That great doyen of English football writers, World Soccer’s Brian Glanville says Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola are ‘two emperors with no clothes’ in his current column. But as much as I love Brian Glanville, and I really do, I have to consider this one to be an unfair assessment.
After beating Guardiola’s Manchester City on Sunday, most football people will hope that this Arsenal side contrive to win the FA Cup for Arsene Wenger.
That would likely bring down the final curtain on the Frenchman’s tenure in North London in a fitting style.
Wenger’s career-defining role began in 1996, when he replaced Bruce Rioch as a low key appointment. Notwithstanding, he was responsible for a revolution in English football, in training and sports science, in recruitment and in style of play. His crowning glory was the “Invincibles” side of 2003-4 – a team of flair, pace and a remorseless will to win epitomised in different ways by Wenger’s on-field architects Patrick Vieira, Denis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. It is a team that will rightly live long in the memory of those that saw them play, and those subsequently brought up on their legend.
In contrast, Pep Guardiola arrived on our shores with a reputation for innovation that was world-renowned. His Lionel Messi inspired Barcelona side that beat Man United 3-1 in the 2011 Champions League Final at Wembley is considered by many shrewd judges to be the best side in the game’s history.
But nothing is forever in football, if it even lasts at all and as in politics, great managerial careers generally end in ignominy. And the probabilities suggest it will be the same end too for Guardiola and Wenger. For no other reason than because there are so few exceptions to the rules of the road.
The outliers are the lucky few like Sir Alex Ferguson and Bob Paisley that get out at the very top of their game or like Jock Stein that die doing the job they love at a good level. But for everyone else the final years are a life sentence prior to the final re-evaluation of posterity and the obituary writer’s pen.
That it simply how it is, what every manager signs up to, but between the extremes of death and glory there is a far more compelling story to tell about ambition, bravery and the vanity of human wishes.
Guardiola, Wenger and anyone else treading the management path is facing the fear, doing it anyway. And the path to sustained success is never easy in football – regardless of the resources at a manager’s disposal. This is because football is a people game.
But however it ends up, what really will Guardiola – or indeed Wenger – have done to merit feeling anything akin to humiliation? Will they hold their heads high, regardless of whatever condemnation comes their way as they run the gamut of the baying mob?
Disappointment? Frustration? I can see a case for both emotions. But humiliation? No. Not a bit of it.
In the name of fair play, I will always defend anyone, and especially a high achiever with credit in the bank, who desires to defy the odds one more time. In this context, that’s just life. And failure is not humiliation.
As an aside, I do wonder, and I am thinking out loud here, if Guardiola’s ‘crime’ is that he lacks the charisma and easy charm required for the Premier League. I am not convinced he communicates well enough in English to be a success here at his previous dominating levels.
Also, football moves on. Perhaps Guardiola’s ideas, like Wenger’s, are just a moment in time after all, rather than the 20 year revolution that they once might have might appeared to be.
By way of tangential illustration, John Fleck the Sheffield United midfielder isn’t a player with whom the adjective ‘perceptive’ would be obviously associated. However, the one-time hot prospect said something that really struck a chord with me. He said – and I am paraphrasing here – that he basically was never as good a player as those that hyped up what he was or would become claimed him to be.
I first heard of Fleck long before he featured in a Cup Final aged 16, becoming the youngest player in UK history to achieve that feat in 2008 against Queen of the South for Rangers.
At this stage John Fleck had been scouted by all sorts of fancy teams – PSG and Real Madrid most notable among them. Just over 10 years on he is playing in League One and is celebrating winning promotion with the Blades with some panache. That is no mean feat given Sheffield United’s travails since relegation from the Premiership under Neil Warnock. But this is surely not the future that Fleck, the one-time ‘Scottish Wayne Rooney’ would have envisaged for himself, aged 15 and already a first team Rangers’ player?
Perhaps it is the same scenario for Guardiola? If his best days have already occurred as a manager would that really be so bad? If that is the scenario, he can still make claim to having coached the best side ever to have played the game. And that is a major claim to fame however you call it – even if he’s not quite ultimately as good as others’ claims suggested he was once upon a time.
Fans, the press and club chairmen, violently overreact to every instance of success and failure. But the truth is usually somewhere more banal, somewhere far more nuanced, towards some middle course.
Think of it this way, every manager however their career pans out starts off in the same place – as a mass of unrealised potential. It is the same at Barcelona as it is at Berwick Rangers. It is only through success and through failure (results), the highs and the lows that history decides how managers and players will be remembered. And most of these brave – or foolish – souls are barely remembered at all, even by most fans of the clubs they’ve managed. This is because football lives in an eternal present, within a future postponed. The past meanwhile, is selectively remembered and reserved for nostalgia.
Guardiola could have rested on his laurels after Barcelona. He could have retired the ultimate hero. But instead he has to be saluted for embracing new and different challenges. And the same comments also apply to Arsene Wenger, to Sir Alex Ferguson and also to Jose Mourinho – three managers who at various points could have called time on their careers during golden years.
It is a brave or insane character that rolls the dice again at the probable peak of their career, but I like that style. Personally, I’ll take anyone who opens themselves up to the possibility of failing in public in pursuit of success, every time. That is the mark of a true football man or woman.