Shortly before the final whistle of Manchester City’s 5-0 victory over Crystal Palace at the end of last season, Pep Guardiola’s right-hand man Manel Estiarte, as usual, headed towards the players’ tunnel.
The Catalan likes to be in position before the final whistle to greet every player off the pitch but he had to walk along the touchline as City were using a temporary entrance in the corner of the stadium while the usual one was renovated for their new glass tunnel.
The game was already won, with City four goals ahead, when defender Nicolas Otamendi beat the offside trap to head in Kevin De Bruyne’s typically pinpoint free kick. As with the majority of City’s goals, the nine other outfield players rushed over to celebrate with the goal scorer.
At that point, Fernandinho spotted Estiarte out of the corner of his eye and peeled off from the group to embrace the assistant.
“The players love him,” a source close to the City coaching set-up told ESPN FC. “They respect him enormously and know they can come to him about anything.”
Estiarte is the quiet, closest confidant of Guardiola and has been by his side since their days at Barcelona, following him to Bayern Munich and now to City.
The pair have shared a rollercoaster ride — through the glory of two Champions Leagues and three La Ligas, to the strains of the toxic rows with Real Madrid’s Jose Mourinho at the Camp Nou; the three Bundesliga titles and subsequent criticism for failing to secure Europe’s greatest prize in Germany; and now to City where a season without silverware was followed by a campaign that rewrote the record books.
“When I’m going through a difficult period, maybe even struggling with self-doubt, he is there for me. And he’s there to enjoy the good times as well of course,” Guardiola told author Marti Perarnau for his book “Pep Confidential” in 2014.
At City, Estiarte, as well as maintaining his close working relationship with the manager, has been given an even greater role than at their previous two clubs. Guardiola sees team spirit and morale as crucial to success and is desperate to ensure a happy and harmonious dressing room.
Estiarte is the director of first-team management, operations and support, with his department liaising with the players and staff to ensure the smooth running of everything surrounding the squad. Away from training and football, the players are called upon to take part in photoshoots, interviews and promotional activities and Estiarte decides when and who will be involved.
“They respect him because of what he has done,” the source added. “He was a sportsman himself. But not just an ordinary sportsman.”
Estiarte was a water polo player and, to give some indication of his success, was known as “El Maradona del agua” (the Maradona of the water). He is regarded as arguably the sport’s greatest ever exponent, having been voted the world’s best player for seven consecutive years between 1986-1992.
After making his debut as a 15-year-old, Estiarte captained Spain for 20 years and, after the heartbreak of having to settle for silver at his home Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, won gold four years later in Athens. In 2000, he carried the Spain flag in Sydney — his sixth and final Games.
By then Estiarte and Guardiola had already struck up a friendship but that became a working relationship when Guardiola took the Barcelona job. The manager isn’t afraid to try and learn from other sports — such as understanding the pressure of clutch shots in basketball and golf — and apply it to football, so it seemed only natural to work with Estiarte, who understands the emotions that can affect sportspeople.
The human element of footballers is often overlooked. Players can be often be treated akin to their portrayals in football console games, impervious to outside influences when the realities are entirely different. But form, confidence and all manner of issues can affect how a player performs.
Guardiola’s door is always open to the players and defender Kyle Walker described the City boss as being like a friend. “He always says ‘come and have a coffee with me, we’ll get the computer and we’ll go through it.’ So, that’s how it’s quite open, he’s very approachable,” the England defender said.
Estiarte is also there for them in an attempt to ensure that the players have nothing to worry about but playing football.
It’s the eye for detail that marks out Guardiola as a special manager and why he has such a large team around him. A senior member of one of City’s Premier League opponents was heard to comment on the size of his coaching staff on matchday and enquire: “Why do they have so many people?”
The obvious answer would be: Why anyone would want to settle for fewer people after a season that has delivered two trophies, including the Premier League title in a season when they scored more goals, collected more points and secured more victories than any other previous winners.
Jonathan is ESPN FC’s Manchester City correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @jonnysmiffy.