By Will Unwin
Very few people are in a better position to speak of the progress made by Pep Guardiola and Manchester City than Gai Assulin.
The Israeli winger was in Guardiola’s triumphant Barcelona B squad during his first season as a head coach and then went on to join Manchester City ahead of them winning their first Premier League title.
As City prepare to enter the Nou Camp on Wednesday in search of three Champions League points, the club couldn’t be in better hands – and the signs that Guardiola was destined for the top were obvious from the start.
“I think even when he started coaching me, I knew he was going to be great as he had some great potential to reach the top as a manager,” Assulin told ITV News.
“He likes to have a philosophy based around nice football and I’m vary happy for him – he taught me a lot of things at Barca B. Even when he was a player you could see he had great potential as a coach just by the way he played.”
Guardiola has come a long way from Barcelona B where he had Assulin, Bojan and Sergio Busquets under his charge at the Mini Estadi.
“I had such a good experience with him as a manager, as he used to speak to me a lot individually and it’s important in football to have a good relationship with the manager and someone who can show you and teach you in training, and also speak to about other things.
“I think that was the most special thing about him, as everyone can speak to him and go to his office and just have a conversation about everything.”
Since the beginning of his career, Guardiola has adapted a certain style of free-flowing football, something he’s kept since his days at Barcelona B.
“His philosophy was very clear: he wanted to play a lot of football based on the things he learned when he was a player and when he started coaching me, we won the league easily, which showed his philosophy was right and everyone liked it.”
Along with his love of playing the game beautifully, Guardiola has an ingrained work ethic that turned him into the man and the manager he is today.
“Like every manager who has made mistakes, he likes to learn from them. Like everyone he made mistakes when he was starting and he’s fixed them. He was the type of guy who works very hard.
“He would phone up coaches from the third division to talk to them about the division and they were shocked, wondering why Guardiola wanted to talk to them about the third division – they didn’t know what was going on. He was very hardworking, he used to stay in the office from eight in the morning until five, just watching videos and we were just in the third division, and winning it easily, so I think he deserves everything he’s got. For me, he is a great manager and a great person.”
Despite a successful time working under him with the B team, Assulin never became a first-team regular at the Nou Camp, playing sporadically in the Copa del Rey under his mentor, who was promoted to the top job at Barcelona.
“We were wondering how he was going to do with big players, but he showed his philosophy and they wanted to play for him and they won almost everything. I think to show his philosophy to the first team was key and that’s why they went on to be so successful.
“Personally I had a chance of playing in the first team after a great season in the B team, he trusted me a lot to play. He gave everyone a chance in pre-season and he’s the sort of manager who remembers all those players who were with him in the B team. I appreciated it so much, as he’s one of the managers who trusted me more than anyone else.”
This summer Guardiola showed he needs to be ruthless by sending Joe Hart out on loan without giving the England goalkeeper the chance to prove himself, a trait he did not possess in the early days.
“He never had any bad relations with a player or any incident with someone, he always wanted to help any player, teach them in every training session. Every player had the chance to play in Barcelona B and the first team.”
Assulin then made the decision to leave Barcelona after spending his teenage years there coming up through the famous La Masia to join Manchester City.
Sadly for Assulin, like many other youngsters at City at the time, he struggled to get time on the pitch under Roberto Mancini.
“I thought after eight years at Barcelona it was a good time to change and learn others things. It’s not I chose badly, but I just don’t think I chose the right time to join Manchester City. The club really wanted me, really trusted me and wanted to give me a chance in the first team. The problem was the manager who never gave me a chance, so I never had the chance to show my skills there, as the manager didn’t want to give me a chance.
“I don’t regret joining Manchester City as it’s a massive club and I really enjoyed it there, but I was disappointed that I didn’t get a chance, as I really thought I could do well.”
Assulin, who is now back in Barcelona playing for Sabadell, met his girlfriend in Manchester and has a lot of affection for the area still and the club itself, which was building for a bright future.
“The club has made massive progress since I started there to now. They were getting new players and I knew it would be difficult to play there.
“They were all great guys, I was speaking to the Spanish speakers players a lot, Aguero, Silva and Tevez, and I knew Yaya Toure from Barcelona.
“Every time I went to train with the first team, they liked me and I had a great relationship with them.”
Now the paths of Manchester City and Guardiola have crossed after enjoying meteoric rises to the top and Assulin recognises the style from the early days at Barcelona B.
“It’s a massive change for City – this season I’ve seen them play and they play unbelievable football, showing the same philosophy he’s always had as a coach. I’m glad it’s happened, as Manchester City fans deserve that and to have a manager who likes to play football and I think they will do very well this season.
“We’ll have to see how far they can go and how well they can do in the Champions League as well. He’s doing the same he’s done at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, meaning City are now playing really good football. Apart from the Spurs defeat, you can see they have a really nice way of playing, which they didn’t have under Mancini and Pellegrini.”
The titans clash at the Nou Camp on Wednesday and it will be a hard game for Guardiola to prove how much progress he’s made with his new team.
“I think it will be very hard for City, as Barcelona are the best team in the world at the moment. But if Barcelona don’t have a good game, then City can punish them as they have the right players to finish the game within minutes.”
- Watch Barcelona v Man City highlights on ITV at 10.40pm, plus all the week's goals