Pep Guardiola began his time at Barcelona aged 13. Part of the club’s academy structure, he was a ballboy as a 14-year-old when Terry Venalables was in charge at the Camp Nou.
He went on to play 384 times for the club after becoming a first-team regular in 1991 and was a key part of the 1992 Dream Team that won the club’s first ever European Cup. In total, he won six La Liga titles, two Copas del Rey, one European Cup, one European Cup Winners’ Cup and one UEFA Super Cup before leaving the club in 2001 to continue his football exploration in Italy.
It was a glittering playing career that had at one stage seemed unlikely. Some had written Guardiola off at youth level for being too slight. Barcelona’s policy back then was to judge the potential of a player based on their physical capabilities. If they weren’t going to be at least 5’ 9’’ tall and be physically powerful, they weren’t considered capable of impacting the first team.
All that changed in 1988 when Johan Cruyff was named Barcelona manager.
The Dutchman had enjoyed success as a Barcelona player between 1973-78 and was a popular figure. His appointment was the most significant moment in Barcelona’s history, turning them from a divided club who had enjoyed transient periods of achievement, to the most revered football institution in the world. Barca would never be the same again; the club as we know it today was born.
He introduced a 3-4-3 formation, an adapted version of the 4-3-3 he had played under Rinus Michels, his manager at Ajax. It was bold and attacking. Midfielders were the key and technical quality, rather than physicality, was valued. “I was criticised for playing three at the back, but that’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard,” Cruyff later explained. “What we needed was to fill the middle of the pitch with players where we needed it most. I much prefer to win 5-4 than 1-0.”
His appointment at the Camp Nou changed the course of Guardiola’s life forever. Cruyff recognised the young midfielder’s ability on the ball and was impressed by his thirst for knowledge. Where others had dismissed him, Cruyff saw something special, a talent he could develop. It was a fine example of his ability to spot something in a player few other managers could see.
“He was unique, totally unique,” Guardiola said recently. “Without him I wouldn’t be here. I know for sure this is why I am, right now, the manager of Manchester City and before that Bayern Munich and Barcelona.”
Barcelona were a club in desperate need of new direction, a vision that could help them reach the summit of the game. Cruyff ripped out the underachievers who had struggled so badly before his arrival, with 15 players exiting in his first summer, including the likes of Victor Munoz, Ramon Caldere and Bernd Schuster, all of whom were big-name players with sizeable reputations.
In came Txiki Begristain, now City’s Director of Football, Eusebio Sacristán, who proved a vital player who could operate in numerous roles in midfield and 10 others. Interference from the president became minimal as Cruyff took total control. He made great use of the club’s La Masia academy, which had been established in 1979 on his recommendation during his final year as a Barca player, and the club suddenly felt reinvigorated.
By the end of Cruyff’s first season they had won the European Cup Winners’ Cup. His second brought the Copa de Rey, a trophy that saw him stave off the sack after rumblings of discontent. He underwent a double heart bypass operation and survived, before returning to the bench at the Camp Nou to oversee huge success.
Between 1991 and 1994, Barcelona won four successive La Liga titles and in 1992, after a 1-0 win over Sampdoria, who were captained by former City manager Roberto Mancini, they won their first ever European Cup with a side containing the likes of Hristo Stoichkov, Michael Laudrup and Ronald Koeman. Cruyff had completely revolutionised the club and a platform for enduring success had been laid.
“I had short lads like Albert Ferrer, Sergi or Guillermo Amor; players without great physiques but who pampered the ball with their touch and pressed the opposition like rats,” Cruyff later recalled. “Even Pep wasn’t all that physically, but with the ball he was intelligent. That’s what I wanted.”
Guardiola, operating in a role just in front of the back four, was key to their success. Cruyff knew he could trust Guardiola, a young man whose desire to take on board minute tactical ideas and innovations had impressed him from the first day the pair had met. Guardiola was curious about everything, a student of the game whose thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. Tactics, the use of space, training methods – he wanted a deep understanding of every single aspect.
He immediately fell in love with Cruyff’s training sessions and says his biggest achievement was introducing an identity at two clubs who previously hadn’t had one.
“Johan loved formations and his own cultures,” Guardiola said recently. “He played with us, in the boxes, and better than us at 36 years old. He explained, showed us the way we do it.
“It was a masterclass every single session, analysing why we were good and bad. It was like going to university every day.
“He didn't change one club, he changed two. It's impossible to find a guy like this. He changed the culture at Ajax and after at Barcelona there was no specific way they played.
“He arrived and said 'guys, we're going to play that way' and everyone followed him. Go to the academy and you see the seven, eight, nine year olds playing like the first team.
“He created something from nothing. You need knowledge, charisma and personality.”
In his new posthumously released autobiography, Cruyff reveals how had to intervene when Barcelona officials had wanted to offload Guardiola.
"As a player at Barcelona, they wanted to get rid of Pep because they thought he was a lanky great beanpole who couldn't defend, who had no strength and couldn't do anything in the air," he wrote.
"So he was blamed for all the things he wasn't good at, while I thought they were all things he could learn to do well.
"What all those people didn't see was that Guardiola had the fundamental qualities needed at the top level: speed of action, technique, insight. Those are phenomena that very few people exhibit, but in his case they were present in spades.
"As well as his footballing qualities, Guardiola has a very strong personality and in intelligent mind. You can talk to him about any subject under the sun.”
Guardiola credits Cruyff with his rise in the game. It was the Dutchman who spotted his capability and gave him a chance as a player, and it was his knowledge, insight, innovations and tactics that led him towards management.
And what a management career it’s been so far. Guardiola has won 21 major trophies in seven years. His first job at Barcelona, given to him by Begiristain who by then was on the board at the Camp Nou, saw him put together arguably the greatest club side in the history of the game. He won three La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues in the space of four years, success that was delivered in style.
He had taken Cruyff’s ideas and improved them. No side has ever enjoyed possession on the scale of Guardiola’s Barcelona. It was Total Football that impressed the watching Cruyff.
Guardiola became the most sought-after manager in the game and after a year’s sabbatical in New York, he took over at Bayern Munich and won three consecutive Bundesliga titles and two DFB-Pokals. Now he’s looking to repeat his successes at City.
But no one should underestimate the influence Cruyff’s Barcelona has had on Guardiola.
Cruyff’s legacy endures to this day, 28 years after his appointment. Barcelona’s high-pressing, possession-based, attacking football remains the blueprint for their current success. In 1979, the club’s La Masia academy was established on Cruyff’s recommendation. It is now - along with the City Football Academy - a breeding ground for some of the finest talent in the world. The football taught at every age group prepares the players for life in the first team. Without Cruyff’s influence, the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, two of this generations finest midfielders, would never have made it at Barcelona.
“Before he came we didn’t have a cathedral of football, this beautiful church, at Barcelona,” Guardiola says. “We needed something new. And now it is something that has lasted. It was built by one man, by Johan Cruyff, stone by stone.
“That’s why he was special.”
Tonight City welcome Barcelona to the Etihad Stadium - victory for the Blues would be a major statement of intent for the next phase in Guardiola's managerial journey.
Watch Pep's first interview as City boss with Noel Gallagher below