The defending Premium League champions trail leaders Liverpool by 22 points with 13 games remaining.
Only a few days back, Pep Guardiola made a comment that he is not the best manager in the world. Questions have been raised over his team, Manchester City, this season after their spectacular slip off the top. The defending Premium League champions trail leaders Liverpool by 22 points with 13 games remaining. It has been a very tame title defence from a side that had accrued a total of 198 points in the past two seasons to win back-to-back League titles.
City’s current position provided the backdrop, when Guardiola’s status as the world’s best was put to him. “What is the best coach in the world? I never felt I am the best, never in my life. “When I won six titles in a row in Barcelona and won trebles, I never felt that. I won because I had extraordinary players at big clubs.
“There are incredible managers, they don’t have these players. They don’t have these big clubs. I’m a good manager but not the best. “Give me a team that is not like Manchester City, I’m not going to win,” Guardiola told Sky Sports.
Guardiola has always worked with the very best. At Barcelona, he had some of the game’s all-time greats, including Lionel Messi. He then moved to Bayern Munich in a heavily lopsided Bundesliga, where the Bavarians ruled the roost. And since coming to City in 2016-17, he has reportedly spent more than £700 million over four seasons. The Catalan so far has won 27 major trophies in his managerial career by spending in excess of £1.2 billion on 64 players.
And yet, one must say that Guardiola’s comment had a touch of modesty, for he remains the shining light. In the football money league, pretenders and big-spenders have now completely dwarfed the rest. The yawning gap between the top six—the super rich—and the rest is a serious impediment to the overall growth of the game. Leicester City’s Premier League title triumph in 2015-16, overcoming the 5,000-1 odds, had been a glorious exception. Unfortunately, a repeat is not going to happen at least in the next 10 years. Money is a pre-requisite to win titles these days. At the same time, money alone can’t buy the titles. Give the Barcelona side that Guardiola had managed to Ole Gunnar Solskjær and there’s every chance that he would be overwhelmed by the strong personalities in the dressing room, trying to keep them in good humour. Give the City team to Jose Mourinho and he might lose the dressing room inside 12 months.
Guardiola’s influence in football goes way beyond the number of trophies he has won as a manager. Even Gary Lineker believes that with regards to English football, Guardiola has made an even bigger impact than Sir Alex Ferguson. “Total respect for Sir Alex’s achievements and, of course, he’s the most successful, but that’s an entirely different thing. Guardiola has changed the way we play/think about the game. From our obsession with direct play to total football… and they said it couldn’t be done,” the former England centre-forward had tweeted last month, adding: “He’s (Guardiola) had, arguably, the most positive influence of anyone, ever on our game.”
Guardiola’s football philosophy is a carry-forward of what his mentor, the great Johan Cruyff, had taught him when he managed Barcelona. The late Dutch master was a football visionary who changed the game, first as a player for Ajax and Holland followed by his stint as the Barcelona manager. “Technique is not being able to juggle a ball 1,000 times. Anyone can do that by practising. Then you can work in the circus. Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your teammate,” Cruyff had said once. It remains at the core of Guardiola’s football philosophy, his outlook towards the game. Before Guardiola, English football, save Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, used to be hurly-burly and slogging the ball forward. Now, even teams in the lower leagues try to play passing football and build from the back. When Guardiola’s teams play in full flow, football feels like music with the lightness of touch.
Of course, you require special players to carry out Guardiola’s philosophy on the pitch. A Jesse Lingard, for example, can never play like Andres Iniesta. At the same time, without Guardiola, an Iniesta, or a Xavi, or even a Messi, remain incomplete. Therein lies Guardiola’s genius.
The ongoing season, however, has shown that the 49-year-old needs a reboot. Sir Alex was a master at that, the way he built different title-winning teams. This, in a way, is a big test for Guardiola, how he responds to Liverpool’s surge next season. As a manager, he is probably unsackable—he leaves on his own terms. City will not sever ties with him after one bad season. But even greatness has a shelf life and, in Guardiola’s case, it is usually limited to three or four seasons at a particular club. Juventus have reportedly offered him a blank cheque. It would be interesting to see if Guardiola decides to dig in and try building his second title-winning side at the Etihad. Falling for the Old Lady appears to be the easier option and, if that happens, English football would be poorer.
PS: After Uefa handed City a two-season Champions League ban for allegedly violating the Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, it would be interesting to see if the club can retain Guardiola. He is a stickler for honouring his contracts and his contract at City runs until the end of the next season. But without Champions League football—if the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) doesn’t overturn the ban—Guardiola might not be interested to stay put.