Towards the end of Pep Guardiola’s playing career, his time in Europe already at an end, he lamented the changes in the game that had left him, both tactically and literally, redundant. “Players like me have become extinct,” he declared.
In 2004, the role of the deep-lying playmaker was no more. Guardiola recognised a little of himself in Andrea Pirlo but saw the Milan maestro as the exception who proved the rule. The game had moved on and it craved other qualities from its midfielders.
“My skills have not declined,” Guardiola explained. “It is just that football now is different. To play just in front of the back four now, you have to be a ball-winner, a tackler, like Patrick Vieira or Edgar Davids. If you can pass too, well, that is a bonus.”
He was prophetic, in a sense. Claude Makelele would help Chelsea to back-to-back Premier League titles, even having the role named after him. Guardiola, only two years older than Makelele, would have an unsuccessful trial for Stuart Pearce’s Manchester City.
In 2022, as he prepares to take his own City side to face a Crystal Palace team coached by Vieira, everything has flipped. It is the football being described by Guardiola back then that would appear unrecognisable to younger readers.
The game has changed again. And Guardiola has changed it.
At Selhurst Park on Saturday evening, Rodri is likely to be the deepest midfielder on view. He is more physical than Guardiola ever was. But he will be in his position primarily because of that same ability to pass the football. There have been 2046 of those passes completed by Rodri in the Premier League so far this season – 314 more than any other player.
When Guardiola opted to give Sergio Busquets his Barcelona debut at the base of his midfield, conducting the play alongside Xavi in what was the coach’s first home league game in charge, unbeknownst to all, he was setting football on a different path.
Tiki-taka was about to enter the English lexicon.
Reciting Guardiola’s own quotes back to him now, two decades and 10 major league titles later, he is not as strident in his views. Understandably so. The argument has been won. Football bent to his will. But the sentiments remain broadly the same.
“My physicality would not allow me to play the game we needed to play,” he tells Sky Sports.
“Maybe they would give me more vitamins, I would eat better or sleep better. I could be stronger, I do not know. But I had this feeling that the players in that period, they were quicker in the legs.”
That physicality has only increased.
“I think the players take care much better than before. The nutrition is incredible, much better. The training on the pitch, off the pitch, the gym. It is monitored perfectly, 24 hours. In those days, you play a game and go home. We did not have more than two physios, one doctor, less games. Now, you know that every football player is like a machine. That is why it is a little bit different.”
And yet, for all the physical prowess of the modern player, the statistics show that there are fewer tackles in the Premier League than there were even a decade ago. The man who arrived in England and soon declared that he was ‘not the coach for the tackles’ has found the game in agreement.
Passes, meanwhile, have risen and risen. Up by almost 50,000 in total in the Premier League in the 10 years from 2011, the year of Guardiola’s apotheosis at Barcelona with their second Champions League triumph over Manchester United.
His success in showing that there was another way has been so total that it is easy to forget how sweeping the change has been. And now, he risks becoming a victim of that success as those inspired by his ideas have emerged with new energy of their own.
It is Mikel Arteta, his one-time assistant at City, whose Arsenal side top the Premier League table. Arteta is doing so, in part, thanks to the deployment of a former City player, Oleksandr Zinchenko, as an inverted full-back.
It is a tactical concept that it is difficult to believe would have been possible – for either player or coach – were it not for Guardiola.
“I do not know,” says Guardiola himself, smiling while clearly unwilling to take any credit. But the answer, surely, is obvious. Arteta was described recently by the former City captain Vincent Kompany as “definitely an extension of Pep” – the two men so in tune about how the game needed to be played.
Of course, Kompany’s Burnley stand in Manchester City’s way in the quarter-final of the FA Cup later this month. The Clarets are top of the Championship, Kompany having transformed the club’s playing style. They are averaging 64 per cent of the possession this season.
As for Xavi, he is cruising to the title in his role as Barcelona head coach. Is this not further evidence of Guardiola’s influence on a game that had left him extinct? “I appreciate it for my ego. Thank you. But I would say it is a question for them.”
Maybe what Guardiola needed as a player later in his career was a coach like Guardiola. He went as far as Mexico in 2005 in search of one, playing out his final games at Dorados de Sinaloa under kindred spirit Juanma Lillo, his future assistant at City.
Back then, he had appeared to be an anachronism, a man out of time. But perhaps football is just cyclical. The fashions wax and they wane. Guardiola believes that the best ideas work in any era.
“I am pretty sure what worked 20 or 30 years ago playing that way would work today, absolutely yes,” he says.
“Not because Arsenal or Burnley or Xavi at Barcelona is doing that. Football is football since it was created. The lines are the same. The pitch is the same. It is not 14 against 14, it is 11 against 11. It is how you good you read the situations.
“The passes are always possible to do, all the time. That is 100 per cent. Afterwards, it is the quality of the players that we have up front, many other aspects, but to play football like they played in the ’70s with Brazil, or in the 80s or the 90s, you can do it, of course.
“It depends on the feelings of the managers. The way your team want to play. It is as simple as that. In 20 years, if there are managers who like the way that Arsenal or Barcelona or Burnley or Man City are playing, their team will play in that way.”
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Kick off 7:45pm
Reluctant to claim his position as the key figure connecting some of the most successful coaches in Europe right now, Guardiola is on more comfortable ground when discussing his own inspiration.
He continues to entertain the idea that had it not been for Johan Cruyff he would have ended up in Spain’s third division rather than winning the European Cup at the age of 21.
The coach who mocked him for his lack of pace upon first seeing him play, would go on to trust him with controlling matches for Barcelona’s Dream Team.
Speaking about Cruyff in 2016, Guardiola claimed that the influence he had on the next generation, the influence on his players, was the true mark of greatness, more so than any number of trophies that he won. Is it a view that he still holds?
“All I can say is that the influence of Johan Cruyff with me was massive. That is the reality.”
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Kick off 5:30pm
But, as ever, there is the caveat.
“At the same time, I am not here to change anything or be an influence for other generations. It would be so pretentious. And there are an incredible amount of aspects to be able to play the way they are playing that are away from my control.
“When this happens, you have to be grounded and say, ‘OK, I like to see my team play the way I want to see it’. That is the most important thing. And what happens is what happens.
“About the others, it is a question for the others.”
Watch Crystal Palace vs Manchester City live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm