Pep Guardiola arrived on these shores with all the fanfare of a coming messiah, yet he’ll end his first season of diminishing returns here with little to show for his efforts bar a few teasing cameos of a potential golden future.
So, has football’s ultimate rebrander bitten off more than he can chew in England? Has he come unstuck in the mire of the blood and snotters Premier League, of endless physical tests and a leg-sapping cycle of competition? This is what the naysayers predicted for him, of course, Ruud Gullit, prominent amongst them in the book that bears our name How To Watch Football.
But the reality is that Guardiola, like every other manager, needs that most precious commodity, time, to see his work played out. Only then can he be judged in the round.
When you are looking for signs of improvement, especially from a newly arrived manager or a newly constructed side you need to dig deeper than simply looking at a league table, at squad depth or at cup runs. And that’s no more so the case than with Pep Guardiola at Man City where his massive brief requires a reinvention of the football club – both on and off the field.
As he did in his previous role at Bayern Munich, the manager has been asked to create a blueprint for City that will extend beyond his stay in England’s North West and create the culture for Premier League domination for years to come.
But before I say anything else I want to quote a well-known line from the Spanish football writer Marti Perarnau.
Perarnau knows a thing or two about this subject, having written two books on Pep Guardiola and shadowed his fellow Spaniard for a season in Bavaria with Bayern Munich. He says: “Football language exists independently of victories, although it is those victories which give it influence”.
It is a simple line but one with profound resonance for football people.
In simple terms Perarnau is talking about the tension between time, results and a manager establishing his style of football at a new club. Perarnau is talking about building an identity, against the ticking of the clock.
Bill Shankly created his Liverpool dynasty on the back of pass and move. It was a credo that prevailed at Anfield until Graeme Souness decided to figuratively and literally dismantle the club’s famous Bootroom.
Sir Alex Ferguson defined a culture very unique to Manchester United. It paid homage to the commitment to fast-paced attacking football, a never say die spirit and youth development – three things that are central to United’s historic football DNA.
Johan Cruyff meanwhile re-imagined Barcelona in the image of a modernised Total Football. And Cruyff’s ethos, and his influence remains despite his passing. It is on the field and in the stands at Camp Nou, it resonates from La Masia to the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper.
Bayern Munich of course, were serial winners long before Pep Guardiola swept into the Bavarian capital. This powerhouse club dubbed FC Hollywood by Germans are synonymous with a remorseless determination to win every time they take the field. It is a facet of character as opposed to something uniquely attributable to the way Bayern play. Indeed, apart from an enduring love affair with deadly penalty box predator strikers, Bayern had no overly-defined football identity from a historic perspective. Unless, that is, you’d consider that a cussed pragmatism can be described as a mode of playing the game rather than a state of mind.
When Bayern called for Pep, it was a deliberate ploy. It was backed by a desire to establish a Bayern brand befitting their status as a Champions League superclub.
Bayern had no desire to be a Barcelona-lite. They wanted an identity of their own which would create their own dynasty. Bayern like most other Bundesliga sides had embraced The Champions League style of fast transitions and heavy pressing. But there was nothing that made Bayern stand out specifically, other than a cultural fondness for physical, robust competitors in their ranks. Pep was employed to establish an enduring identity, to install new ideas that would help Bayern Munich build a system to endure for a generation.
In short, Guardiola asked his backline to be patient, to work or to carry the ball into midfield. From there he wanted them to use cross balls and switches of play, if necessary bypassing midfield and be direct, while have his central midfielders drift wide and work as auxiliary wingers or forwards to outnumber opposition in key areas. They were instructed to overload the final third but not the penalty box. This ensured that when Bayern lost possession, they remained compact enough to repel counterattacks.
In Spain, Guardiola’s Barcelona side was different. There the passes travelled no further than 10 yards (and the shorter the better to help win the ball back). Pep’s Barca moved the ball as the players moved while Pep’s Bayern had their players arrive first – before the ball. You can see this clearly now being continued at Bayern under the stewardship of Carlo Ancelotti.
Building an identity out of a way of playing is just one aspect of the whole, of course. The other additions include modernising the ideas and methods of the training ground and updating the schooling of academy players. Bayern are very modern in their approach or training methods but they were still lacking in key areas, according to Guardiola.
There was a negligible amount of injury prevention work done at Bayern prior to Pep’s arrival. It is recorded that the Bayern players were surprised that the new manager and his staff never asked for 1000 meter sprints. Most of the training is now done with ball. Also, Bayern apparently never had a doctor on-site at Sabener Strasse. Players are now attended by physiotherapists and if required are sent to their doctor – as you’d expect of a top, top club. Guardiola changed this and much more too.
And so, there are some clear similarities between Bayern Munich and Manchester City, Guardiola’s latest challenge.
After pumping a lot of cash into the first team squad, City won the Premier League and earned the reputation, like Bayern, of being a well-funded aspirant to the top table of The Champions League. Like Bayern, City have also invested a lot of cash in their academy, training ground and scouting network.
