Manchester city manager Pep Guardiola’s first season in England is proving to be a serious downgrade. It would be better to judge him during his third season
A stony-faced Pep Guardiola left Stade Louis II after suffering the biggest setback of his managerial career. He must have been seething at the abject mediocrity that his players offered in the Champions League Round of 16 second-leg fixture against Monaco. In fact, judging by Guardiola’s hugely lofty standards, it was a personal humiliation. His previous lowest in Europe’s elite football tournament had been the semi-finals. So it was an uncharted territory for the Catalan, exiting at the last 16 stage, as Manchester City squandered a two-goal first-leg advantage to be knocked out on away goals by French Ligue 1 leaders. City were shockingly poor, especially in the first half.
Guardiola’s first season in England is proving to be a serious downgrade. It’s not easy to come to terms with the football played by Aleksandar Kolarov, Willy Caballero or Raheem Sterling after managing Lionel Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Manuel Neuer or Arjen Robben. Guardiola has rightly refused to make a climb down to City’s level. The challenge for him is to take his present club to the exalted circles where he belongs.
The knives are instantly out for Guardiola after the Monaco loss. The ‘chargesheet’ speaks about an over-attacking mindset that allowed only one defensive screen, Fernandinho, in front of a fragile back four. Yes, another defensive midfielder at the expense of an upfield player might have been more practical; against a side that has already scored 126 goals in 47 matches this season. But that would have betrayed Guardiola’s philosophy. Guardiola, a direct disciple of the late Johan Cruyff, believes in entertaining the fans. Winning and losing are part of the game. Stuff like pragmatism and ‘parking the bus’ are basically meant for lesser managers. Guardiola simply couldn’t abandon his philosophy.
Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour has appointed Guardiola to mould his club the Barcelona way. There’s no chance that the manager would alter his style or demands. The players will have to improve to fit into Guardiola’s scheme of things. It can’t happen in nine months. Guardiola needs at least two more transfer windows for a radical overhaul. It would be better to judge him in English football during his third season.
The squad needs a mass clearout. Seven players are out of contract in July. Captain Vincent Kompany is walking wounded. Footballers out on loan like Joe Hart, Eliaquim Mangala and Samir Nasri don’t appear to have a future at the Etihad. Even a layman’s view is that Guardiola needs two side backs, a centre-half, a ball-winning midfielder and a striker. Sergio Aguero no longer remains the first-choice. Gabriel Jesus would take his place after recovering from a broken metatarsal.
The problem is that the Premier League hardly excites world-class players. They prefer to ply their trades in Spain, Bavaria and Turin. The English top-tier might be the richest of them all and enjoys an unbelievable global fan following, but from top players’ perspective, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern and Juventus still remain more coveted destinations. A cramped schedule without a winter break could be exciting for the viewers, but in football context, it’s a drawback that’s hurting English football.
“There needs to be a real step up in quality in England. Other than Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, we don’t have the best players. All the best players are in other countries. The best players are in Spain, or at Bayern Munich and Juventus. You never see a Lionel Messi coming over here. You never see a Neymar in the Premier League,” Manchester United legend Paul Scholes had said some months back. Sir Alex Ferguson had confessed about having “only four world-class players”—Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Scholes—at United during his 26-year reign. The Premier League of late revels in panic buying at exorbitant rates. Paul Pogba is the latest example. Little wonder then that only one English club, Leicester City, is in the Champions League last 8 this term.
Guardiola will certainly raid his former clubs Barcelona and Bayern this summer. But he is unlikely to woo Messi or Robert Lewandowski. The likes of Alexis Sanchez might be available, but it would be important for the City academy to churn out young talent a la La Masia. Guardiola needs time to make his new club world-class.
His team has already showed glimpses of beautiful football. The second-half against Monaco was a case in point, save, of course, Aguero’s poor finishing. “We played an exceptional second-half, but the first one, we forgot to be there. We want to be an aggressive team with and without the ball. We will learn. We have a team with not a lot of experience in these competitions,” Guardiola said post-match.
The City hierarchy will give him time and money to build his own team and instill his DNA into it—ignore some moronic knee-jerk reactions. Football would be enriched if Guardiola eventually conquers England.