A vocal section of the British footballing public has always treated Pep Guardiola and his achievements with a certain level of disdain.
They will have been the people that denigrated his work at Barcelona, emphasising that with the playing staff available, trophies were an inevitability. Conveniently, the fact that huge reconstruction work was required on the squad is often forgotten. Despite being some of the finest players on the planet, Deco and Ronaldinho were jettisoned after it was declared they were having a negative impact on the squad. It was widely reported that hard work and desire were routinely being replaced with late nights and even later starts for training. The feeling that the then precocious Lionel Messi was in danger of being coerced into the party-boy lifestyle was the final straw.
Pep’s work in Catalonia was exceptional when filtered through both the head and the heart. 14 trophies in four years is astounding by anyone’s expectations, but when you factor in the playing style that was so regularly deployed, the achievement is elevated to a whole new level. The 2008/09 edition, with Eto’o, Henry and Messi forming the attacking trident, played with such intelligence and fluidity many considered them to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing sides of all time. However, in just two years Guardiola had reworked the key elements of his side, adding astutely from La Masia, and produced a side of an even better vintage. The 3-1 dismantling of Manchester United in that glorious 2011 Wembley final is one of the most complete footballing performances of all time. Real Madrid in the ’50s, Ajax in the ’70s and AC Milan in the ’90s are all held up as the finest of all time, yet Guardiola’s Barcelona may even trump the lot.
The most influential decision Pep ever made was to bring Lionel Messi into the centre of play, into what has now been dubbed the ‘false nine’. Such manoeuvres had of course been utilised in the past, Matthias Sindelar of 1930s Austria and Nándor Hidegkuti of the Mighty Magyars spring to mind, but the decision to play without a recognised striker was initially mad to modern audiences. Messi and Guardiola perhaps reached their zenith together in that 2010/11 season where Messi scored and almost logic-defying 73 goals and laid on 23 assists. It is hopefully not hyperbolic to suggest that without Pep Guardiola’s influence we would not have the Messi we see today. An excellent player yes, but not the sport-devouring colossus he has become.
Upon leaving Spain, Guardiola’s detractors were again out in force, bemoaning the fact that he had opted to go to Bayern Munich, the side who under Jupp Heynckes had recently won a treble. But is it really the coward’s option to take a side who cannot be raised any higher? To know that whatever you achieve it will only ever restore parity? In Bavaria, many assumed he would try to replicate his Barcelona team’s style, producing a tamer, less efficient variant. Instead of forcing a club as storied as Bayern to bend to his will, Guardiola altered his ideas and adapted his way of thinking.
Extremely cautious of German football’s propensity to leave you stunned with Peregrine Falcon-speed counter-attacks Guardiola reworked his defence. His conversion of Javier Martinez into a centre-back required hours and hours of exhausting work. The shattering process very nearly destroyed Martinez. That, though, is what a man of Guardiola’s relentlessness demands.
After his first season, where he found compact defences hard to break down, he sought new attacking variants. In his attempt to ‘break the U’, (the shape a connected line of passes around an entrenched defence makes) Guardiola went out and hired two explosively quick wingers. Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa, augmenting the existing pair of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, provided an almost anarchic quality that befuddled even the most well-drilled of opponents. Such versatility prompted Arjen Robben to say, “Tactically he is maybe the best”.
In his three years at the club, Guardiola helped usher Bayern into the bracket of the ‘Superclubs‘. While it is fair to say he may ultimately be remembered as a failure at Bayern Munich, for not managing to win the Champions League, a caveat can be offered. Every season in which Pep Guardiola has been a manager, his teams have reached the semi-final stage. That is 7 successive seasons. To put that into context, during Sir Alex Ferguson’s entire Manchester United tenure he too managed to reach 7 semi-finals, despite having more than double the attempts. You can say that European competition was more egalitarian in the ’90s before the Bosman ruling, and you would be correct, but so few semi-finals from the man generally accepted as the best manager of all time, only highlights the brilliance of Guardiola’s record.
So, when Guardiola did finally make his way to these shores, his arrival was met with many, many upturned noses, as though he surfed in on a wave of methane. The attitude of “well now you are in the best league in the world, we will really see what you are made of” was extremely prevalent.
His first big tactical decision was to implement the idea of the two full-backs tucking in and acting as auxiliary midfielders. The idea behind this, is that it allows the front three the space needed to operate freely and provides sufficient bodies in midfield to allow Guardiola to rev up what Sir Alex Ferguson calls his, ‘carousel’. The reaction to this in some quarters was bizarre, almost as if it was a tactic utilised solely for the purpose of showing off.
