Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola owes to his career to his legendary Barcelona mentor Johan Cruyff

The Manchester City manager opens up about how Cruyff, his coach at Barcelona and his tactical inspiration, taught him about football, and how he hopes to one day emulate his greatest legacy

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It feels implausible now, but Pep Guardiola recalls a time when he did not know anything about football. Of course he could play it very well, from a very early age, growing up in Catalonia, and playing at the Barcelona academy. But knowledge is different from understanding, and now, looking back, Guardiola points to one man for his development of football understanding: Johan Cruyff.

Guardiola was a skinny 17-year-old when Cruyff took over as Barcelona manager in 1988. The Dutch veteran instantly saw something he liked, something familiar in the slight precocity and chessboard vision of the young man. They started to talk about the game, and only then did Guardiola have the insight that he was starting from zero.

“I thought I knew about football but when I met him, and I started to work with him, I realised a new world in front of me,” Guardiola said on Thursday evening. “Most coaches say many things, but what he said was completely different. He taught us, not just me, but a number of players, a new generation. He helped us to understand the game and the reason why situations happen.”

This is the central insight of Cruyff and also of Guardiola: that good play and good coaching is an intellectual exercise, beyond technical and athletic skill, as important as they are. “I thought that I had talent, but Johan helped us to understand the reasons to take a decision, the reason you won a game, the reason situations happen,” Guardiola said. “Football is the most difficult game in the world because it is open, and every situation is completely different from another one. You have to take decisions minute after minute after minute.”

That is what Cruyff helped Guardiola to do, to make the right decisions from his deep-lying No 4 role, to direct the whole play of the team. Guardiola implemented that strategic genius at Cruyff’s Barcelona and then went on to instil the same vision into his own teams, playing in the same way: expanding the pitch in possession, contracting it without, trying to beat the opposition through their manipulation of space.

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Johan Cruyff was a key figure at Barcelona as player and manager (Getty)

“When you are a kid, at 16, 17 or 18, to learn that [from him], I was a lucky guy,” Guardiola reflected, speaking at the launch of ‘My Turn’, Cruyff’s autobiography, written with Jaap de Groot before Cruyff’s death this year. “I am sitting here in London, as coach of Manchester City, before that at Bayern Munich, before that at Barcelona, because I met him. Or else it would not have been possible.”

What has been so impressive about Guardiola’s career has been how he has revived Cruyffian principles first at Barcelona, before trying to instill them at Bayern Munich and now at Manchester City. That is why Jordi Cruyff said that “if my father could choose one person to sit with, it would be Pep”, his old protégée. “He was a big fan of Barcelona and Bayern, and I am quite sure that if can still watch football, he is a Manchester City fan too.” 

It was Cruyff senior, after all, 20 years after he first met Guardiola, who recommended him to the Barcelona board as their new coach in 2008, ahead of the originally fancied Jose Mourinho. The success that his old pupil enjoyed, with his way of thinking, is his greatest legacy. 

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Cruyff’s footballing philosophy is upheld to this day at Barcelona and by Guardiola (Getty)

Guardiola would not put it quite in those terms but that is what he meant. The coaching success of so many old Cruyff players – himself, the De Boers, Marco van Basten, Ronald Koeman, Luis Enrique, Oscar Garcia and so forth – is Cruyff’s great triumph.

“If you ask me today, there is no doubt that people will still be talking about Cruyff in 50 years time,” Guardiola said. “People think that the best managers win the prizes, but that is a huge mistake. The big managers win titles because they’re at the big clubs with big players. The best ones influence the next generation, especially their own players.”

“The influence of Johan Cruyff, is that so many of his players are coaches, it is amazing. That is why we tried to follow what he taught us. His influence, his impact, is not comparable to anyone else. It’s special. Titles, you will win at big clubs. But not all trainers have this influence.” If Guardiola really wants to follow in Cruyff’s footsteps, this is his final challenge. 

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