The announcement that Pep Guardiola is keen on a return to management is seen as bad news for a couple of already-under-pressure bosses at the Premier League’s sharp end. Could Roberto Mancini’s European failings prove costly, or is Roman Abramovich’s itchy trigger finger aching to dispense of Rafa Benitez so soon after his arrival?
Guardiola led Barcelona to unparalleled success in his four seasons as manager—that is beyond doubt. Whether the 41-year-old would be able to replicate these achievements outside the favourable conditions he found at the Nou Camp is another issue entirely.
The assumption that whoever appoints Guardiola will virtually rubberstamp a trophy-filled future significantly overlooks the fact that he inherited Barcelona’s winning foundations and world-class squad, many of whom he’d worked with at the youth level. The same luxuries will be difficult to come across elsewhere.
Indeed, Chelsea and Manchester City possess a roster of ready-made stars, yet both lack the same long-term continuity and principled adherence to a set playing style—from the academy upwards—which has made Barcelona such a formidable institution.
Guardiola was both a product of this system and its greatest advocate. Steeped in the club’s ethos as player, captain and coach; becoming manager was the culmination of a lifelong process. While the pet projects of Abramovich and Sheik Mansour have shown that most things in football have their price, this sort of cultural capital thankfully remains more amorphous concept than marketable commodity.
Not for the want of trying on Manchester City’s part, however. In addition to recruiting technical director Txiki Begiristain, their plan for a sprawling La Masia-like training complex seeks to emulate the Barcelona model of self-sufficiency. In the meantime, ploughing money into foreign signings will remain the preferred short-term solution.
Convincing Guardiola to end his sabbatical and take over at the Etihad would be a coup for City, another invaluable step towards fully fledged, big-club status, but not necessarily the fool-proof route to success that many believe it to be.
The problem is that Barcelona’s dominance has been misconstrued as largely of one man’s making, which is to ignore the vital groundwork laid by others and the ideal convergence of circumstances that saw Guardiola elevated when many key players were reaching their peak. Having to reshape a side in an unfamiliar setting promises to be a better test of his abilities.
Should he come to the Premier League this summer it will be intriguing to see how he fares without Xavi, Messi, Iniesta and Co. Will he cement his place as a managerial great or someone who was merely fortunate enough to find himself in the right place at the right time?