March 26, 2017

The Auteur of Säbener Straße: A Book Review of Perarnau’s Pep Confidential

Pep Confidential book cover“At 3.30am he bids the party goers goodnight and walks off with Valentina asleep, curled up in his arms like a baby.” Thus ends Pep’s first year as coach of Bayern Munich: during the wee morning hours with his young daughter asleep in his arms.

Intimate scenes such as this one fill Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich (BackPage Books and Birlinn Limited, 488 pages), written by popular Spanish football journalist and former Olympian, Martí Perarnau, who chronicles Pep Guardiola’s first year as Bayern Munich’s coach.

Perarnau’s narrative offers an astonishingly comprehensive account of Pep’s first year at the Säbener Straße, thanks to author’s unlimited access to Bayern’s staff, players, facilities, and to Pep himself, as Perarnau shadowed the celebrated coach through the entirety of his first year in Munich. The result is a carefully-layered portrait of world football’s most compelling auteur.

However, the book is much more than simply a retelling of the Pep’s first season at Bayern; it also functions as what is surely the most in-depth examination of Pep’s famed (and oftentimes misunderstood) coaching philosophy, methods, and tactics in the English language. This book will certainly please both the biography-craving set of readers, as well as the Zonal Marking set.

In his year-long account, Perarnau’s balances story-telling with deeply sophisticated, yet immensely accessible, tactical discussions both of Bayern’s training sessions and matches

How did this book come about? The question is worth asking, given the Spaniard coach’s reputations for secrecy and control. Two explanations: first, Perarnau was already planning a lengthy project on Pep’s first year at Bayern. Second, when Guardiola himself was looking for a writer to document his German adventure – one whom he planned to grant unfettered access to – Perarnau emerged as a natural candidate, due to his friendship with Pep’s longtime companion and assistant coach, Manel Estiarte (“the Maradona of Water Polo,” according to Pep). Thus, a unique opportunity was born.

Perarnau was granted access to all team meetings, all training sessions, the locker room during matches, Pep’s office, as well as other intimate settings, like the team lounge/restaurant after matches, on the road with the team, or simply one-on-one coffee outings with individual players. For lovers of football narrative, Perarnau’s access to footballing elite is mouth-watering stuff. And the former-athlete-turned-journalist doesn’t disappoint readers with his privileged access.

Because of his intimate access, Perarnau crafts a true “insider account” of the famed coach and footballing club, granting the writer an authoritative vantage point for not only spelling out the Pep way, but also dispelling some stubborn myths around the Spanish coach. For example, we learn that Pep really, really hates tiki-taka:

I hate tiquitaca. I hate it. Tiquitaca means passing the ball for the sake of it, with no clear intention. And it’s pointless. Don’t believe what people say. Barça didn’t do tiquitaca! It’s completely made up! Don’t believe a word of it! In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak. And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side.

We also learn that, in some key ways, Pep adapted his methods to his Bayern players and to the wider Bundesliga football culture, rather than reshape the Bavarians in dictatorial top-down fashion. Or we learn that that Pep is not doggedly committed to the short passing game as the heart of his philosophy; rather, it’s tactical flexibility – grounded in a few key principles – that define Pep’s on-pitch philosophy.

Pep Confidential dives into the big narrative questions emerging during Pep’s first year at Bayern, such as: “Why Pep and why Bayern?” (Answer: Hoeness, Rummenigge and company viewed hiring Pep as launching stage 3 of Bayern’s 4 stage strategic plan; meanwhile, Pep was utterly piqued by the opportunity to make an elite club into his own creation – “free from the Barça straitjacket” – freedom he lacked during his immensely successful tenure at Barça) Or why did Pep move Lahm to midfield? (Answer: it happened gradually in training, then suddenly Pep began trying it out regularly during matches, triggered by switching Lahm and Kroos’ roles during the Euro Super Cup match against Chelsea.) Or what the hell happened during the disastrous stretch of losing 0-3 at home to Dortmund, then losing 0-4 at home to Real Madrid in UCL play? (Answer: it’s complicated – read the damn book!)

