New York City, 2018-2019
I received offers from two different clubs at the same time.
It was the 2017/18 season, when we set the 100-points Premier League record with Manchester City. One was from the First Division in Spain, and the other was from the Persian Gulf.
But I turned both down, for different reasons. I thought it wasn’t the right time.
At that point, Pep Guardiola and I were ready to set off for the pre-season that was starting in the United States. A few days before he flew out with the squad, he called me to say Patrick Vieira was about to leave New York City. He had taken charge of Nice, so New York were looking for a new coach.
“If you want it, this may be another option,” he said. “You’ll like the city. It’s the perfect place to live. Think about it”.
I had appreciated receiving the previous offers and I felt very proud that they’d wanted to have me, but this time it was New York. It was, undoubtedly, a very tempting offer.
It did get me thinking about it. I started watching some of their games to assess their level in MLS. I noticed they had some technically skilful players who would fit with my style. Positional play, a passing game, trying to overcome the opposition by being dominant on the ball.
A few days later, we talked about it again. “If I manage to find the staff, I wouldn’t say no to it”, I told Pep. Surprisingly it took me only three days to find them. All of them came from Barcelona, and some had worked with Pep.
The decision had progressed, but I needed to take the final step. That was the most difficult part.
It wasn’t that I was afraid of losing my privileged and comfortable position working alongside someone like Guardiola. It was something professional and personal, because working alongside Pep is priceless in every sense.
"I was in love with Pep’s game – he was a disciple of Cruyff"
After a lot of mulling it over, I came to the conclusion that helped me see everything clearly. He didn’t need me any more. In fact, he had never needed me. I had just helped him do his work.
So I left in peace, happy to take his friendship and knowledge with me. I knew we would always keep in touch.
I have never told anyone about this – maybe not even him. But the first time I ever talked to Pep, I felt intimidated. He was one of my idols.
I was a great fan of his game. I am a Barcelona fan, and a club member. I went to Wembley in 1992 (below) as a fan, to watch when – finally – we won the European Cup for the first time. I was already in love with Pep’s game, because he was a disciple of Johan Cruyff, and I became a coach because of Johan.
We bumped into each other in the hallways of Barcelona’s Ciudad Deportiva. It was the summer of 2007, and Pep was just taking charge of Barcelona B. I had only been working for the club for a couple of months, scouting for young players between the ages of 17 and 20 at other teams.
“Hi, I’m Pep Guardiola,” he said. “We are in the Third Division and I thought that, because you know the competition, you could be of help to us.”
"Pep was developing young players like Busquets and Pedro"
I was obviously delighted. The previous season I had led Girona to the Third Division championship. I told him, though, that he had to talk to the directors to make it happen.
“Don’t worry. I’ll have a word and we’ll come up with something. There won’t be any problem.”
From then on, I had two tasks. From Monday to Friday with Pep, analysing the next opponent, their players and anything else he might need from me. On Friday, after the first-team talk and video session was finished, I would pack my bag and travel around Spain following different players. I would go to France, too – around the Toulouse area especially. It was close to Girona, so some weekends I would go there to see some French youngsters play.
The team had a slow start that year. Conditions in the Third Division were different – especially the pitches. They were smaller, and sometimes had different surfaces that would affect the ball’s movement.
But Pep is a smart guy and he adapted quickly. Tito Vilanova helped him a lot, too.
Tito had just started after being technical director at Terrassa, in Second Division B, and he knew a lot of the players because it had been his job. So, with all that work, the squad had an amazing second half of the season. They got promoted playing with the style Pep wanted, and developing some young players like Pedro, Sergio Busquets and Víctor Vázquez.
Then, in 2008, came a busy summer. We had a vote of no confidence in the chairman of the club and then elections, and there were rumours about José Mourinho taking over as Barcelona coach. In the end, Joan Laporta kept the chairmanship and Pep became coach.
"Privately, Pep was really worried about Sporting Gijon away"
A few days later, he asked me to meet him at the stadium. He said he'd be waiting for me in the dressing room. But I didn’t know where it was – I had never been there – so I had to call him back so he could show me.
I met him, finally, when a security guard helped me through. I didn’t even know what he wanted to talk to me about.
I opened the door, and there was Laporta, Txiki Begiristain and Pep. Laporta (below), who is very outgoing and friendly, asked me: “So, what are your salary expectations?”
I came clean and said: “Chairman, I have no idea. I’m delighted to be here, and I’ll take whatever you offer.”
That’s how I started working with the first team, as an analyst with the same staff that Pep had had in the Third Division. He brought us all in.
