It’s very difficult to play a football match where only one team wants to play, very difficult…This is football from the 19th century,” Jose Mourinho, then Chelsea manager, had taken a dig at his then West Ham United counterpart Sam Allardyce after a goal-less draw at the Bridge two seasons ago. Pep Guardiola didn’t speak about his bête noire, Mourinho, now in charge of Manchester United, after the derby win. But the new Manchester City manager’s style of football spoke louder than words, and it made Mourinho’s United look almost archaic, especially for the first 40 minutes.
City’s football during that phase was like an elongated crescendo passage. Kevin De Bruyne toyed with the opposition defenders. David Silva danced through the rival half. Fernandinho had United’s world-record £89-m signing, Paul Pogba, in his back pocket. And the virtuoso was on the touchline, conducting the Manchester philharmonic.
Little wonder then that Sir Alex Ferguson sought out Guardiola in the corridor of the hospitality enclosure at Old Trafford and offered a warm handshake. The greatest manager in the history of the game eschewed the disappointment of a 2-1 derby defeat to congratulate a master creator. Sir Alex wanted Guardiola to be his successor at United. The Catalonian preferred Bayern Munich instead after leaving his beloved Barcelona. He has now arrived in England to be at the helm of United’s cross-town rivals. But the deep mutual respect remains.
Sceptics revel in fomenting doubts. So it wasn’t a surprise that Guardiola had been put under the scanner following his entry to the Premier League. Even some experts thought that the ‘shortcomings’ of Guardiola’s passing, cerebral football would be exposed in the physicality and hurly-burly of the Premier League. He was asked about the new challenge at his unveiling as the City manager. “Yeah, that’s why I’m here. That’s the reason why I’m here. I proved myself in the place where I was born, in Barcelona, Catalonia, and after (that) I proved myself in Germany. And I want to prove myself here. In the end, after the game and the season, I want our supporters, and maybe the people who love football, to enjoy and be proud of what we did,” Guardiola replied. Only six games into the season—City have an all-win record so far—but Guardiola already seems to have cast a spell on football’s global audience. It’s early days, but there’s a refreshing possibility that Guardiola might end up as a game-changer—the trailblazer who will make English football easy on the eye.
Mind, Mourinho is one of the most seasoned Premier League coaches. He started with four six-footers in the outfield against City. But as the artiste in the rival dugout started to paint a picture, the artisan became peripheral. No disrespect to Mourinho. He is a super manager in his own right. But unlike Guardiola, the purist, the Portuguese gaffer’s business-oriented football can never capture fans’ imagination. An 8-3 (six draws) head-to-head suggests Guardiola has had a tactical upper hand as well. Onlookers tend to ignore the pragmatism in Guardiola’s football, because even the dirty part is done in a pleasant way.
“When they (Barcelona under Guardiola) lost the ball, their work rate to get it back was incredible in all areas of the pitch.
“It often seemed they had an extra two or three men. Every time an opponent got the ball, they would be hounded down until Barca could retrieve it and start painting their pretty pictures again.
“In the 2011 Champions League final, even a player as talented as Ryan Giggs could rarely find himself a square yard of space to do anything in,” Alan Shearer wrote in his The Sun column.
This is something Guardiola learnt from his mentor Johan Cruyff; the importance of retrieving the ball within a few seconds after losing it. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was found to be one-dimensional at Barcelona and fell out of favour. The Swede tore into his former boss in his autobiography. But a vast majority of the football world listened to Guardiola.
From Ibrahimovic at Camp Nou to Joe Hart and Yaya Toure at the Etihad, Guardiola has never compromised with his belief. Guillem Balague’s biography, Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning, revealed an interesting conversation between Sir Alex and Guardiola at Nyon six years ago. “You have to make sure you don’t lose sight of who you are. Many young coaches change for whatever reason, because of circumstances beyond their control, because things don’t come out right at first, or because success can change you.
“All of a sudden, they want to amend tactics, themselves. They don’t realise football is a monster that you can only beat and face if you are always yourself; under any circumstance,” the legend told the younger man.
Guardiola set that “priceless” piece of advice as his managerial template. He wasn’t convinced with Hart’s ability to pass the ball and build an attack. The keeper was shipped out on a season-long loan to Serie A side Torino with the manager giving a hoot to media criticism. Guardiola does things on his own terms.
Premier League should be a stroll for Guardiola’s team unless the players become complacent by Christmas. But as the boss said, City are not ready for the European elites yet. It might take a season or two to be on a par with the giants like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and
Juventus but the mission doesn’t look impossible…
“Two coaches in Manchester… Mourinho reckons he is the special one… to me, this guy (Guardiola) is,” Roy Keane said on ITV. Spot on!