Through the detritus of story-bits and quotes, Perarnau produces a lucid picture of Pep’s methods and tactics. For any football fan, Pep Confidential is worth the price of admission for these discussions alone. In terms of playing philosophy, we learn that Pep covets ball possession because he covets attack and wishes to avoid (a form of footballing anxiety?) a whole set of defensive situations. So Bayern’s short passing game will be always (at least theoretically!) in the service of this goal. Pep frames short passing in basketball terms, as he explains: “In basketball if you are dribbling the ball all the time, the defence has an easier time of it. But if instead you pass it rapidly from one player to another you create huge problems for your opponents. It’s exactly the same in football.” Later, we learn that Bayern’s stars ceaselessly work to exploit new spaces via the short passing, especially in the opponent’s box.

Perarnau breaks down other aspects of Pep’s complicated tactical system into discrete units. Pep’s tactical principles range from the positioning of the defensive line, the famed “15 pass build-up,” “managing the free man,” playing and moving forward from the back in total unison, superiority in the midfield  (“This is the essence of Pep’s playing philosophy” as Perarnau explains), false attacking midfielders (“This is the big tactical innovation within Pep’s first season”), and playing without the false 9 (“From being the absolute key figure at Barcelona, the false 9 is now just one more potential tactic for Bayern”; Perarnau tells the origin story of Pep using of the false 9 at Barça). Moreover, Pep adapts prevalent German tactics into Bayern’s strategy, such as counter-attacks (Pep “sometimes branded it the Bundesliga-counter, based on the efficacy and speed of the counters he has had to plan for”), aerial passing, width across the pitch, or the double pivote in midfield. Perarnau observes Pep making in-match adjustments according to these principles.

Perarnau’s narrative is especially colorful during the training moments at the Säbener Straße, as we watch Bayern’s world class athletes learn Pep’s new way. It all starts with the famed rondos during the first training session in June:

The players are divided into three groups. In each group, six players form a circle. Their aim is to pass the ball to each other as quickly as possible whilst their two team-mates inside the circle try to stop them. Today the Bayern players are much less fluid than their Barcelona counterparts who have been doing this since they were kids. In fact, the champions of Europe appear a little slow and clumsy as they struggle through the exercise. Pep scratches his head. Apparently his players have come here expecting athletics training and here they are kicking a ball about.

Indeed, Perarnau amusingly reports that the Bayern players ask Pep’s permission to do some intense running after “kicking a ball about” in order to feel like real work was done. Pep obliges, but explains the truth to Perarnau: “Now they’ll come back thinking that they’ve trained really hard because they’ve had a 15-minute run, but it’s just the placebo effect. They think that when they’re doing these positioning and conservation exercises that they’re not really working.” A new way of doing things has indeed arrived at the Säbener Straße.

Starting with this first training session through all 279 sessions, Perarnau documents the various personalities on Bayern’s squad. We learn that Pep immediately has deep affection for the young Dane Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (both player and coach will later weep together inconsolably during the season, at one point), sees great potential Jerome Boateng, explains things repeatedly to the big-hearted “street kid” Franck Ribéry, talks football tactics nonstop with Basti, huddles with Philipp Lahn for long stretches on the pitch talking long term strategy, troubles over Mario Mandzukic’s passionate work ethic but tempestuous attitude, or admires Arjen Robben’s immense work ethic and injury prevention routines.

Through these training pitch moments, as well as dozens of vignettes of Pep in his office, in the restaurant lounge, or at home, Perarnau composes a portrait of an utterly football tactics mad coach, obsessional in his pursuit of the right tactical dynamics for each match. Pep is the classic first in / last out of the training center type, working long hours alone or with his assistants incessantly searching for tactical ways to disable his opponents. Estiarte jokes about the “law of 32 minutes” when it comes to Pep: “‘You invite him for a meal in a restaurant, hoping that he’ll forget about football, but 32 minutes later you can see his mind is already wandering.” Pep is so deeply emerged in his craft that Estiarte speaks about saving the man from himself.