Just like it was at Barca B, we had a tough start. We only got one point out of the first two games, after losing to Numancia and getting a draw at home against Racing de Santander.
"We did something unimaginable. Six trophies. El Sextete"
Even though both teams had their merits, the results didn’t reflect what happened on the pitch. The team had played really well – they had a lot of scoring opportunities – but lacked a bit of luck at critical points.
Cruyff, who thought very highly of Pep, tried to help him with the column he was writing for a local newspaper. He said nobody should be concerned about the results. “This Barca is looking very, very good.” I remember that was his headline.
Of course that was great, and it helped, but privately Pep was really worried about playing away to Sporting Gijon. “If we lose, it could be the first time in Barcelona’s history that we find ourselves at the bottom of the table,” he said.
He would put himself under a lot of pressure. But the players were convinced that things would take a turn for the better. I even remember they talked to him, trying to give him peace of mind. Pep and the team were as one – a unit.
That’s what happened. We went to Gijón and we beat them 6-1. From that day on, the team only got better and better until we did something unimaginable. El Sextete.
Six trophies in one season – La Liga, Copa del Rey, the Champions League, the FIFA Club World Cup, the Spanish Super Cup and the European Super Cup.
"‘I want to talk Messi into playing as a striker against Real’"
Winning so many trophies in a single year, there were a lot of significant moments – but for me there was one that was absolutely key. It was the match against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu.
They were going through a great spell, winning 17 of their past 18 league games. If they managed to beat us, our lead over them would be reduced to just one point. We all know what Real Madrid is like at those situations. We had been playing superbly, getting great results, but that was the day that could make all the difference.
I was one of the analysts, with Carles Planchart, and I was the one who always had to deal with the Real Madrid games. The night before we went to Madrid, we stayed late – until 10pm or so – working in the office at Ciudad Deportiva.
I had spent the week watching their games, and then had to prepare a presentation analysing their defensive and attacking systems, their set-pieces, their line movements. That day, Pep came to our office and told me: “Find me footage with their centre-backs. I want to see what they do.”
That’s when he tells me in advance what he wants to tell Lionel Messi (above), and his idea of having him play as a centre forward. “I want to talk him into this.”
I couldn’t believe it. The most important game in Pep’s history so far, away at the Bernabéu, and he was going to have his top goalscorer, Samuel Eto’o, out wide – and, for the first time, Leo as a striker.
“If this goes wrong, we’re going to lose the league," I thought to myself. "And he’ll get slaughtered.”
"The harder it gets, the more focused he is"
But he was convinced it would work. He took my laptop with him, and off he went to talk to Leo.
“So? How did it go?” I asked him when he came back.
“Perfect. He loves it. He says we’ll do it.” We all know what happened. The 6-2 scoreline in that historic match set us up for victory in the final part of the season.
I always say that Pep is brave. Controlled bravery, because he sees everything clearly and, oddly enough, a manager who is most at ease at those crucial times.
After winning the league and the Copa del Rey, we closed the season by beating Manchester United in Rome for the Champions League title. It was Alex Ferguson’s best squad in years: Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Dimitar Berbatov, Carlos Tevez, Paul Scholes. What a team.
We had a lot of players out injured, some others playing out of position, and then some at a physical low. Yaya Touré played central defence alongside the 22-year-old Gerard Piqué. Ahead of them was the 20-year-old Busquets. Sylvinho, who had hardly played in the knockout stages, was at left-back; Carles Puyol right-back. Ahead of him, Andrés Iniesta was playing with an injured leg, and Thierry Henry was coming back from injury.
"Deep inside, I still felt as if I was betraying Pep Guardiola"
But we had the world’s best – Messi. We had an unbreakable spirit, a coach who was revered by all of the players and, above all, we were convinced we would win. Pep, more so than anyone else. The harder it gets, the more focused he is.
It was just awesome. Just like the whole of our time at Barcelona. It was a shame when it ended, because I think that team could have achieved even more. But, in Pep's head, he felt differently.
After Chelsea knocked us out of the Champions League in the semi finals in 2012, he summoned his closest staff and told us it was the end of his tenure. We asked him to think it over, but once Pep’s mind is made up, it’s made up. He had thought it all through already.
I had two more years left of my contract, but I was ready to leave out of respect for him. It was because of Pep that I was there, and I felt I couldn’t carry on.
I talked about it with him and with my family, and they made me change my mind. I continued when Tito became coach. But deep inside I still felt as if I was betraying him. I didn’t feel comfortable with the situation.
