Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol were an integral part of Barcelona and Spain’s all conquering teams of the 2000s, here they discuss the influence of Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola on their careers, the fortunes of Barcelona and the impact that Pep will make at Manchester City.


Johan Cruyff can be regarded as one of football’s greatest – both as player and coach. His sway over the sport transcended his achievements on the pitch and when he spoke, people listened. Seeing football in a different manner led to a radical overhaul of the way Barcelona would develop players, the fruits of which are now abundantly clear. But one man, a product of Cruyff’s vision, has been able push his ideas even further – Pep Guardiola.


To one side of the pitch in the bowl of the Amsterdam Arena, the home of AFC Ajax (and the club of Cruyff’s formative years), sits a stage. In the rows of seats immediately opposite, are hundreds of track-suited football coaches representing clubs from all over the world – England, Spain, Brazil and Mexico, amongst others – eager to listen and learn from some of Europe’s finest coaches and former players.


This is a two day business and coaching event being hosted by Aspire Academy and so in the suite at the back of the main stand is also a gathering of white collar executives, eager to do business with the many companies and local Qatari organising committees for the World Cup in 2022. Perfectly encapsulating the juxtaposing worlds of modern football, the suits and ties later mingle with the tracksuits, whilst amongst those are faces instantly recognisable in more casual attire – big names like Juan Sebastian Veron, André Villas-Boas, Marc Overmars and Ronald de Boer – but the real, standout, stars of this event are Xavi and Puyol.


 When Pep Guardiola was appointed as Barcelona manager in 2008, Xavi and Puyol were already fully established within the team, having risen through the ranks from the club’s La Masia Academy. But it was Pep’s vision and style of play that would unlock the true potential in both players and the team as a whole.


“I already had a lot of important awards but I understood that I still had to improve, because I understood that the group would also get better,” recalled Puyol during a Q&A in which you could hear a pin drop, such was the reverent attention being paid by the audience. “I knew what I was doing [football-wise] but they had to teach me how to defend again, as I never had any training showing me these things.”


This was a rather surprising revelation, given Puyol would play his 400th game for the club that season, but Pep’s vision for Barcelona was to attack from the back, starting from the goalkeeper, which meant Puyol had to rethink his role within the team.


“Pep has helped us all improve,” added Xavi. “He has a way of understanding football which is unique. In one way or another he lets you understand how the play has to progress and he changed the way of defending by going forward. It’s something different – it’s not from this moment.”


Xavi was quite clear in his admiration of Pep’s impact at Barcelona, adding: “He also has a very specific way of understanding football, he has changed football in Barcelona and I would say beside Johan, the most important person in football in a last 50 years, has been Guardiola.”


Barcelona would finish the 2008-09 season with six trophies, the defeat of Manchester United at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome firmly cementing their place as the greatest club side at the time. That season was the product of a long term vision set in place by Cruyff and nurtured in the club’s academy system, La Masia being at its heart


“The secret of the La Masia is the philosophy of Johan Cruyff from years ago which is now bearing fruit,” continued Xavi. “The work they have done there over the last 25 years has been very important and what we learned from Johan Cruyff about total football and aggressive football has been the great difference to us.


“We have a lot of passion for it and I am very proud to be a student of Barcelona and also from Cruyff and Louis van Gaal.


“Although Cruyff didn’t train me directly in his idea of football, there is a very big difference between Barcelona of nowadays and before him and that is what we got from him, Johan Cruyff, and it’s an honour to be here in his house [the Amsterdam Arena].”


Pep himself was a product of La Masia but Xavi believes his experiences at other clubs, in different countries, helped to shape his ideas.


“He has been trained in Barcelona for a lot of his professional years. But he has also been to other places and this has nourished everything that he has seen. So for instance in Italy, with the defensive approach to play that they have, he certainly learnt a lot from that. Then he had a lot of meetings with different trainers and coaches and he is someone who always wants to learn more.”


Pep’s tenure at Barcelona would be one of the most successful in the club’s history, winning fourteen trophies in all during his reign, before taking a sabbatical from football. But a manager as successful as Pep was never going to be given much of a chance to take time off and he would soon be back in management at FC Bayern Munich in Germany, then eventually taking over at Manchester City at the start of the 2016-17 season.


City, like Barcelona, have a long term vision and the development of the club’s world class academy and training facility opposite the Etihad Stadium is testament to that.


City have a long way to go yet and Pep’s managerial expertise will surely be tested fully in an unforgiving Premier League. In the Champions League, meanwhile, he made an emotional return to the Catalan club in October in the first of two ties, in which he was given a true examination of the scale of the task he faces. Barcelona ran out comfortable winners in the game at the Camp Nou but the return leg (yet to be played at the time of going to print) will give Pep the  chance to assess his options.


In a surprise tactical move in the game at the Camp Nou, Pep left his star striker, Sergio Aguero on the bench until the 79th minute, by then City were down to ten men and losing three-nil. What he can take comfort from is the fact that Barcelona have had a near 30 year head start in developing a winning style of play and with three of the world’s most clinical strikers on the pitch – Messi, Suarez and Neymar – it was always going to be a difficult game.


“The idea of Barcelona is to be respected but there are little things that can be improved on or changed,” added Puyol. “Johan Cruyff was a very important person in Barcelona and all of the trainers and coaches have worked to improve our game. Pep Guardiola improved it a lot and we made a very big jump forward in a defensive sense with Guardiola and this is the fruit of this labour. They always want to learn and they always want to win but they always use the values of respect.”


So can Pep translate his success at Barcelona to Manchester City? Xavi certainly believes so and thinks he can have a positive effect on the game in England as a whole. “If there is somebody who can change the dynamics of English football, make a winning generation or make a change to the historical aspect of England’s game, it is Guardiola.


“I think he one of the best coaches at the moment and I think with his personality and his education, his obsession with his job and his mentality, he could have a big impact. He will influence a lot, especially the players of Manchester City.”


Guardiola certainly gets the plaudits he deserves but which player or players do they think are the best right now? “For me, it’s Leo Messi,” Puyol was quick to confirm. “He’s been playing for 10 years at the highest level and he’s improved, improved and even now he’s improving. Five years ago people were saying he’s reached his limit and he won’t get any better but every year he gets better and better. I think he is a great leader and he controls everything on the pitch and for me it has been a privilege and an honour to play with him.”


And the best Barcelona team they played in? “We’ve had some great generations but I think the team of 2008-09 season was really great,” said Xavi. “We won six titles in one season and what’s even more important I think is the way we did it and the results we had.”


So as Manchester City look to benefit from Pep’s influence it should be remembered that good things come to those who wait – not something so easy to accept in the often notoriously short-termist world of football. And what should also be noted, is the influence of one man arguably above all else, a man whose vision brought great things to Barcelona and to the sport as a whole – Johan Cruyff.


Original article from fcbusiness Issue 97