However, Pep possesses more than simple obsession. Perarnau reveals a man wracked with intense anxiety, yet gifted with superb prescience. Interpersonally, we learn that Pep is skilled in offering his players individuated instruction, stemming from a framework he developed after studying the subject and even attending class at Columbia University in New York during his sabbatical. Perarnau also illustrates Pep’s ability to take complete responsibility for any and all outcomes during the season. For example, this virtue is especially displayed after Pep’s historic dismantling at the hands of Real Madrid in the Champions League. These character traits combine to create the portrait of a fascinating human being – a sort of switchboard of mental and physical activity. Pep himself manically hums with ideas and actions in Perarnau’s account. The coach is exhausting.

My critiques of Pep Confidential mostly stem from my own commitments about what a book like this should do. Specifically, I wish Perarnau would’ve pushed for his narrative’s meaning in three ways. First, despite the carefully-layered portrait of Pep developed through 488 pages, I was still left wondering who Pep really is, especially why he’s so utterly committed to football, to sport, or (basically) to play itself. Why? Ultimately, this question can be asked about any cultural figure, especially artists, athletes, and performers. And I sort of already know the answer to my question. We need “purposiveless” activity like sport, or, frankly, culture itself. In this sense, Pep is like any artist or craftperson, obsessively pursuing excellence. Nonetheless, I’m always very intrigued by the answer artists themselves give to my question. A missed opportunity, because someone as crazily committed as Pep just begs this question.

Second, I would have liked a more robust interpretive framework from Perarnau around his own narrative – something like an interpretive epilogue, or “what does this mean?” check-ins scattered throughout the narrative. I say this, because Perarnau’s narrative is so richly populated with anecdotes, quotes, and observations that the larger interpretive picture becomes foggy. Perhaps this fogginess is the point, however, given Perarnau’s own immersion at the Säbener Straße, and the manic quality of Pep’s character. Regardless, I still expected slightly more framing from the author in this regard, as a way of cashing in on his privileged access.

Third, Perarnau would have benefitted from a (even brief!) background discussion of German footballing history and culture to help establish a framework for understanding Pep’s work at Bayern. For example, we learn in piecemeal fashion about the physicality and enormous work rates of German players, as well as the Bundesliga’s reputation for skilled counter-attacking. We also learn that Pep is both smitten with German footballing culture and values, yet comes to chafe against this same culture by the time his first season ends and his methods are criticized in the media. That is, Pep really does embark on a footballing project against the grain in Germany, yet the details of this tension are left somewhat undeveloped.

Nonetheless, Pep Confidential remains required reading on multiple fronts. The book is indispensable for lovers of biography, narrative, and modern football tactics. Or even readers from fields outside football, studying leadership, quality, excellence, and strategic planning.

Above all these benefits, however, Pep Confidential should be read because Perarnau composes a portrait of football’s most compelling auteur coach, locked in obsession, in craft, and in agony and ecstasy. Basically, the book is a portrait of an artist. Perarnau seems to signal this intention in the anecdote framing the opening and closing of his book: Pep’s dinner with Garry Kasparov (former long time chess World Champion and current political activist in Russia). During this dinner, Pep and the greatest chess player of all time ponder the subject of passion – the ingredient driving greatness. In a statement that, perhaps, foreshadows Pep’s own fate, Kasparov claims that when he won the world chess championship from Antoly Karpov in 1985, he immediately knew who his eventual nemesis would be: “It was time, Pep, time …”

For an obsessional, manic, and life-filled auteur like Pep, who has a self-described “limited but intense career span,” I cannot think of more fitting final opponent for the man who must be saved from himself. Meanwhile, the rest of the Bundesliga clings on.

Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich, out now in paperback and ebook, published by BackPage Press / Arena Sport. 

The following two tabs change content below.
Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U6s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply