When Pep Guardiola named the first line-up of his senior coaching career, he looked for leaders. He was still a novice in his role, fast-tracked from within, from B team manager to suddenly taking charge of an ambitious, admired Barcelona.
There were big calls right away. He effectively sacked the resident superstar, Ronaldinho, and invited the playmaker midfielder Deco to leave as well.
By the end of his first season, he had won a treble, including a European Champions League, whose campaign began with Guardiola’s debut as a manager at Camp Nou. Wisla Krakow were beaten 4-0 in a pre-qualifier; the players he picked would go on to show in abundance the leadership qualities Guardiola sought.
One, Xavi, is now following in Guardiola’s footsteps as Barcelona manager. Another, Gerard Pique, owns a club – Spanish second-tier outfit Andorra – and anticipates a future bid to be Barca president. Thierry Henry features among the candidates to manage the Belgian national team. Samuel Eto’o is president of the Cameroon Football Federation.
Not all of those would instinctively call themselves Guardiola disciples, but besides acknowledging their blessings for having been part of a Barcelona team that came to be regarded as the most watchable of this century, they owe some of their leadership instincts to him. Run through the various champion squads and staffs Guardiola has taken charge of, and you find many leaders.
Now that Guardiola is in his 15th year as a coach, one or two former apprentices are starting to meet him as equals. Or, in the case of Mikel Arteta, manager of Premier League pacesetters Arsenal, who visit City in the FA Cup on Friday, from a superior vantage point. Arsenal are five points above City in the table, with a match in hand.
When Guardiola picked Arteta to be his assistant at Manchester City in 2016 he had a fair idea of his sharp mind, determination and capacity to take command. He had seen it in the teenage Arteta, an elegant midfielder who came through Barcelona’s academy when Guardiola was an elegant midfielder for the first team.
The pre-eminence of the older man, a Barcelona captain, meant opportunities for Arteta’s promotion from Barcelona B were limited. A young Xavi was also coming through. So Arteta moved on, to Paris Saint-Germain, the first stop of a varied playing career across three different leagues, including as captain of Arsenal.
Guardiola would see some of himself again in Arteta the deputy coach, ambitious and drawn to a club he had skippered. “I said many times to my players and staff that if one team were to offer him [the job] as manager, he would leave,” Guardiola revealed.
“That was Arsenal. I remember, here, that whenever we scored goals he jumped a lot, except against one team. I said ‘That guy likes Arsenal’. It’s like me training to be an assistant – when Barcelona call me, I go.”
As manager of Arsenal – a position Arteta left City to take up in 2019 - he once feared Guardiola might have ended his tenure. At the beginning of last season, City thrashed Arsenal 5-0. It was a third defeat in the opening three matches of the campaign, a nervous period.
“The biggest compliment for Arsenal,” reflected Guardiola, 17 months on, “is that in the bad moments they trust and keep him. All the decisions internally – I guess it was not easy.” He also senses Arteta’s strengths had already shown through to Arsenal executives. “I know his ability, how he works, how he seduces the board, their hierarchy, the players. Sporting directors see the dressing room and how problems are solved in bad moments.”
Some of Arteta’s solutions, on the way to putting Arsenal in view of a first league title in 19 years, have involved big calls – reminiscent of Guardiola’s early days as a coach. On his watch at Arsenal, stars like Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were shown the door; echoes of Ronaldinho and Deco under the young Guardiola.
Arteta might have been offered the City job, Guardiola believes, had Guardiola himself not extended his stay beyond the first three seasons. “I'm pretty sure if I [had] left before, he would be here; he'd be the best, absolutely,” said Guardiola, adding with a smile: “I extended the contract, sorry! And he went.”
The Arsenal momentum, the threat to City’s adding another English league title to their four from the last five years can be sustained, Guardiola reckons. “To be a success with Arsenal, it's not winning one title, it needs time. But they are active again. We as a club need this type of challenge.”