5 lessons from Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola

The latest in Amazon Prime’s ‘All or Nothing’ sports documentary series goes behind the scenes at the highly successful and somewhat polarizing English Premier League football team Manchester City.

Led by the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola, City swept all before them in the league last season, and the series goes behind the scenes of that 9 month journey.

There’s plenty to criticize; the lack of compelling story arc can leave a viewer cold, and frustratingly there’s not that much in the way of specific tactics and strategies used by Guardiola to motivate his side and outwit competitors, but there are a good few interesting insights to glean – for fans, coaches and business people alike.

Here are a few of them.

You don’t have all the answers – except when people need to believe you do

No one has all the answers. Objectively most of us know this, but we don’t always want to believe it, especially when times are tough.

Off camera as the team head back out to start the second half of a tricky game, Pep admits he of course doesn’t have all the answers, but sometimes he simply has to pretend he does. There are occasions where his players need that extra confidence boost, that feeling of being supported and having nothing to fear.

 

Keep your people close

It’s striking how Pep has built his roster of backroom staff. The vast majority of his key lieutenants are coaches, therapists and trainers he has brought in from his previous work in Munich and Barcelona, and they’re a finely calibrated team.

More so, players with more serious injuries aren’t sent to private hospitals in Manchester, Liverpool or London for treatment – they go to Barcelona, to Pep’s preferred specialist.

Once he finds a trusted partner, he sticks with them, and they become part of the package when he moves to his next appointment. City haven’t just splashed out on Pep Guardiola; they’ve invested into his team, network and ways of working.

Even the chairman and c-suite members speaks with a deference – no one outlasts or is bigger than the club, but they’ve bought into more than just a head coach. They’re aiming for a full-scale transformation and that means going all in, all the way. Pep may be a big name with a proven reputation, but he’s far less without his team.

 

Celebrate

Early on City beat Chelsea away. It’s a big result, but still early days in a long league season. You may expect Pep to enter the dressing room quiet and relaxed, keen to ensure no one gets ahead of themselves. It’s just one game, after all.

Quite the opposite – he lets loose with a guttural victory roar, and there’s no hanging back from any member of the on-pitch or coaching teams as they mob the man of the match.

This scene could easily be the dressing room of a tired and hungover Sunday League pub team who have clung on to a goalless draw on a freezing cold winter’s morning, not some of the world’s most gifted and well-paid professional sportsmen.

But here’s the thing – the celebrations are the same whether you’re top of the pile or bottom of the barrel.

Sometimes it pays to be circumspect and measured, but other times you can’t help but get lost in the moment.

 

Bring in the data when it matters

Pep’s analyst Carles has worked with him since the beginning of his managerial career. In the dressing room after a comfortable victory, rather than bathe in the glory of another win Pep invite Carles to tell the team why they should be wary of what’s coming next.

City are due to play the seemingly average Crystal Palace in a few days’ time. It’s the middle of the season and not a hugely vital game, but Pepe and Carles make it clear the team should be prepared like it’s the biggest game of the year. His analysis has shown him that Palace have the ability to neutralize many of City’s strengths and despite their lowly standard in the table they have the potential to make this game one to seriously derail City’s season.

The final score in the game? Carles wasn’t wrong – City escape with a 0-0 draw after Palace grind them down throughout the game and miss a last minute penalty to win the match.

(And yes I’m a little biased – I do bring this up as a Palace fan).

 

The water carrier, the guardian angel

One of my favorite moments came towards the end of the series. Manual Estiarte is a Catalan working as part of City’s backroom team. Nothing unusual there you may think.

However, Estiarte doesn’t have a football background. He’s more of a water polo man. A pretty good one in fact – he was voted the World’s Best Water Polo Player on seven consecutive occasions.

Working alongside Pep throughout his managerial career, in the series Estiarte doesn’t appear to do very much. He’s often in the dressing room or on the training pitch but he’s not a coach to the players, nor does he have a clear role (“officially he is Head of Player Support and Protocol”).

But Pep’s foreword in Esitarte’s autography tells us a little more:

“I don’t know if angels exist and, if they do, if they help us. Much less if guardian angels exist. But, if they do exist, I believe you are one of them.”

Estiarte is the guardian angel for Pep and by extension the team. He’s there, reading the room, looking out for even the smaller disturbance or areas of tension.

And that’s his role. Pep says Estiarte “helps a lot in terms of the significance of understanding sport by seeing it from above.”

And it’s in the final few moments before a match that they connect – Estiarte is the consigliere, the eyes and ears, picking up everything Pep hasn’t noticed. He’s almost invisible – the guardian angel viewing from above.

And the very final hug before the dressing room empties each time is between the two of them.

Sometimes it’s the silence in the noise where the most important things happen.

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