Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning

Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning: The Biography

By Guillem Balague

Orion, 2013

255 games, 194 wins; 14 trophies out of a possible 19, including 3 La Liga and 2 Champions League titles. The statistics speak for themselves but do they speak for the manager? There remains a real mystique surrounding Pep Guardiola. This is a man who followed up a glittering playing career at Barcelona by becoming their most successful manager ever, all by the age of 40. Much has been written about his tactics (the false nine, tiki taka) and his players, but precious little about the calm, classy ‘Philosopher’ himself. This is largely his own doing; during his four managerial seasons at the Nou Camp, Pep refused all one-to-one media and all but one interview for publication.

Luckily, La Liga expert Guillem Balagué is a very well-connected man. Not only does Another Way of Winning have a foreword from Sir Alex Ferguson and countless quotes from the likes of Johan Cruyff, Lionel Messi and José Mourinho, but it also contains the all-important musings of MisterGuardiola. ‘Talking to Pep for this book’, Balagué explains, ‘was the only way I could open up a hitherto closed window on his private world; to reveal what motivates him, what took him to where he is now, what fed his intuition to make the right footballing decisions.’

Another Way of Winning takes an end as its beginning, using Pep’s surprise resignation as the point at which to stop and reflect on his phenomenal career to date. This is Pep’s Greatest Hits; there’s no filler in sight as Balagué takes us from the early successes of his playing days (6 La Liga titles, 1 European Cup, 1 Olympic Gold), through the glory years of No. 1 after No.1 as Barcelona manager (the coverage of the two Champions League finals in particular is incredibly detailed), before the inevitable tensions, rivals and disappointments, and finally the tearful goodbye and the new direction. What he may lack in eloquence and style, Balagué certainly makes up for in zip and punch.

And insight. Although little of the character sketch is groundbreaking, the many details and anecdotes do add up to a clearer vision of both the manager and the man. Any football fan could tell you that Pep is obsessed with tactics, but Balagué offers up the bigger picture. A player who began preparing for management under Cruyff, then Rexach, Robson and van Gaal, growing increasingly confident in his ideas and communication; a player who left the comfort of the Nou Camp at 30 to study the different footballing cultures of Italy, the UAE, Mexico and Argentina; an ex-player who rejected the chance to run the world-famous academy that raised him, choosing instead to gain hands-on experience with Barcelona B, a team in turmoil, newly relegated to Spain’s fourth division; and finally a record-breaking manager with an incredible 24 assistants who still spent hours alone in his office watching video footage, honing the perfect strategy to defeat the next opponent. About Guardiola’s team-talk prior to the 2011 Champions League final, an awestruck Javier Mascherano says, ‘Everything that he said would happen, happened as he said it would.’

As with Arsene Wenger, Guardiola is presented as less a football manager than a football teacher, a genius with a singular vision for his pupils: ‘Total Football’ with a Spanish twist. Brave but ordered attack in the form of flowing, possession football, built upon a base of hard work and togetherness. But it’s one thing to have a philosophy and quite another to implement it successfully. Luckily, Pep had a largely receptive audience (most notably, of course, La Masía graduates new and old, from Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol through to Messi, Busquets and Pedro), and as Balagué demonstrates through a series of invaluable team-talk insights, ‘his ability to communicate is perhaps his greatest talent’.  ‘The coach makes us understand football’, Gerard Pique corroborates.

Many did, however, fall victim to Pep’s strict ‘my way or the highway’ policy. The considerable talents of Ronaldinho, Deco, Eto’o, Bojan, Yaya Touré and of course Ibrahimović were all shown the door; ‘the affection lasted as long as the player’s desire to be a part of the vision’. The Brazilian duo were rightly seen as a disruptive influence (particularly on a young Messi) but in discussing these last two players, Another Way of Winning for the first time questions Guardiola’s perfect judgement, and specifically his unyielding favouritism towards his home-grown talents. Talking of Barca’s ever-increasing reliance on La Pulga as the supreme focal point, Balagué asks, ‘Had Guardiola created a monster in Messi? The Argentinian had absolute power in the coach’s final season, and his behaviour was sometimes out of place.’ As they would soon find out against Chelsea, no matter how good Plan A is, you need a Plan B.