And City also lacked a football identity too. This was most obvious during a series of abortive campaigns in Europe that showed up the big spending ‘Noisy Neighbours’ as lagging somewhat behind the pacesetters of La Liga in particular. Like Bayern, City’s goal is to both excel in Europe and also establish a dynastic footballing identity for themselves.
And so, Pep arrived in England amidst much fanfare. And that is despite his hiring being the punchline to one of the worst kept football secrets of recent times. Everyone knew he was coming it was merely a question of when.
He laid down some early markers by instantly establishing a pathway to the first team for the club’s vaunted youth section. He also notably included players from the club’s academy in Champions League squads too. This is something his predecessors rarely did. And in so doing he is reversing the impression of City as a club where promising talent goes to die, where the financial golden handcuffs of a megabucks deal have been recompense for the lack of an opportunity to develop a career at the peak of the game.
Guardiola, unlike the typical three year plan manager, is a noted regular at matches played by City’s youth sides. City’s youth coaches no longer have to use videos culled from first team highlights or clips of other teams to educate their groups. They now have direct instructions from the boss instead, and invitations to watch the first team train as a means to get the key points delivered first hand.
Guardiola’s rebranding exercise at City initially appeared to hit the ground running with a string of impressive early season results. However it was no more than an Indian Summer, created as much by enthusiasm and fresh legs as the imprint of managerial change. In retrospect, it seems inevitable now that it couldn’t possibly be all plain sailing for a squad lacking the essential characteristics of a Guardiola side – dynamism, peak years’ conditioning and stamina.
Recent interviews have suggested two things. Firstly Guardiola’s English is rapidly improving, at least in front of the media, and this will likely prove extremely significant in his second season. Above all things football is a people business, a communication game.
Secondly, young legs, specifically in the fullback positions will be top of his shopping list come the summer to replace the creaking veterans in his roster.
But the renovations en route to The House That Pep Built may not end with an injection of pace in the back four. There is a distinct lack of steeliness too, within a midfield aspiring to the very top level.
And only in England, would the error-prone defending of the enthusiastic but increasingly injury prone Vincent Kompany be tolerated so indulgently. As for John Stones, he looks like a player at a crossroads. The reality is that a ball-playing defender who is reactive rather than instinctive is a liability – especially when he can also be dominated physically.
David Silva remains the jewel in the crown, something to work with. He showed a variation in his game this season and there is surely more to come from him in stabler circumstances. There was rapid improvement in Sane too, and the German with the sublime football pedigree, is a player rightly tipped for the very top. Raheem Sterling has added purpose to his game, which Pep demands, but he still lacks that final ball and composure when shooting. Gundogan was excellent before his injury but will have to start his City career anew next season.
The one thing I was most looking forward to seeing in Guardiola’s debut season at The Etihaad was how he would use Aguero and Kevin De Bryune. Overall I’d consider this a disappointment though it may be a work in progress. Good players often find a way to play together despite inauspicious beginnings.
Pep, rather like a classic English manager, has always talked about the importance of winning second balls in open play and following set pieces. He considers it to be the main reason for Barcelona failing to beat Chelsea in the 2012 Champions League Semi Final, for example. And yet, neither his defence nor his front six are really doing it consistently well.
Given the style of their play this Guardiola team will inevitably leave space in behind when possession is turned over. In fact, it is the fatal flaw that resides in the DNA of all high-pressing teams of the Ajax-Barca school – and that is despite the best efforts of Louis Van Gaal to buck the trend at Man United with his deathly, ponderous possession game of football as chess. Just as Real Madrid do so well now, a lot of Premier League teams have tried to take advantage of this space to create fast breaks against City. And Pep has failed to either address this inherent flaw or resign himself to it and instead resolve to fight fire with fire. Because there can be no halfway house scenario here, no compromise that retains the purity of the attacking vision and yet still keeps the back door locked when possession is lost.
So for now, Guardiola is caught in a holding pattern at Manchester City. It took him one season to fully understand how to counter German opponents’ high press and very effective counter attacks in The Bundesliga before he finally arrived at a solution that nonetheless gave Bayern the identity they craved. And it may be likewise at City. This is a major rebranding job, requiring significant recruitment and a change of emphasis and personnel that can forge a true team ethic in a squad split between young talent and faded Galacticos.
I have always expressly enjoyed watching Pep’s teams, precisely because of their trademark characteristics. This hasn’t often been the case so far with Manchester City this season. They have not been easy on the eye. Though they enjoyed a honeymoon period where they were excellent and showed signs of what they might ultimately become they were and remain very inconsistent.
In the final analysis time, as it always does, will provide its own telling. In the football rebranding business trophies and points on the board are only ever one part of the ultimate reckoning.
For obvious reasons though, you’d have to feel that it will be results that add credibility to Guardiola’s work in The Premier League. And if they don’t come fast and sharp in the coming season the critics, regardless of Guardiola’s impeccable CV, will not be slow in stepping forward.
Make no mistake, there is a massive 12 months ahead for Pep Guardiola and Man City.