Pep Guardiola is one of football’s foremost tacticians. During his time in charge of Barcelona, he created one of the greatest teams of all time. As Bayern Munich manager, he won three consecutive Bundesliga titles while implementing his own ideals upon a new country. And, since joining Manchester City last summer, he has brought more a coherent style of play, if not exceptional results.
There are a number of common themes visible throughout Guardiola’s managerial career thus far, one of which has been his ability to improve players. Whether re-positioning an experienced star, maximising a fringe squad member or developing a prospect, the 46-year-old has always emphasised this particular aspect of management.
Here, Football Whispers looks at 11 players who have improved thanks to Guardiola’s expertise.
Prior to Guardiola’s arrival at Bayern in 2013, David Alaba was already one of the world’s finest left-backs. Fast and attack-minded, the Austrian was perfectly suited to his role on the left flank, but Guardiola saw more in him.
Over the course of three experimental but formative seasons under the Catalan, Alaba was utilised at centre-back, central midfield, and even, on occasion, as a sort of false No. 10. In the process he became a more rounded player and showed real tactical intelligence.
Thiago made his debut for Barcelona at the end of 2008-09 and broke out fully in 2011-12, Guardiola’s first and last seasons as the club’s first-team manager respectively. Thus, it was no surprise that the playmaker’s signature was a priority for Guardiola upon joining Bayern Munich.
“It’ll be him or no one,” the coach told reporters prior to Thiago’s arrival in Germany. And, while injuries stunted the Spain international’s initial progress at Bayern, Guardiola’s desire to give the player opportunities undoubtedly boosted his career prospects.
Having failed to play in his favoured centre-back position consistently at Manchester City, Jérôme Boateng left for Bayern Munich in 2011. But, while he gained more game time in central defence in his first two years with the German club, it wasn’t until Guardiola took charge in 2013 that he grew into one of the world’s best players the position.
With excellent technique, passing range and assuredness on the ball, Boateng had the raw material to suit Guardiola’s style. And, in return, the manager worked on the player’s defensive positioning and tactical awareness to develop him into a complete centre-back.
As a lanky, nonchalant 20-year-old, not many would have expected Sergio Busquets to go on and become one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time. Yet, thanks in large part to Guardiola’s coaching, this is exactly what has happened.
Busquets was called up to Barcelona’s B team and first-team by Guardiola in 2007 and 2008 respectively, and made the step ups with a strange composure, showing outstanding ball control, vision, understanding of space and passing.
Guardiola often has a passion project at each of his clubs, and in his final season at Bayern Munich the player he focused much of his attentions on was Joshua Kimmich. Having spent the previous two years playing in Germany’s second and third tiers, the 22-year-old was inexperienced and untested at the highest level, but he nonetheless became a crucial team member.
A natural midfielder, Kimmich was successfully thrown in at centre-back by Guardiola, who demonstrated his passion for the player with a heartfelt conversation on the pitch following a 0-0 draw with Dortmund. “I love Joshua Kimmich,” the manager admitted after the game. “He has everything to achieve everything he wants.”
By now most football fans know the story of how Lionel Messi was introduced to the false nine role by Guardiola in a late-night meeting before a clash with Real Madrid in May 2009. The change enabled Messi to have more influence centrally, and unsurprisingly his goals tally rocketed in the following seasons.
While the Argentine maestro would undoubtedly have been one of the best players in football history regardless of who coached him at Barcelona, Guardiola’s expertise made the most of the player’s immense skill set.
After failing to establish himself as a regular at Manchester United, Gerard Piqué returned to Barcelona in 2008 for a £5million fee. And, despite competition for places from the likes of Carles Puyol, Rafael Marquez, Gabriel Milito and the newly signed MartÍn Cáceres, he immediately became a vital player.
Guardiola placed great trust in Piqué by playing him at the heart of his defence at the age of 21. And the player repaid his manager’s faith by quickly developing into the world’s best ball-playing central defender.
No more than a versatile squad member at Bayern prior to the 2013-14 campaign, Rafinha’s career was revived under Guardiola’s auspices. Thanks to the coach’s moving Philipp Lahm inside to a new midfield role, the Brazilian full-back gained more playing time and proved adept at handling Guardiola’s tactical demands.
Pedro’s Barcelona career was uncertain prior to Guardiola’s appointment as first-team manager. But, having impressed the coach during their time working together in the B team, the attacker was promoted and gradually became one of the unsung heroes in an incredible era.
Due to his two-footedness and pace, Pedro was the ideal wide forward for Guardiola’s front three, making incisive runs on Messi’s right-hand side and offering a real goal threat.
Raheem Sterling’s debut season with Manchester City was underwhelming. And the 22-year-old’s confidence wasn’t improved by a poor Euro 2016 with England. However, Guardiola believed in the youngster from the very beginning of his Premier League adventure, even calling Sterling to reassure him of his future.
Used in a wider, more isolated role where his pace and skill could be fully utilised in one-on-one situations, the player has benefitted greatly from Guardiola’s presence — he was averaged twice as many completed dribbles per game this season when compared to last, makes more key passes and is on course for his most productive term in front of goal.
Ridiculed for his determination to play out from the back, John Stones has had to fight against a tide of criticism from all angles since breaking into the Premier League with Everton under Roberto Martínez. And, while his defensive fundamentals haven’t noticeably improved during his first season at Manchester City, the centre-back’s offensive capabilities have been nurtured and maximised by Guardiola.