Perhaps it’s simply the nature of social media that there will always be those who want to be contrary. Perhaps Twitter and Facebook have simply given vent to a streak of snideness that has always underlain humanity. But there remains something very odd about the tide of invective against Pep Guardiola.
The argument is familiar; everything has been handed to him on a silver platter. The five league titles he’s won in his six full season in management—and the sixth he’s about to win—have been almost inevitable. If he really wanted to prove himself, he would eschew the game’s giants and drop down a level.
Let’s take that last point first, the idea that Guardiola somehow has a duty to handicap himself (which in itself is an admission of his quality). Of who else do we demand this?
Yes, Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo/Neymar/Luis Suarez is pretty good, but, for me, he needs to win the league with Sunderland before he can really be considered a great. Yes, Tom Hanks is a great actor, but could he do it in a school nativity play? That Hilary Mantel is a decent writer, but could she churn out three on-the-whistle match reports for different outlets? Do we dismiss Bob Paisley’s three European Cups at Liverpool just because he didn’t go off to try his hand at Brighton and Hove Albion?
The argument also misses a fundamental point about management, which is that managing a small team on a budget and trying to keep them up requires a different skill set to competing with a giant in the Champions League. As the director of a Premier League side once put it to me when suggesting his club should have sacked their manager as soon as they got promoted: You don’t ask a guy who runs a corner shop to run a multinational.
The expectations are different, the management of egos is different, the style of football is different. Perhaps Guardiola would be a good manager of Norwich City or Swansea City, perhaps not. The truth is it doesn’t really matter. He is an elite-level manager and so should be judged on what he does with elite-level teams, and on that scale, he scores extremely well.
It’s easy to forget now what a mess Barcelona were in when Guardiola was appointed in 2008. They were a tired, ill-disciplined squad. They hadn’t won the league for two years. In Frank Rijkaard’s final season, they finished third, behind Villarreal and fully 18 points adrift of champions Real Madrid.
There’s an assumption now that Lionel Messi’s rise was inevitable, that whoever was in charge, the Argentinian would have shrugged off the chrysalis and emerged as one of the greatest players in the world. But Messi in 2007-08, although he scored 10 goals in 23 league appearances, was often injured.
Messi was close friends with Ronaldinho. In Guillem Balague’s biography, Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning, there are stories of the concerns that he’d begun to be distracted by socialising with the Brazilian. Guardiola acted quickly, offloading Ronaldinho, Deco and Edmilson. The Barcelona boss knew the style of play he wanted and immediately began to shape the squad to play it.
It’s true that he was fortunate to have the talents of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Messi emerging, but he also shaped them. He brought Sergio Busquets into the side to provide a platform for the tight, technical football. He moved Javier Mascherano into the back four to improve the passing quality of the side. That was a radical move, one that could easily have gone wrong. Equally, moving Messi from the flank to operate as a false nine and switching Samuel Eto’o to the flank was something revolutionary.
What looks obvious in retrospect was startling at the time. Within a year, Barca had won the league, the cup, the Champions League, the FIFA Club World Cup, the Spanish Super Cup and the UEFA Super Cup. And they’d done it playing extraordinary football.
However good a side is, three league titles, two cups and two Champions Leagues in four years is astonishing. And had it not been for an Icelandic volcano forcing Barca to travel to Italy by coach for the first leg of their semi-final in 2011, and for a defensive performance of extraordinary discipline from Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in the second leg, Barca might have ended up with three successive Champions Leagues.
No side has dominated European football in the Champions League era as Barca did between 2009 and 2011. To say it was easy for Guardiola because he had the best team is ludicrous; they were the best team because of him.
Bayern Munich, admittedly, is a different issue. The side he inherited had just won a treble. They were by some distance the best side in Germany, and given their resources—the latest Deloitte report showed their revenues for 2014-15 were 69 per cent higher than Borussia Dortmund, the next-richest side—they have a huge advantage over the rest.
In those circumstances, winning the league title is expected. But that doesn’t mean it’s a given, and Guardiola has delivered.
And then there’s the style of football. This hasn’t been a case of just sitting on the driver’s seat while the train continues on the same tracks as before. Guardiola has had Bayern play some of the most tactically revolutionary football the Bundesliga has known.
Of course, a failure to win another Champions League—so far—is a disappointment, but semi-final defeats to sides who went on to win the tournament is hardly a disgrace.
Ten major trophies in six years is a stunning record; the seventh season will almost certainly yield another Bundesliga, while Bayern are in the quarter-final of the DFB-Pokal and the last 16 of the Champions League.
The idea that Manchester City is some sort of sinecure is also preposterous. They probably do have the greatest resources of any Premier League club, but they only have the second highest revenues. And the Premier League is far more competitive than either Spain on Germany: Five of the richest nine clubs in the world play in it, 17 of the richest 30.
Guardiola will have to modify his approach. He will have to work out how to manage his intensity and the intensity he demands of his team over a relentless season in which there will be very few easy weeks and two cup competitions to deal with. And he will have to work out how to achieve European success with a team that has never reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
To talk of managing elite clubs as being easier than managing a York City or even a Crystal Palace is to miss the point. It’s just different. And Guardiola’s record at the level at which he has managed is without equal on the time he’s been doing the job. He’s a great coach, but Manchester City is a great challenge.