The pressure to succeed took its toll on Guardiola, ‘that need to continue to fuel a competitive group under any circumstances’. What Another Way of Winning brilliantly captures is the sensitivity of the man. In the difficult transition from player to manager, Pep was keen to distance himself from the dressing room itself, but that didn’t prevent a deep ‘emotional investment’ in the lives of his players. As he himself articulates so astutely, ‘The closer I get to players, the more I get burned, I need to distance myself.’ But nowhere was Pep’s emotional fragility more evident than in his intense battle with Real Madrid manager and former friend Jose Mourinho. Balagué sums up their rivalry nicely; ‘Pep took it all personally. For José it was all part of the job’. With his mind games and barbed comments, the Special One wore away at Pep’s principles until he retaliated and soon afterwards surrendered. Mourinho may have outlasted his foe but a vulnerable genius makes for much more compelling reading.

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Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top

Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top: A Biography

By Philippe Auclair

Pan Macmillan, 2013

A sports biography that strays beyond the sporting facts is something to celebrate. A sports biography that prefers to call itself ‘a biographical essay’ and sets out ‘to try to understand how and why such a magnificent footballer…has inspired such extremes of feeling’ deserves a piñata and party bags. For Auclair, this is no empty threat; what he did for Eric Cantona (The Rebel Who Would Be King), he’s now done for Thierry Henry, the classy King of Highbury but also ‘the selfless egotist, the insufferable charmer, a walking oxymoron in shorts’. It’s another fascinating subject matter for a brilliantly incisive biographer, especially one who happens to be an Arsenal-supporting Frenchman living in London.

Yes, Philippe and Titi are a match made in heaven, even if, despite years of interviews and conversations, the journalist is ‘not a friend of his, and could never have become one’. Does distance make the heart grow fonder? In Auclair’s case, it makes the heart grow fairer, and more intrigued. Rightly or wrongly, Henry’s every word, gesture and decision is scrutinised here, from Les Ulis prospect all the way through to New York celebrity. Lonely at the Top addresses the need for an objective judgement of France’s highest ever goalscorer, an examination of the myths side by side: Henry the player and Henry the person.

1 French, 2 English and 2 Spanish league titles, 1 Champions League, 1 World Cup and 1 European Championship. Surely the trophy cabinet of a true footballing legend? And yet, Henry remains a ‘nearly man’ in many eyes; no ‘single moment’ to define him, no Ballon D’Or win and famously only 1 goal in the 9 major senior finals he played in, that one being the 2003 Confederations Cup. ‘He still owned them [the trophies] but he didn’t seem to ‘own’ them, somehow’. As Auclair’s chronology demonstrates, either side of the dizzy heights of his Arsenal career, Titi never quite lived up to expectations at Monaco, Juventus and even Barcelona (a ‘parenthesis’ according to his biographer). For France, Henry’s goal record hid the disappointing fact that he and Zidane failed to gel during their peak period, at the 2002 World Cup in particular. In terms of the ‘genius’ tag, an adopted nonchalance disguised a footballer working hard to get the most out of a raw blend of pace and power.

And yet, between 2001 and 2004, Henry was unstoppable. As the focal (and significantly central) point of Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’, Titi led the Gunners to 2 Premier League and 2 FA Cup trophies, winning back-to-back PFA Player of the Year awards. In these 3 seasons, he scored a phenomenal 103 goals in 155 matches, including many that were crucial and/or breath-taking. He won the French Player of the Year award four years in a row (2003-6), and was runner-up in the FIFA World Footballer of the Year in both 2003 and 2004. Paradox Number One: Henry the footballer.

Paradox Number Two: Henry the man. The infamous ‘Hand of Gaul’ against Ireland in 2010 only served to reinforce his reputation as an arrogant and unlovable individual. Auclair and others speak of ‘a many-sided man’ with a ‘calculating streak’, ‘increasingly aloof’ and renowned for his ‘essential remoteness’. No-one argues with Monaco and Arsenal teammate Gilles Grimandi’s assertion that Henry has no real friends in football. Patrice Evra, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet come close but don’t quite make his very exclusive inner circle. Lonely at the Topastutely traces Henry’s near-universal distrust back to a difficult relationship with his demanding father and a botched transfer to Real Madrid in 1996. This early betrayal, Auclair argues, ‘hardened him’.

And yet, Henry has never shied away from the cameras. He gave regular interviews throughout his time in England and, like most footballers, what he said was always polite, usually humble and occasionally insightful. In 2008, Premier League fans voted him their most popular player ever. So how does this all add up? What we have, Auclair argues, is a highly insecure figure who ‘craved assent and praise as no other footballer I have come across did’. In his dogged pursuit of greatness, Henry adopted a public mask, surrounding himself with propagandists and ‘starfuckers’ in an attempt to control his image. A very convincing argument indeed.

