Seven stars improved by Pep Guardiola: Sterling, Alaba, Busquets & more
Pep Guardiola is often accused of being a chequebook manager, but the Spaniard has also helped improve a number of star players during his career in the dugout.
Of course, Guardiola has spent a lot of money with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, but he has also vastly improved plenty of players he inherited.
We’ve taken a closer look at seven players, many of whom were already established stars, who Guardiola has helped take to the next level.
“The coach is very demanding but it’s really amazing to train with him,” Alaba told The Guardian in 2016. “It’s like he reinvented football.
“He thinks about football 24 hours a day, he’s always explaining to us on the screen what’s the best way to attack, best way to defend, the best way to play with the ball. Now that he’s here in his third year, we understand him better as well. We wouldn’t be as successful without him.
“He’s given us the best tools – you can see it in our game. His detailed preparation makes it easier for us to beat opponents. And to beat them better as well.”
Alaba had already developed a reputation as a versatile footballer, having been transformed from a midfielder to a left-back by Louis van Gaal.
But under Guardiola, the Austria international became a high-class footballing chameleon, operating on the wing, in central midfield, as a traditional left-back and as an inverted full-back.
And with Jerome Boateng, Javi Martinez, Holger Badstuber and Mehdi Benatia all struggling with fitness concerns during the 2015-16 campaign, Guardiola then converted Alaba into a central defender.
“I’ve been getting better with every year he’s been here, because of him [Guardiola],” Alaba told the Guardian. “But I didn’t know myself that I could play as central defender.”
It seems unthinkable that it appeared Aguero’s days at Manchester City under Guardiola were numbered at one point.
Aguero, it was suggested, was incompatible with Guardiola’s defensive demands, and Gabriel Jesus’ instant impact at the club seemed to represent the way forward.
In hindsight, Jesus’ arrival was a masterstroke not just for the young Brazilian’s own performances, but also for the motivation it provided Aguero.
“He does work a lot harder now than he ever did. The manager has lit the fire under him,” Jamie Carragher told Sky Sports after Aguero equalled Alan Shearer’s record of 11 Premier League hat-tricks with a treble against Chelsea.
“He was always a fabulous player. He didn’t want to take part in getting the ball back and defend for the team, but now he’s pressing collectively. Guardiola got Jesus in and played him for a bit in front of him and he’s lit the fire under Aguero.”
The Argentine’s goal record speaks for itself, but Guardiola offered an insight into how the striker has improved and evolved to fit into his system after City thrashed Southampton 6-1 in December.
“I spoke many times with Sergio,” he said. “I am not asking Sergio to be Gabriel (Jesus) or Kyle Walker but I am asking for the best Sergio…to be aggressive, with and without the ball.”
🗣️ Pep Guardiola on Sergio Aguero's record against the top six: "The big players need to be there in the big moments and he did it, time and time again. Hopefully, he can continue. The big games belong to special players. Big clubs need this kind of player." pic.twitter.com/itstabekXr
— Team Sergio Aguero (@TeamkunAguero10) February 8, 2019
Speaking again after that win over Southampton, Guardiola also commented on the improvements in another Manchester City player he inherited from Manuel Pellegrini.
“I have the feeling he is now enjoying scoring goals and making assists and being important in winning games,” Guardiola said of Sterling. “He is becoming a winning player and he is just 23 years old. We cannot forget that.”
Indeed, it’s impossible to compare the indecisive, inconsistent winger who was at such a low ebb after Euro 2016 to the ruthless forward who has now scored or assisted 50 goals since the start of 2017-18.
And Guardiola thinks the former Liverpool man can continue improving.
“He is stable and is focused on what he has to do to become a better player. If he has his mind to become a better player, and think it is not enough what I am like as a football player, he can reach whatever he wants.”
Busquets had been a pivotal player for Guardiola when he was coaching the B side, helping them achieve promotion to the third division as champions.
And early into his first season in charge of the first team, on September 13, 2008, Guardiola handed Busquets his La Liga debut at the Nou Camp.
Despite a disappointing 1-1 draw with Racing Santander, such was his faith in the holding midfielder that Guardiola handed him 41 appearances in his debut campaign, including a start in the Champions League final victory over Manchester United.
“I would like to reincarnate myself in him, he is the best player in the world,” Pep said of Busquets after the 2011 Champions League final.
While Guardiola has spent plenty of money, Pique will go down as one of his best signings in terms of both ability and value.
The defender was one of Guardiola’s first signings as Barcelona boss, rejoining the Catalan giants for only £5million from Manchester United.
Come the end of his first season back at the Camp Nou, Pique had made almost twice the amount of appearances for Barca than he had in four years at Old Trafford and quickly began to establish himself as one of the best centre-backs in the world.
Kevin de Bruyne
After such a dismal spell at Chelsea, De Bruyne showed glimpses of his talent in his first season at Manchester City under Manuel Pellegrini, only for injury issues to thwart his progress.
But the Belgium international developed into one of the best players in the world with Guardiola at the helm, operating in a slightly deeper role as a central midfielder.
De Bruyne was City’s most important player during their record-breaking title win in 2017-18.
Such was De Bruyne’s improvement, Guardiola has said he rates the midfielder as highly as any player he has worked with – bar one obvious exception.
“Messi is on a table on his own. No-one else is allowed. But the table beside, Kevin can sit there.”
Guardiola made headlines in England in 2017 after engaging in an animated discussion on the Etihad pitch with Nathan Redmond after City beat Southampton.
For fans in Germany the scenes were familiar, with the Spaniard having confront Kimmich after Bayern drew 0-0 with Borussia Dortmund in Der Klassiker.
“I told him he’s one of the best centre-backs in the world,” Guardiola said at the time. “He’s got absolutely everything.”
Pep has identified Kimmich as a transfer target while the youngster was turning out for RB Leipzig in the second tier, and the player thought his agent was joking when he was informed of Bayern’s interest.
And Kimmich offered further insight into what was actually said at Dortmund in an interview with The Guardian in 2018.
“I played at centre-back and five minutes before the end Xabi Alonso went out and Medhi Benatia came in,” he said. Benatia went into my position in defence and I took Xabi’s place in midfield. But I was still thinking like a centre-back. I was playing too deep and Medhi and I were nearly in the same position.
“Pep shouted at me in the game to move up but I didn’t recognise why. So he told me exactly what he meant before I left the field. In the first moments I was surprised. But, when you know Pep, this is what you get. Pep wants to tell you immediately to make you better.
“He wants to tell you there and then. Maybe it looked strange but for me it was great. It showed how much he sees and cares.”
Kimmich went on to add: “He improves his team so much he’s in another division to the others.”
Kimmich , made in Guardiola pic.twitter.com/PIhWcpwQv4
— P (@PeshangCule) August 5, 2017
An obvious choice but possibly one which doesn’t get mentioned enough.
Messi was handed his chance in Barcelona’s first team by Frank Rijkaard, but it was Guardiola who paved the way for the little magician to become the main man by selling Ronaldinho in his first summer in charge.
After using the Argentine mainly on the right wing throughout his first campaign, Guardiola then began to deploy Messi as a false nine, which became the blueprint of future success for both Barcelona and Spain.
That first campaign playing centrally saw Messi break the 40-goals barrier for the first time in a single season, and he followed that by scoring 53, 70 and 63 goals in the next three terms.