I know Pep Guardiola - and this is why Man City will win the Champions League
Even for Pep Guardiola, when I look at Manchester City I can recognise more from our time together with Johan Cruyff at Barcelona than ever before.
It might even be the winning of the Champions League. Back in 1992, when Barcelona were still waiting on their own first Champions League, Cruyff didn’t just play his formation. He came up with a “box” at the back, that had a brilliant technical player in Eusebio Sacristan at full-back. Eusebio was not a defender but his influence there completed the team, allowing such fluidity. It is similar with John Stones at City now, although he can defend very well. The system allows Guardiola’s team to play comfortably with so much space behind them, while also releasing Erling Haaland.
The move has ensured they are now a team that has everything, combining Guardiola’s control with the individual potency of the best goalscorer in the world. It is why this is their great opportunity and the reason I think it is finally the year of City and Guardiola.
It is also why he has been so influential in the history of football tactics, someone we all look to as coaches.
Because, if you go through the semi-final teams 11 against 11, player for player, I actually think Real Madrid are superior. They also have the power of that history in the Champions League. Carlo Ancelotti has also done a great job with them, after a brilliant career, but the way he coaches points to a few contrasts between the clubs. It is idealist against pragmatist, collective control against individual moments.
This is not meant as any kind of criticism. Madrid have repeatedly proven they can win the biggest games without control. Vinicius Junior has meanwhile been central to so many individual moments.
I think, along with Kylian Mbappe, he is the best in the world with space in front of him. He is the great danger of Madrid. There is of course Karim Benzema, but he can’t do the same damage as Vinicius so far away from goal, which is where the game could be played.
So, City have to control Vinicius. If they do this, they are 75 per cent of the way to winning the game. I am sure Pep will seek to ensure Vinicius has as few touches as possible, and that his marker has a lot of support.
The “box” greatly helps with this, as Guardiola now has his full-backs playing more inside. It has given City a greater coherence. It has also given them a greater threat beyond Haaland, by using him for more than just goals.
The system now means the attacking midfielders are closer to Haaland. That’s key because he opens the space for them to play between the lines, and suddenly a defence is overloaded. They then have one of the game’s great poachers if the team don’t score from that. That’s how clever Pep is.
Many talk of the money spent but a lot of clubs have done similar without even getting out of the group stage. Winning the Champions League again would silence the last remaining criticism, but I think he’d have any top club challenging.
Haaland is the icing on the cake. It also shows how there is always a different texture with Pep, every season. It’s something coaches always watch for, to see what he is doing.
Previously, with a false nine, City have had a lot of possession and chances. They now have that goalscorer, but one who is not just a poacher. The truth is I’ve never seen a striker like him. It’s like he’s a hybrid forward. Poachers aren’t usually super-fast players like that, but he is lethal in the area and so strong in the box, but can play with his back to goal and run into space.
The big difference is also that, if a game is complicated, he will get you that goal. Pep has now maximised this.
It is the understanding of space that was instilled in us at Barcelona by Cruyff. Guardiola showed he got this every day when we trained, with how he spoke, how he moved. I think it will now bring City their first Champions League.