While Henry is, of course, the focus of Lonely at the Top, the bigger picture is always intricately filled in. The Clarefontaine, Monaco and Barcelona set-ups are discussed in detail, while the ebb and flow of Henry’s time at Arsenal is given the attention it deserves, as he graduates from struggling misfit, to leader of champions, and finally to one-man team. Arguably the book’s most fascinating sections, though, cover Titi’s rollercoaster ride with Les Bleus, from World Cup winners to shamed, first-round knockouts in the space of 12 years. Auclair lays out the national context boldly and succinctly; ‘a fractured society ridden with post-colonial guilt and neuroses, which had desperately wanted to believe in the 1998 black-blanc-beur utopia and was now forced to smell its own shit.’ Biography this may be, but like Henry at his pinnacle, it’s a few cuts above the rest.

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8 Football Books to look out for in 2014

March

Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biography by Simon Astaire (Spellbinding Media)
This first ever authorised portrait of the Tottenham, Arsenal and England legend should be fascinating. Racism, homophobia, the Judas switch across North London, the Notts County debacle – it’s a story that has it all. Despite his high-profile career, Sol remains a quiet, sensitive enigma – I’m hoping for a Philippe Auclair-style character study.

The Game of Our Lives: How Football Made Britain Great by David Goldblatt (Penguin)
Goldblatt follows up his mammoth global history, The Ball is Round, with a more pared-down look at his homeland over the last two decades. The spectacular rise of the Premier League is explained within the social context of post-Thatcherite Britain – Penguin call it ‘a must-read for the thinking football fan’.

April

Andrea Pirlo: The Autobiography (BackPage Press)
Originally published in Italian last year as Penso Quindi Gioco (I Think, Therefore I Play), the Italian maestro’s story is about to reach a worldwide audience. ‘The Architect’ has won it all: 2 Champions League medals, 4 Scudetto titles, a Coppa Italia and a World Cup. He’s the ultimate creative thinker on the pitch and, if the snippets that BackPage have released in their brilliant #PirloThursday tweets are anything to go by, he’s no different off it.

Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team by Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen and Mike Gibbons (Bloomsbury)
Before the Euro 1992 winners, there was ‘Danish Dynamite’, the hip, Hummel-clad, Michael Laudrup-led side who rose from international obscurity to become everyone’s second favourite team thanks to their exciting performances at Euro 1984 and World Cup 1986. Told for the first time, this story should be just as much of a surprise hit.

May

Bend it like Bullard (Headline)
From a cult team to a cult player. Soccer AM-favourite Jimmy Bullard is a cockney geezer with a smile on his face and stories to tell. At 20, he swapped painting and decorating for professional football, working his way up to the Premier League with surprise package Wigan Athletic, before spells at Fulham and Hull. All-action and larger-than-life, Bullard is guaranteed entertainment. I wonder if Nick Barmby gets a mention?

Thirty-One Nil: The Amazing Story of World Cup Qualification by James Montague (Bloomsbury)
James ‘The Indiana Jones of soccer writing’ Montague received widespread acclaim for When Friday Comes, his 2009 book on football in the Middle East during the Arab Spring (When Friday Comes). Since then, he’s been travelling the globe, following the (mis)fortunes of international minnows attempting to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. A funny and insightful exploration of a whole lot more than sport.

August

In Search of Duncan Ferguson: The Life and Crimes of a Footballing Enigma by Alan Pattullo (Mainstream)
This first ever biography of one of British football’s fiercest competitors should be an absolute treat. To date, Ferguson’s footballing legacy is unequivocally negative; the most red cards in Premier League history and the first professional footballer jailed for an offence committed on the pitch. And yet, ‘Big Dunc’ is also still the Premier League’s highest ever scoring Scot, a classic target man who combined aerial prowess with genuine skill. A talent deserving of examination, then.

Autumn

Roy Keane with Roddy Doyle (Orion)
I’m not sure publishing has ever seen anything quite like it; a bitterly controversial footballing icon teaming up with a Booker Prize-winning novelist. The second instalment of Keane’s autobiography, provisionally titled ‘The Second Half’, promises to be every bit as fascinating as the first. Said to blend ‘memoir and motivational writing’, it’s sure to include a response to Sir Alex’s recent comments.