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Sep 2, 2014

Pep Guardiola and Xabi Alonso put past behind them at Bayern Munich

It's hard work keeping up with Pep Guardiola. It's hard work working for Pep Guardiola. It's hard work being around the 43-year-old Catalan on a continuing basis.

Not unpleasant, not boring, not needlessly taxing but confusing, quixotic, tiring and often a pain in the butt.

But, of course, it's usually worth the effort.

However, in case the casual observer isn't up to speed, I'll try to explain starting with a small example.

During the first long-ish interview I had with Guardiola, I offered up a comparison between the football philosophies that drove both him and Sir Alex Ferguson.

It was prior to their first Champions League final as opposing managers in 2009.

Running concurrently through the centre of each man's ethos, I proposed, was a commitment to attacking, front-foot, entertaining football which, in the case of the Scot, had lasted over 30 years and which was becoming the trademark of Pep's first (treble-winning) senior season as a coach.

Over the course of several sentences, it became clear Pep wasn't having it.

Yes, he said, it was good that people came away entertained from Barcelona matches. Regrettably enough he had lifelong friends who were struggling to keep their jobs in the economic crisis of the time or who were without employment and he knew, well, that many thousands in the Camp Nou crowd would be similarly scrimping and saving to afford their match tickets. Raising their spirits; entertaining -- these were nice by-products, he added.

Pep Guardiola's philosophy has brought him league titles in two countries as well as two Champions League titles with Barcelona.

But they were by-products; his team performed to a strict (positional play) system.

What came out between the lines of our chat was that, OK, he respected Ferguson, deeply, but wasn't so keen to have the two brands of football associated as sharing the same philosophy.

United's wave after wave of attack, their combative spirit, Fergie's outright commitment to a style of football he first admired in the Real Madrid superstars of the 1960s -- Guardiola saw that as different to his.

And he wasn't going to feed me any candy in the interview, there were no "...yes, quite right, attacking, entertaining football is our common passion, blah blah..." platitudes. No way.

The Guardiola way

Gradually it emerged that, even in a "nice friendly" gimme-quote as this shaped up to be, he wouldn't waver from the idea that "the Guardiola way" was fundamentally different from anything then on show in England, United included.

And, above all, Guardiola wanted to underline, firmly, that his job was only about winning.

Win, win, win again ... then win again and again.

Football that pleased the eye flowed from his team ONLY because it was the best way, he believed, to control games, to tire other teams, to bring the best from Camp Nou-trained graduates, to dominate Spain and Europe.

Mathematicians would show it as "the Pep formula": Winning > Entertaining.

Please note that, neither from Guardiola then, nor I now, is there any intended disparagement to that United era.

I'm merely giving a small example of what some 100-plus players at Barca B, Barca and now Bayern Munich have discovered since 2007.

Things have to be right. They have to be precise. If they are important, they have to be done Guardiola's way. His hair and beard aside, there is no grey area.

But even when you think you've understood, even when it feels a little like there's a shared wavelength, he'll be off.

Does he have a restless, agitated mind? That's a monumental understatement.

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I bring this up because Xabi Alonso's recent move to Bayern underlines the precise theme of what Guardiola was telling me back in 2009.

I'm lucky to count as friends a group of people who've known Guardiola more or less since he began to be prominent as a footballer under Johan Cruyff's management at Barcelona in the 1990s.

Much though they treasure their close contact with him -- dinners, family time, even some vacation time in Manhattan during the Catalan's 2012 sabbatical -- he can bewilder, surprise and tire them.

It was thanks to these guys that I wrote in the first edition of my book, "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," while Guardiola was still in charge at the Camp Nou that I would not be surprised to see him one day manage in German football.

He'd begun to wax lyrical to these mutual friends about the Bundesliga: its passion, the full stadia, the increasing technical and tactical emphasis he saw, the fair (not to say cheap) ticketing.

He saw the communion between fans and players.

Though none of them saw him anywhere other than, say, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United or Manchester City, perhaps Milan, they reported to me that the Bundesliga was beginning to be a repetitive topic of conversation with Guardiola.

The Clasico Wars

Now, one of the things that most helped burn out the Catalan coach at Barcelona was not only the intensity but the nastiness of the "Clasico wars," which began when Jose Mourinho arrived at Real Madrid in 2010.

Rightly or wrongly, Guardiola as well as several of his (Catalan and La Masia) players and the entire Catalan media felt that Mourinho, Alvaro Arbeloa, Pepe and Marcelo -- plus Xabi Alonso -- regularly went beyond the bounds of sporting aggression.

The Camp Nou perception was that Mourinho gave orders aimed not only at polemicising every single Clasico but at deliberately dividing those players who happily united to share the Spain jersey despite playing their club football for the two rival clubs.

Pepe, without question, became regarded by his opposing players at Barcelona as football's equivalent of a street thug. The fury felt by Seydou Keita at being verbally abused by the Portugal player carried on to a heated spat this summer when Madrid met Roma in the United States during the most recent preseason.

But there was a different sentiment regarding Alonso and Arbeloa.

Rightly or wrongly, Barcelona's Spain players decidedly felt that in gamesmanship, aggressive fouling and general attitude, the two World Cup-winning Spaniards had put loyalty to the Mourinho doctrine of scorched earth ahead of fraternal La Roja spirit.

However they feel now, even if time has healed a little, it wouldn't be betraying too many secrets to say that relationships between Alonso and the harder-line Catalans in the Barcelona and Spain squads changed and, decidedly, not for the better.