It was later that Pep, who was living in New York at the time, told me that he was due to spend some time in Barcelona and wanted me to come over and have a chat with him at home. That was when he told me he was going to coach again, and that he wanted me to go with him.
"Bayern Munich’s players had the best mindset. It was great"
I was delighted to accept, and did so thinking that I would be his analyst again. We kept talking, and after a while he said I’d be his assistant coach. You can imagine how I felt when I heard that.
“You still haven’t asked where we’re going.”
“The Premier League, right?” I responded.
“No. We are going to Germany. Bayern Munich.”
When we started there, they had just won the treble – the Bundesliga, the German Cup and the Champions League – under Jupp Heynckes. You’d think it would be hard to manage a group of players who had accomplished so much, but it was the complete opposite from day one.
They had the best mindset, and that was great. Pep changed things, of course, but they were predisposed to changing things too.
"Pep could have left Bayern Munich for any club in England"
Obviously my situation also changed when I went from being one of the analysts to being assistant coach. There are many types of assistant coach, but I think the best way to be helpful to the head coach is by being calmer than him. Stay in the background, always be aware of everything that’s going on.
Pep had me preparing the attacking and defensive strategies during set-pieces. We would also have long talks about tactics before each game.
“I want to play like this. What do you think?” he would ask.
So I would give him my opinion. All the final decisions were his, obviously, but I think as an assistant coach you must tell your own truth – whether you think something is feasible or not.
I also kept a close eye on the players. Sometimes there would be someone you could tell was not really getting our idea clearly, so I would approach that player in order to work it out.
In the end, it’s all about dealing with the little details to save the head coach from getting worn out with the daily stuff.
"Manchester City had wanted to make winning the norm"
We were well settled in Munich, both within the team and the city. But Pep decided to change teams after three seasons. It was a choice he had thought through thoroughly, as usual.
We knew we were bound for the Premier League, but we didn’t know which team. That bit of news, he kept to himself until the last day.
He could have left for any club in England, but I think there were several things that made him choose Manchester City. One of them was that he knew the people there – Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, who had been at Barcelona with him.
It was also a different type of project. The team had won the Premier League both with Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, but the plan was to lay the foundations for a long-term winning mentality.
The kind that teams such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona have. The mindset that lets you believe you’re going to win no matter what may happen.
That is what Manchester City is building. They want to imbue their team with that – making winning the norm.
"I received a phone call. ‘United have lost. We’re champions.’"
We had a great start. Ten successive victories. But projects need time to achieve what they set out to.
We qualified for the Champions League, but we just couldn’t manage to win the title. Txiki and Ferran still trusted in the project, though, and obviously so did the chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak. Three key people.
We signed several players with the desired profile for the second season. The club could not afford the expense of changing 12 players, but we did manage to bring some into the squad who were better aligned with Pep’s style.
From the second half of the first season, the team had played really well – but in the second season our performance was spectacular. We set a pace that brought us the league title – although it was a rather unusual situation.
We had beaten Tottenham on the Saturday. On the Sunday, Manchester United, who were in second place, had to play West Bromwich Albion. If they couldn’t win, we would be champions.
I was out for a stroll in Manchester when I received a call: “United lost. We are champions!”
"New York is a fantastic city to live in. I could have stayed"
It was of course a moment of great joy, but the time for real euphoria came in our final match, when we beat Southampton in the last minute with a goal from Gabriel Jesus (above) to reach the 100-points mark. It was the first time a team had reached that points tally in England.
It was the best end to the season we could have asked for. Champions with 100 points but, almost more importantly, a team that was really feeling Pep’s ideas about how to play.
As he says, it is not about copy and paste. If you want to bring an idea to fruition, you have to feel it first. That’s what I tried to do at New York City.
After 12 years as part of Pep's coaching staff, I was back to being a head coach. It was a curious journey, from Spain’s Third Division to MLS. But all the work and time you put in add up to the same thing, wherever you may be.
It was a very positive experience. We became Conference champions for the first time in the club’s history. But, beyond the results, the press were highlighting our style of play.
The players were happy, and the fans too. I could have stayed five more years, because it’s a fantastic city to live in and to grow. But there were things I didn’t agree with.
When you know you won’t be able to change those things, the best thing to do is to change direction. It’s best for both parties.
Now I’m waiting for the next project. I’m not in a hurry, and I am open to interesting projects that are tempting from a sporting point of view.
Somewhere where the players may get to really feel the idea. That’s what I experienced for all those years with Pep, and then at New York City.
When that happens, trust me – there’s no better feeling.
Author: Tony Hodson