virtue of the group.

Bayern Munich's Pep Guardiola is flanked by Fabio Capello on his right and Juventus manager Antonio Conte in Dubai. Mohammed Omar / Reuters
Bayern Munich's Pep Guardiola is flanked by Fabio Capello on his right and Juventus manager Antonio Conte in Dubai. Mohammed Omar / Reuters

Cristiano Ronaldo, speaking at the Dubai International Sports Conference, named himself as his favourite player. Franck Ribery, set to speak there today, believes the Ballon d’Or for world’s best player is his right.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Paris Saint-Germain striker, has declared, “I don’t need the Ballon d’Or to know I’m the best.”

It’s all me, me, me in football these days.

But if you need someone to fight the corner for the team ethic, who better than Pep Guardiola.

The titles of each session at the conference were telling. Ronaldo’s was “At The Top”; Guardiola’s, “Creating A Winning Team”.

The Bayern Munich coach was introduced alongside Fabio Capello and Antonio Conte as “three teachers” by the Italian journalist Tony Damascelli.

Three intelligent central midfielders, three title-winning coaches. “Everybody can become a manager regardless of position,” Guardiola said. “As a midfielder, of course,t you see what happens on the pitch in the interest of the group, but then sometimes that’s true of forwards as well.”

Guardiola took over as Barcelona coach from Frank Rijkaard in 2008, and his phenomenal success, and the team’s peerless playing style, has marked him as one of the game’s foremost thinkers and tacticians.

“The game was in my head as much as my legs,” he said. “At 25, I decided to become a manager.”

Barca’s tiki-taka style of play incorporated some of the finest players in the world, such as Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi, in a system steeped in team philosophy. Despite a reputation of not getting on with highly individual performers, such as Ibrahimovic, Guardiola says he enjoys working with star names.

“It’s easier to coach big players. Good players are the ones who help you win matches,” the 42 year old said. “People go to stadium to see the players.”

One man, above all others, has influenced Guardiola’s football ideology.

“I was born in Barcelona, and the biggest influence on me was Johann Cruyff,” he says of the man behind Barcelona’s 1990s Dream Team that Guardiola himself played in. “When he arrived we’d had an Argentine coach, a German and an Italian, and now we had to get used to the Dutch system.”

Cruyff’s blueprint would become gospel at Camp Nou for the next two decades.

“We started playing in exactly the same way throughout all the age groups, which gave the club stability through its philosophy,” Guardiola said.

“You see 10-year-olds play the same way, and have the same concept, as the senior players.”

It is a philosophy that he took to record-breaking extremes. In his four years in charge of Barcelona, Guardiola won 14 trophies. Fabio Capello paid him the ultimate compliment.

“The Dutch system, AC Milan with [Arrigo] Sacchi and then myself, and then Guardiola’s Barcelona,” the coach of the Russian national team said.

“Those are the three fundamental phases of football evolution, which came 20 years apart.”

Guardiola, not surprisingly, is not too keen to talk about his own legacy. “We are too close to events now, history will judge us.”

Nor does he agree, as one journalist suggested, that his coaching career might have peaked with Barcelona’s famous treble in 2009.

“Of course, I am better now than when I started out,” he says. “I can handle certain situations better and I have more experience. I hope to be better in 10 years time.”

Bayern stand to reap the benefits of his tactical genius. But for Guardiola, tactics are not about numbers, but movement.

“Tactics are about players, you have to know the quality of your players and what they can do,” he said. “If you play 4-3-3, it’s only a starting position, the players have to move at the right times during the match.”

Capello, only half joking, said that the you only have to watch the matches on television to realise that the favoured system these days is “9-1”.

Everyone presses to get the ball back, before launching attacks on the opposition.

“[For a midfielder] it’s about knowing when to arrive in the box,” Guardiola said, as an example. “The [starting] system is not as important. Once the game starts, the players have to start moving.”

Last week, Guardiola collected his first trophy as Bayern Munich coach, the Club World Cup after beating Raja Casablanca in Marrakech, Morocco.

The Bavarians are also running away with the Bundesliga in Germany, and are favourites to retain the Uefa Champions League.

He dismissed the notion he can only manage great teams, and insisted teams need strong organisers. “The players need a coach, and his ideas” he said. “Someone to put it all together for the group.”

And Guardiola’s lasting dream? It is a modest one.

“I’d like to finish my career off coaching young players again,” he said. “When I started with Barcelona, I coached the youth players. There were no lies, no journalists, it was pure football and I’d like to end my career like I started it.”

akhaled@thenational.ae

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