A by-product of this was the pretty relentless disparagement of Alonso by the Catalan media. In print, and still more significantly off the record, those who were close to the Barcelona inner circle and who also covered La Roja placed Sergio Busquets' skills over Alonso's and murmured that the Madrid man's attitude and behaviour were causing a decline in Spain's unity and team spirit. Some went so far as to disparage Alonso's general ability.

My perception was that this was becoming a hobby horse -- personal not business -- but there you go.

Of course it was manna from heaven to the "Xabi cynics" when Vicente del Bosque's assistant, Toni Grande, admitted in 2012 that Xavi had tried to persuade them to play with only one pivote -- Busquets -- as Barcelona did, to the implied exclusion of Alonso.

Nor was Guardiola immune to all this. He strongly felt that the behaviour and tactics of Mourinho and his team went beyond the bounds.

Having for long enough decided not to "play ball," he famously risked a controlled explosion in the news conference prior to the 2011 Champions League semifinal first leg at the Bernabeu with a speech aimed at Mourinho.

Xabi Alonso and Pep Guardiola clash during the days on opposite sides of the Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry.

There's also infamous footage, right in the midst of the "sturm und drang" of a Guardiola-Mourinho Clasico, which shows Alonso, on the pitch, having a go at Guardiola, to which the Catalan responds, pretty remarkably, by frantically trying to engage Madrid's pivote midfielder in a heated dialogue, shouting to him while the game proceeded. Alonso, noticeably, pays no heed.

Interestingly, as Guardiola harangues him to try to get his riposte in, he addresses the Basque as Xabi, not Alonso -- a revealing token of respect in the midst of a boiling cauldron moment. In retrospect, it looks incredibly like Guardiola actually wants to regain mutual respect from Alonso.

Far from an unlikely partnership

Xabi Alonso will be 33 on Nov. 25.

He had, by any objective standards, his least effective national tournament for Spain at the World Cup in the summer.

His transfer cost is a basic 8 million euros, which may rise to 10 million depending on bonuses, while his wages, should he stay the two years in Munich, will earn him in the region of 16 million.

Given those figures and the fact Alonso finished last season, domestically and internationally, run down thanks to a combination of age, the immense physical and mental demands of his playing position and his lack of a preseason due to injury rehab, and given the markedly poor relations that existed between Guardiola's club and Alonso under Mourinho, would you have categorised Alonso to Bayern as likely/improbable/the same chance as Keita inviting Pepe round for a night of computer games?

But there you have Pep. There you also have something that distanced him from the marginal, but significant, decline in standards at the club he left.

Some of his ex-pupils let it all get to them, let wounds fester and let slings and arrows diminish or distract from their absolute need to keep winning for club and country. Perceived slights, feuds, work ethic and sacrifices meant the nourishing things dropped a milimetre or two and the debilitating things rose accordingly.

Guardiola became irate at some of the things his team suffered against Madrid but I was always told that he, as a player, had been a win-at-most-costs individual.

Opponents talked to me of studs on toes, muttered insults at strategically-judged moments, elbows in ribs, shirt pulling.

Like it or not, that is the stuff of which winners are made.

Guardiola, thus, never had his perspective on Alonso irrevocably skewed.

What he saw was a man who played the same position as he himself had, whose reading of the game was impeccable, whose ability to do the right thing with the ball, whether simple or complicated, was almost unerring and whose positional sense and ability to dictate what others around him should do was still of a very high level.

Put simply: Guardiola values winning. Not at any cost, but in his mind the equation is: past bad blood < winning team.

From Alonso's point of view: "I came to Bayern to learn under Pep." It's the direct equivalent of Guardiola choosing to play for Roma in 2002 so that he could learn defensive ideas under Fabio Capello.

I'd say that Bayern's Catalan coach not only buying Alonso, but doing so at this age and for this outlay, will initially have knocked some of his Barcelona players and the vast majority of the Catalan media for six.

But there's a small coterie in each group -- those who've known him longest and shared his confidences -- who, after five minutes of reflection, will not have been in the least bit surprised.

Having used at least seven players in the pivote position, having suffered a deluge of injuries and being now utterly possessed by winning a Bundesliga-Champions League double (for which I think they are short odds), the Bayern coach saw much of himself in Alonso.

Guardiola was utterly bewildered and depressed that, on leaving Italian football aged only 32, no major club in England, Germany, France or even Scotland was sufficiently interested in him.

Eleven years on, Xabi is Pep. But Bayern want him.

During the World Cup he even used a Pep-style phrase that caused a storm. After the defeats to the Netherlands and Chile he said, word for word: "We haven't managed to maintain that hunger, that ambition -- mentally we weren't prepared and physically we were on the borderline."

It was interpreted by some media as a direct criticism of others, a statement that some had brought a bad attitude.

Subsequently, however, he made it crystal clear that it had been a global assessment of the competitive hunger that turned good training into hard-nosed match performances.

From what I saw in Brazil, he was bang on the money.

In theme and tone, these were Guardiola-esque phrases.

So to him and Pep.

Previous tiffs? Forgotten. Bad blood? Overtaken by football's white blood cells.

These are two lone wolves now hunting, if not in a pack then certainly more effectively in tandem.

It is one of the most fascinating transfer moves in modern football history.

Graham Hunter

Graham Hunter covers Spanish football and FC Barcelona for ESPN FC, Sky Sports and a number of newspapers and magazines across the world. He is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World."

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