Football Features

The CDM line of succession in Pep Guardiola teams

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 16:43, 4 April 2022

As Manchester City prepare to face Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, Rodri, the latest of Pep Guardiola’s defensive midfield maestros, gears up to take on his old club.

Originally part of the Atleti youth academy, Rodri moved to Villarreal, where he was mentored by the superb Bruno Soriano. After breaking into the first-team at El Madrigal he earned a move back to boyhood side Atleti where, after one season, Pep Guardiola and Txiki Begiristain brought him to Manchester for £62.6m

This made Rodri the latest face in a catalogue of central midfield pivots Guardiola has utilised during his managerial career. We’ve traced the line of succession from its beginnings with Barcelona, to the current generation at the Etihad — and all the names along the way.

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2007-2008: Sergio Busquets

When he became manager of Barcelona B, Guardiola took this lanky son of a back-up goalkeeper and put him at the pivot position. Busquets’ close control and composure under pressure made him an essential part of the team that Guardiola guided to win the Segunda Division B.

2008-2010: Yaya Toure

Moving into the first-team and the incumbent defensive midfielder was Yaya Toure. The giant Ivorian would go on to have some colourful run-ins with the Catalan coach but as the Guardiola project took shape, it’s worth acknowledging that for over half of 2008/09, it was Toure manning the pivot spot.

Yaya was never as composed against the press and he obviously couldn’t sustain much of a press himself, but he still circulated the ball with all the visionary skill that Guardiola could want, and he played a big role in protecting the defence as the up-and-coming coach was still shaping his philosophy.

In the end, his most explosive and miraculous moment in a Barcelona shirt came playing at centre-back, and if he wanted to, he could have become the world’s best defender under Guardiola. But he chose a different path, and you have to say it worked out pretty well for him!

2009-2012: Sergio Busquets (again!)

After losing his first game of his first season 1-0, Pep Guardiola took the ridiculously bold step of bringing Busquets out of the B-team and into the starting XI. The Catalan started four of the next five games as Guardiola’s philosophy took hold, and it became clear that while Toure was the incumbent, Busquets was the future of the defensive midfield position at the Camp Nou.

By the end of the season, injuries and form had thrust Busquets into the starting XI and he played a key role in the club’s Treble, starting both the Copa del Rey and Champions League finals. Busquets would go on to be a key member of Guardiola’s side, and Tito Vilanova’s, and every Barcelona coach even up to the present day. Former team-mate Xavi has returned and restored what was a fading Busquets, into the lustrous glory of something approximating his peak years.

Busquets is the towering monument against which all other Guardiola defensive midfielders are judged. The student who very much outdid the master; eight Liga titles, three Champions Leagues, a Euro win with Spain and a World Cup. Thirteen years of being the perfect avatar of Pep’s philosophy, and he’s not done either, with Xavi himself saying: “I think Busquets can go for longer, he can play for a long time and we can get a lot out of him.” The Barcelona coach also added: “for the way we want to play, Busquets is fundamental,” which just about sums it up.

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2013-2014: Philipp Lahm

When Guardiola moved to Bayern Munich, he had no Sergio Busquets. And he couldn’t just go buy Busquets as Barcelona wouldn’t let him go. And all of Bayern’s defensive midfielders were better suited to playing elsewhere in Guardiola’s system (Javi Martinez at centre-back, for example), so the Catalan came up with a unique solution: Philipp Lahm.

Guardiola moved the full-back to the base of midfield and things began to click. People couldn’t figure it out, but Guardiola needed a player with Lahm’s intelligence and quick passing ability to move the ball around. “Philipp Lahm is perhaps the most intelligent player I have ever trained in my career. He is at another level,” Guardiola said back in 2013, which goes some way to explaining how he switched positions.

But Bayern missed Lahm at full-back, and so Guardiola had to find another player to fit into the line of succession.

2014-2016: Xabi Alonso

In order to solve his problems, Guardiola capitalised on Real Madrid’s. After winning La Decima, Los Blancos somehow decided Xabi Alonso was surplus to requirements, and Bayern Munich seized the opportunity to bring him to Bavaria.

