Let’s get this out of the way right now: If you are looking for an in-depth tactical analysis of the “Guardiola system”, this isn’t the book. If you are looking for a detailed account of Pep’s four seasons in charge of FC Barcelona, this isn’t that book either. Instead, this book is (or claims to be) an introduction to the man himself, with insight into how he thinks, what motivates him, and why he does what he does. In that sense, Pep Guardiola is a success. The reader is left feeling that they have a deeper understanding of how Pep relates to people and how that was the catalyst behind certain events. More on that later.
The book is divided into three parts, each with a different theme. The first part deals with Guardiola’s decision to leave at the end of the
2011-2012 season (“Why Did He Have to Leave?”). Then there is a brief account of Pep’s youth, playing career, and his personal quest to learn as much as possible about football from coaches and players whose vision of the game he admired. This section covers Pep’s time coaching the B team and how he came to be chosen as first-team manager. The third part chronicles Pep’s four seasons at the helm, with emphasis on the most important games, such as the CL finals and the numerous Clasicos. Balague discusses at length Pep’s relationship with his players, staff, and the media, and a whole chapter is devoted to the “rivalry” with Jose Mourinho. The final chapter returns to the theme of Pep’s departure, the final games, the tributes–and the response from within and without the club.
I am on record as not being a fan of Guillem Balague, but having purchased the book I resolved to go into it with an open mind.
Whatever I think of his personality, he is a decent writer and certainly has access to sources and information I do not (as he often reminds the reader). The book unfortunately suffers from poor editing. There are numerous avoidable typos (at one point he says that Inter took Eto’o in exchange for Ibrahimovic AND paid 46 million Euros in instalments!) as well as repetition of phrases and paragraphs that make it seem like the book was written in separate chunks that were later patched together. At one point he refers to Pep as “Spiderman” out of the blue, and it isn’t until nearly the end of the book that he explains the analogy. From someone who makes his living using words, I found it sloppy and annoying. From a purely factual point of view, there is not a lot of new information in this book. Most of the content could be gleaned from previously-published sources–interviews, match reports, ect.—and there are some passages where the reader feels doubtful that the way the author relates an anecdote is really quite how it occurred. The strength of the book lies in the direct quotes from interviews Balague conducted with Pep’s friends, colleagues and players (including one who preferred to remain anonymous–for some reason I suspect it was Dani Alves).
If most of my previous comments sound negative, there are plenty of positives to this book as well. The author has a light, engaging style that allows the reader to appreciate the highs and lows of Pep’s time with Barcelona. One of the most enjoyable sections deals with Pep’s season coaching the B team. Like many, I wasn’t really following the B team at the time, so I was fascinated to read about the enormous changes Pep implemented when he took charge—merging the B and C teams and keeping only the cream of both teams. In the end he let 27 youth players go. Imagine how difficult that would have been for someone like Pep to do! And that is really the crux of this book—the way Pep Guardiola forms close emotional relationships with his players, and how this tendency affects his actions, his decision-making, and ultimately was one of the reasons Pep made the decision to leave when he did.
“On the day he announced to his players he was leaving Barcelona, he was clear: `If I had continued we would end up hurting each other.’”
According to the author, Pep has a fundamental need to feel loved by those around him. His passion for the game and personal charisma make it easy for players to “fall” for him. Pep is very affectionate with his players, and that affection is returned—most of the time. Now and then Pep comes up against a player who cannot or will not form an emotional connection with him. When the player is performing well and doing what is expected of him, that is OK. But if the player is also not adapting to what Pep requires of him tactically or is causing problems within the team—and shows no desire to improve the situation—Pep slams the emotional shutters down. Thus players like Eto’o and Ibrahimovic were eventually frozen out. Pep’s difficulty distancing himself from his players also meant that daily decisions like choosing a lineup for a game could be painful for him. As a former player he understood how it felt to be left out of a team, to have to settle for a few minutes here and there. In the book Pep describes how he suffered when a player was angry or ignored him. Thus the benching and eventual sale of Bojan (who Balague describes as a “victim of Messi”) was incredibly painful for them both.
Ultimately I came away from this book with mixed feelings. It was an enjoyable read, but aside from the two sections I have highlighted above it felt like there wasn’t much substance to it. Anyone looking for a comprehensive account of the “Pep years” will be disappointed, but then the book never really claimed to be that. As an exploration of Pep’s character and motivations the book is a success, even if it does venture on occasion into melodrama. I would recommend it as a casual read, but take it with a grain of salt.