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Apr 27, 2009

A tale of two gaffers

Pep Guardiola and Juande Ramos represent two different paths to become a top level gaffer: the former elite player who puts into practice what he learned during his playing career, and the self-made coach that builds his own career growing with each new job. The articulate and fashionable Pep, born in a small town 70km away from Barcelona, looked like a top footballer since he was a kid and came through the Barcelona ranks, joining the first team in 1990. Between that year and 2001 he got to share shower, trips and hotel rooms with several of the most influential players of the nineties, such as Romário de Souza, Hristo Stoitchkov and Luis Figo, and learnt the gaffer job by watching Johan Cruyff, Sir Bobby Robson and Louis Van Gaal ply their trade for Barcelona.

"Why don't I give orders to my players during matches? Guardiola is closer to them and does it better than I do" said Cruyff after one Barcelona - Espanyol derby in 1993. At that early stage it was already clear that Pep would become a coach sooner or later.

His spectacular career as a player (6 Ligas, 2 Copas del Rey, the last European Cup in 1992, 1 Cup Winners' Cup) had a lacklustre ending, with stints at Italy's Brescia, Qatar's Al-Ahli and Mexico's Dorados. Guardiola, always an idol for the Barcelona faithful, decided to start his coaching career managing the B team of his beloved club in 2007.

Juande Ramos was born in the tiny Pedro Muñoz (Ciudad Real), but moved with his family to Elche (Alicante) at age 8, always far away from the main football centres. His mediocre career as a player for various teams in the Spanish lower divisions was cut short by a serious knee injury, which made him retire at the early age of 28.

His coaching career started shortly thereafter, managing the youth team of his first club as a player, Elche CF. Juande's early years in coaching show a trend that stayed with him until today: he never stayed longer than a couple of years in any of the thirteen clubs he coached, even though he was seldom fired. These pilgrimages from club to club saw Juande lead the Barcelona B team as well, back in 1996.

Like many other gaffers, Juande and Pep got their current jobs with a classic mission: save their respective presidents' bottom. Joan Laporta, Barcelona's supremo, needed a local icon to calm the socios and put order and discipline in a team that had gone from heaven to hell in just a couple of years. Guardiola, although allegedly inexperienced, seemed like the perfect fit.

Ramón Calderón was in a very similar position when decided to fire Bernd Schuster and bring Ruthless Juande back from his forced vacation in London. Whatever the outcome of this season is, both Pep and Juande have done a tremendous job applying very different styles.

Thousands of words have been written about Guardiola's coaching method and the original Dream Team's influence on him. So far, it appears as if Pep has taken Cruyff's approach one step further. The unquestionable achievements of that Barcelona team, winning four leagues in a row and Barça's first European Cup, and their offensive style, undoubtedly Guardiola's inspiration, should not let us forget that they were an average defensive side, and that their domination of the Spanish Liga was not as comprehensive as some may think.

They suffered in the "goals against" category every season, and experienced severe beatings against more limited teams on paper, such as Atlético, Zaragoza or Valencia. It is hard to forget a 6-3 defeat at Zaragoza, which triggered an amazing reaction that saw Barcelona come back to win the league in 1994. Their 4-0 humiliation in the Champions League Final against Milan is also worth mentioning.

The original Dream Team only dominated clearly the Liga table when they won the 1991 title with a ten-point advantage. The following three seasons they triumphed in the very last match, and simply because their rivals (Real Madrid twice and Deportivo once) were unable to win their last encounter (white cases flying around, or so they say). Hardly what you would call uncontested domination.

It is still too early to compare the current Barcelona to those winning Cruyff teams, we will need more time with Pep at the helm. However, judging by what we have seen so far, Guardiola's approach seems superior. Even though the back four is also the weak link of this Barcelona, the team as a whole defends much better than those 90-94 sides.

Their pressure starts up front, with Eto'o, Messi and Henry working much harder than Romário, Michael Laudrup and Stoitchkov used to. Keita and Busquets cover far more pitch than Guillermo Amor and Eusebio Sacristán did back in their time. As a result, Víctor Valdés had spent 675 minutes unbeaten until his hesitant performance in Valencia, an outworldly number for Andoni Zubizarreta.

If that was not enough, Guardiola has bettered the original Dream Team's attacking efficacy: the current Barcelona side scores more than any of those Barcelonas, therefore Guardiola is in pace to beat Johan "Lollipop" Cruyff at his own game. Pep has everything to deliver: a young team, plenty of homegrown talent, top-class foreigners and support from the club.

However, Juande is already doing the seemingly impossible to prevent that from happening. Mr Ramos' style, like that of self-made gaffers, lacks a clear influence from a previous coach or club. His early managing experiences, all of them for small, budget-constrained teams, taught him to work with what he had, defining a pragmatic approach that he implements on each team he coaches. Juande always starts by building a consistent defence and preparing his teams to suffer as much as any other from the physical standpoint. Offence comes later. Only when he got to Sevilla in 2005 we were able to see a full blown Juande team playing offensively at amazing pace.

His pragmatism was clear once more when he left the sevillistas, the side that made him famous, for Tottenham in week eight of the 2007-08 season. Money had spoken higher, something that was bitterly remembered on Sunday by the Sevilla faithful. Mr. Ramos got a very harsh reception, including hundreds of fake one-dollar notes with his face and the inscription "Juande Dollar".

His team was coming from a nail-bitter win over Getafe in midweek, in a match that could be included in the Fabio Capello memorial of heart-attack endings. However, the merengues looked as good as they have all season against a free-falling Sevilla side. Juande's side came back from 1-0 down, and the additions to the team, especially Metzelder covering for Mr. Pepe Hyde, played superbly. Raúl, who strongly supported Ramos' hiring, deserves his own mention, as he finally delivered in a do-or-die match this season with a sensational hat-trick.

Coming from such different backgrounds, Pep and Juande have taken their teams to an unprecedented level in La Liga. Guardiola leads the best Barcelona ever, while Ramos has been able to steer the white ship under institutional chaos and fully recovered their winning spirit. Only four points separate both teams and their gaffers now. Get ready for a nerve-wrecking, passionate, mouth-watering derby between Real Madrid and Barcelona, between the self-made Juande and the talented Pep.

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