Alonso had been a worthy rival to Busquets as Barcelona clashed with Real Madrid in those epic Pep-era Clasicos from 2008 to 2012, and while he wasn’t anywhere near as adept at pressing, he swept passing lanes really well and had a ridiculous range and speed of passing, two things which made him ideal to play in the counter-attack-happy Bundesliga.

That it took Alonso just a month to break the record for completed passes in a Bundesliga game says it all. For two years Xabi was the pivot of Pep’s Bayern as they tried and failed to win the Treble. A worthy entry in the line of succession, a player who proved so popular, he even played a year longer in Munich than Guardiola did, retiring in 2017.

2016-2021: Fernandinho

At Manchester City it was clear that not only did Guardiola not have Busquets, but there was not even a Philipp Lahm to convert. However, Guardiola found Fernandinho to be the most suitable pivot at the base of midfield. The Brazilian was not an ideal fit, lacking the precision passing of his predecessors, but he was a pressing phenom and had that elusive weapon: recovery pace.

Yes, for the first time, if an attack escaped the Pep press, his defensive midfielder could (and often would) get back to recover the ball. He played in all but six Premier League games in that first Pep season in England and five of those were missed through suspension. Pep dared not take him out of the side.

Despite his advancing age, only minor injuries took him out of the XI as City won the next two titles in a row. His cynical fouls to kill opponent’s counter-attacks became a legendary part of Manchester City’s defensive repertoire and opponents soon realised how imposing a presence he was. A very different presence in the line of succession but a hugely successful one who remains a City player to this day.

2016, 2018, 2021: Ilkay Gundogan

When Guardiola got to City, his first major signing was Ilkay Gundogan, the German midfielder who was so central to Borussia Dortmund’s glory years under Jurgen Klopp. At the time it looked like Gundogan was the intended heir to the defensive midfield line of succession, because he was a solid defender and a brilliant, perceptive passer.

But his body had other ideas as injuries curtailed his progress, with Gundogan missing the majority of his first season, allowing Fernandinho to establish himself as the go-to guy in the line of succession.

Guardiola didn’t give up on Gundogan though, playing him at defensive midfield on multiple occasions over the next few years, although the arrival of Rodri lessened his minutes there.

Still, when Guardiola reached his first Champions League final for a decade, guess who he played at the base of midfield? That’s right, Gundogan. The idea was clear: to dominate the ball, but Chelsea found Gundogan too easy to play around and Fernandinho came on after 64 minutes to redress the balance in midfield. However, by then the game was lost as Chelsea were entrenched into defending their lead.

So Gundogan is perhaps not a true entrant in the line of succession, but definitely his own branching path, a failed experiment.

2019-present: Rodri

Guardiola knew that Fernandinho was not a long-term solution to his defensive midfield line of succession, both in terms of age but also style. He needed a passing wizard, someone who could circulate possession at true Pep speed to really allow City to dominate.

Enter Rodri. Being taught the ropes of the position by the brilliant Bruno Soriano at Villarreal, and then forged in the fires of Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone, here he was, finally, the true heir to Busquets.

Tall and statuesque like Busquets, Rodri gives perhaps more defensive prowess due to his better physical stature both in terms of pace and power. He’s also an aerial monster attacking set-pieces. He’s not a passing phenom like Busquets, but the trade-off makes sense for the Premier League and still, the pros and cons balance out.

Rodri’s rise has allowed City to play with an increasing level of control which, if they had managed to secure a stud striker like Harry Kane, would have led to an unprecedented level of dominance at home and on the continent. As we stand, even with Rodri running the show, City can too often be stymied in the final third.

It seems absurd that Rodri’s reputation could possibly be impacted by the lack of a striker, but such is the interconnected nature of Guardiola’s teams. And of course, Rodri has also emerged as the direct heir to Busquets in the Spanish national team, playing as his direct back-up and even wearing Busquets’ old shirt number of 16 for club and country.

As Rodri himself said: “I always try to learn from Busquets.” But Rodri is also insistent that: “I am Rodrigo Hernandez, I have always been Rodrigo Hernandez.” And just as Busquets carved out his own legacy apart from Guardiola while remaining in his line of succession, Rodri will hope to do the same for himself, with a masterful display against his old side being a fantastic place to get started.