Guardiola was so much more than a boss to Lionel Messi… If Manchester City sign the Barcelona superstar then they can thank the incredible bond forged by a vision for Pep’s ‘pet’ to change football forever
- Lionel Messi looks set to leave Barcelona after 19 years at the Spanish giants
- His rise to prominence coincided with working under head coach Pep Guardiola
- The forward has himself admitted Pep has done more for his career than anyone
- The pair could be reunited this summer should Messi join Manchester City
Pep Guardiola has always played down the chances of ever working again with Lionel Messi. The acceptance it would never come to pass has always been easier to cope with than the hope of being reunited.
Recent events however, may have changed the Spaniard’s stance, and he can now afford himself a chance to imagine what working alongside the Argentine superstar once more would look like.
With the 33-year-old Messi telling Barcelona he wishes to leave the club this summer, Manchester City have emerged as the prime candidate to take him in and provide him with one final shot at another Champions League title.
Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola enjoyed a trophy-laden spell together at Barcelona
If he does end up on these shores, then it will have been the lure of Guardiola, his mentor and the man he professedly owes his success to, that convinced him the time is right for a Premier League adventure.
What is clear from their relationship at Barcelona was the huge amount of mutual respect.
When Guardiola departed in 2012, announcing his desire to take a sabbatical from coaching, Messi could not bring himself to attend the press conference along with the majority of his team-mates – such was his devastation.
The sadness made sense. It must be tough to see the person who has given you everything you had wished for walk away. And in Messi’s mind there is no doubt that Guardiola had given him everything.
Handed his debut by Frank Rijkaard in 2004, it was under the tutelage of Guardiola that Messi developed into the sensation we know today.
Guardiola presents Messi with the Ballon d’Or in 2010, one of four he won under the coach
Messi has previously opened up on the influence the Spaniard has had on his incredible career
From the first day, Pep had the Argentine’s attention, along with the rest of the squad.
‘Pep immediately transmitted an enormous amount of pride in our work, ambition and hunger,’ he told a Sky Sports documentary in 2016.
‘He won our confidence from the first day because we could see that things were being done correctly and then when results started to flow the confidence grew with them.’
His immediate success – Barcelona won the treble in his first season – saw him use his wonderkid wide on the right, as he looked to fit him into a front three alongside Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry.
Messi’s talents were instantly recognisable, winning the world’s most prestigious individual prize, the Ballon d’Or, despite being played in an unfamiliar position.
His talents allowed him influence over Guardiola, most notably regarding the arrival – and departure – of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Messi influenced Guardiola to ensure he did not lose his spot to Zlatan Ibrahimovic (centre)
The story goes that Messi messaged his boss while sat on the team coach, still not comfortable enough with speaking to him face to face. He indicated he felt unimportant given the club’s decision to sign the Swede.
As Zlatan found out, that was enough to end his own Nou Camp experience. He labelled Messi as Guardiola’s ‘pet’ and hit out at his former coach for signing him in the first place if he wasn’t going to be given a proper chance.
Of Messi and his fellow Barca team-mates’ reverence for their boss, Ibrahimovic observed: ‘When Guardiola spoke they would just sit there and nod. Like schoolboys in front of the teacher.’
It is fair to say that Ibrahimovic did not. Writing in his own book, he stated: ‘When you buy me, you are buying a Ferrari. If you drive a Ferrari, you put premium petrol in the tank, you hit the motorway and you step on the gas. Guardiola filled up with diesel and took a spin in the countryside. He should have bought a Fiat.’
However, it was clear to Guardiola that he wasn’t getting the most out of Messi, despite him plundering 38 goals in their first season working together, and the victims of that mission would be strikers like Ibrahimovic.
While Messi impressed, he lacked consistency and his form would evade him at points. Rather than asking his winger to work on this, Guardiola took upon himself to find the answer.
Messi was key to Guardiola’s success in Europe, scoring in the 2009 Champions League final
As Guardiola’s close friend and former club director Evaristo Murtra told the Financial Times in 2016: ‘The standard reaction of a coach would have been to blame the player and give him a wake-up call by dropping him for the next match.
‘Instead, Pep thought: “It’s my fault. It’s me who’s failing to get the best out of him.”
‘Pep thought hard about where he was going wrong. Then it came to him. He saw he was wasting Messi’s talent playing him out wide, he spoke to him and said: “From now on you’re going to play up front, in the middle.”’
Messi has since recalled the conversation himself, saying Guardiola told him he would now be scoring three or four goals a game. He wasn’t far off.
His desire to play his No 10 through the middle saw Guardiola strike one of his most innovative masterstrokes on the tactics board; the birth of the false nine.
In 2011, a transformed Messi was unplayable as he helped the club to another European trophy
As explained in the book Pep Confidential, it was ahead of El Clasico in May 2009 that Messi had been summoned to his manager’s office.
‘Tomorrow in Madrid I want you to start on the wing as usual, but the minute I give you a sign I want you to move away from the midfielders and into the space I just showed you,’ he was told.
‘The minute Xavi or Andres Iniesta break between the lines and give you the ball I want you to head straight for Casillas’ goal.’
Messi would score twice, and wreak havoc among the Real Madrid back line, as Barcelona thumped their rivals 6-2 in a breathtaking showcase of attacking football.
It became the performance that would come to define both; Guardiola as the tactical genius one step ahead of everyone else and Messi the unplayable, undoubted world beater.
It was the role that would see Barcelona dominate at home and in Europe under Guardiola, culminating in one of Messi’s most emphatic displays when he took control of the Champions League final against Manchester United at Wembley in 2011.
Guardiola has consistently told reporters of his admiration for Messi through the years
United could not get near him as he picked up the ball deep and ran at the heart of their defence time and again as Barcelona beat them 3-1 to lift Europe’s biggest prize.
Since parting company, Guardiola has often been asked about Messi. His message is always the same. There is no one like him on this planet.
‘Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him. Just watch him,’ he has told journalists.
Premier League supporters may now get the chance to do just that, if the reunion comes to fruition.
The 33-year-old now has a massive decision on whether to link up once again with Guardiola