The stick that has been routinely brought out and used to beat Pep with is the handling of Joe Hart. It is always sad to see a club legend ushered out the door so unceremoniously, and the poor performances of Claudio Bravo have only exacerbated this, but the reaction has been blown out of proportion. Hart has always been a goalkeeper of questionable ability, a brash, loud and passionate player, but not someone adverse to throwing a few ricks. It is no surprise that both Mancini and Pellegrini both expressed a desire to see Hart replaced. Reading only the tabloid reaction you would be forgiven for assuming that it was Lev Yashin or Oliver Kahn that had been jettisoned. The need to use a goalkeeper proficient with his feet outweighed the need to appease Hart. You have to assume that Guardiola feels that Bravo can overcome a difficult first season in English football and blossom in a manner that mirrors David De Gea.
You get the feeling that Guardiola just doesn’t mesh with the bombastic, new style over substance iteration of the Premier League. We live in an era where everything must be converted into quick, simple, easy to digest morsels. The managers that the media fawn over exploit this phenomenon and get a far easier ride. Be it Klopp with his maniacal lilt to his speech, Ranieri with his “dilly-ding, dilly-dong” shtick, or the emperor Mourinho with a barrage of quips that would make a Marvel movie blush. Guardiola as a manager simply focuses on football, it’s why he cannot spend more than 30 minutes at a time with his kids. After that period, he is drawn out of the moment, his mind forcing him back into tactical systems and formation tweaks.
His reluctance to play the media’s game has backfired somewhat as now he is easily characterised, at best, as boorish or surly and at worst as downright arrogant – the worst trait a person in Britain can have. This depiction is at odds with how those in the game see him. Sir Alex Ferguson himself has been effusive in his praise for City’s manager saying, “One thing I have noticed about Guardiola – crucial to his immense success as a manager – is that he has been very humble. He has never tried to gloat, he has been very respectful and that is very important”. It is a description that sits at odds with what we are routinely told.
This phenomenon, brought about by his no-frills determination to his vocation, is best explained by Guardiola himself when he describes why his former midfielder, Andreas Iniesta, regularly flies under the radar, saying, “Iniesta doesn’t dye his hair, he doesn’t wear earrings and hasn’t got any tattoos. Maybe that’s what makes him unattractive to the media, but he is the best.”
British football has always been slow to accept new ideas, it is the reason why a flat 4-4-2 was used for far longer on these shores than anywhere else. Why creativity was shunted to the wings, when the rest of the world was deploying playmakers. Why kids as young as 7,8 or 9 are still playing on full-size pitches with enormous adult goals, while the rest of the world has emphasised the need for short-sided games and increased exposure to the ball.
England is not alone in its failure to embrace new ideas. Scotland has recently shown its propensity for arse-backward foolishness. Hearts recently made the brave decision to unveil Ian Cathro as their new head coach. Cathro is a young man who instead of building his reputation in Scotland, ventured out into the world and tried to soak up as many ideas as he could. First heading to Portugal to become Nuno Espirito Santo’s assistant manager at Rio Ave, then following him to Spanish giants Valencia. He is a manager that places a great deal of faith in statistical analysis and seeks to attain advantages through technology. Typically, he has been described in cartoonish fashion as a ‘laptop manager’. Loudest amongst his critics has been Kris Boyd, hardly a paradigm of forward thinking, who in his newspaper column reacted to Cathro’s appointment by saying, “He’s probably not been this excited since FIFA 17 came out on PlayStation.” Cathro may not prove to be an unmitigated success, but the failure to even give him the freedom to fail before hounding him speaks volumes of Scotland and England’s continued enamour with ‘real football men’.
The truth is that a small minority of folk were immediately turned off by the thought that Guardiola could come over here and tell us how to play football. A foreigner arriving and telling Brits how to improve on the game that they themselves had standardised and distributed was simply unpalatable.
It is early days in the uneasy alliance between Pep Guardiola and English football and it is easy to forget that Manchester City are still vying for three trophies. Antonio Conte’s immediate brilliance has made the argument for a period of acclimatisation a little bit more difficult to stomach, nevertheless, it is hard to fight the feeling that a full year spent harnessing his talented squad, imbibed with his footballing philosophy, will not turn City into one of the world’s most consistently dazzling sides.
Guardiola is a genius, a man who would have proven to be brilliant in whatever field drew his fiery gaze. The kind of talent that if his interests lay in architecture and design he would be tasked with building opera houses and grand palatial spaces. When he leaves these shores, it is impossible that he will not have changed the landscape in as drastic a fashion as Arsene Wenger did when he arrived in the ’90s.
Or, you know, he will have been the ‘Fraudiola’ his haters will have claimed him to be.