Manchester City slipped up again at the weekend. Twice the reigning league title holders went ahead at Newcastle United, and twice they coughed up a lead, with the match ending in a 2-2 draw. There is now an 11-point gap between themselves and league-leaders Liverpool.
City's manager Pep Guardiola remained buoyant in the post-match press conference, stressing that his players' "body language" remains positive. City's performances have, however, dipped—only one win in their last five games—compared with their two previous record-breaking seasons, a 100-point league title-winning tally and a domestic treble, respectively.
The sight of Guardiola screaming "twice" at the fourth official during City's 3-1 defeat to Liverpool in November and pointing skywards with a crazed look in his eyes—an unhinged display that triggered a flurry of memes—will have alarmed City fans.
Is Guardiola feeling the strain? He is now in his fourth season in charge at the Etihad Stadium, the same juncture at which he burnt out during his time as Barcelona coach. That he walked away from arguably the greatest team in history—with the chance to win several more UEFA Champions League titles—still rankles in the Catalan city.
According to Guillem Balague's biography of Guardiola, he was taking tablets to help him sleep towards the end at Barcelona. He could no longer motivate his players, who had won 14 trophies in four seasons, including an unprecedented six titles in one year. A rot had set in, with his fullback Dani Alves, for example, reporting back late for duty after his Christmas holidays.
"As a trainer, Pep is very demanding on his players," says Josep Maria Minguella, who worked as Guardiola's agent when he was a player. "It leads to the wearing down of his footballers. When he sees that he can't get his group of players to respond to his needs, he prefers to leave than to stay and create problems in the club."
Off the pitch at Barcelona, Guardiola had to fight unwelcome battles—unproven allegations that his team were taking drugs; the relentless sniping from then-rival Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho; the infamous "entorno" around the Barcelona institution, a phrase coined by Guardiola's mentor Johan Cruyff to describe the forces surrounding the club, including the press, former players-turned-pundits and directors.
Guardiola was unwittingly embroiled in the civil war politics that have spilt the club since the 1990s—a divide between supporters of Josep Lluis Nunez (president 1978-2000), Sandro Rosell (president, 2010-2014) and the incumbent president Josep Maria Bartomeu on one side of the house, and acolytes of Cruyff (coach, 1988-1996) on the other side.
Guardiola was appointed head coach of Barcelona by president Joan Laporta, a Cruyff devotee, in 2008, but Guardiola never enjoyed a close relationship with Laporta's successor, Rosell, who is said to have disparagingly referred to the manager in private as the "Dalai Lama."
Lu Martin, a friend of Guardiola's who has been following his career for three decades and has probably interviewed him about 100 times, is the co-author of Pep's City: The Making of a Superteam. He explains why the internal politics in the club impacted the way Barcelona's fans have been ambivalent about Guardiola, who is not universally loved within the club.
"It goes back to the phenomenon of Nunez and the Nunez sector of Barcelona," says Martin. "There were 'nunistas' in the club who never liked him as a player or as a trainer. It's the way it is. He will never be able to be seen a different light with them. As a result, he doesn't have much of a relationship with the Bartomeu regime either at the moment because of his [poor] relationship with Rosell's regime when he was coach."
The contrast with the support network Guardiola enjoys at Manchester City couldn't be starker. It's a fundamental reason why he's more at ease in the north of England than he was in his homeland at Catalonia, having signed, for example, two separate three-year contracts at Manchester City when he used to only commit to single-season contracts at Barcelona.
Guardiola has three pillars supporting him at Manchester City. The club's chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, has been unwavering in his support of Guardiola, in particular after an underwhelming first season in charge.
The faith he has shown in Guardiola has been returned. When Mubarak persuaded Guardiola to extend his contract in May 2018 for another three years, even Guardiola's wife, Cristina Serra, was surprised, as Guardiola had only recently quipped he'd only sign six-month contracts if he could get away with it.
"The key to Pep being so comfortable in City is that he's surrounded by friends," says Pol Ballus, co-author of Pep's City. "Barcelona is a very complicated club. There's a lot of noise—the 'entorno,' the scrutiny from the press, which is very different to England. It's not a secret that Pep didn't get much support from the board at Barcelona. They weren't aligned with his ideology.
"Bayern Munich [where Guardiola managed from 2013-2016] also wasn't an easy club. The pressure its ex-footballing legends bring to bear—with their egos and their own interests and opinions—had a destabilising effect.
"At Manchester City, this doesn't happen because the whole club is constructed to serve Pep so that he can go about his work. It makes him more comfortable than at any other club he's been at. In terms of a structure, it's the best club that exists for him, especially with Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano around."
Begiristain, who has been City's director of football since 2012, is an old teammate of Guardiola's from Cryuff's "Dream Team" of the early 1990s. As Barcelona's former director of football, Begiristain was instrumental in getting Guardiola appointed as head coach at Barcelona. According to Guardiola, "when maybe 3 per cent of the people at Barca believed in me," Begiristain was key to securing Guardiola's appointment as Barcelona head coach.
Soriano is another link from Barcelona. He was a director of finance during Laporta's presidency and joined City as its CEO in 2012. Soriano and Begiristain own a restaurant with Guardiola in one of Barcelona's hipster "barrios" Poble Sec, which is called Tast.
Guardiola has several lieutenants in his coaching staff from his days at Barca, too, which add to the sense of a comfort zone. They include his right-hand man, the six-time Olympian Manel Estiarte, who Guardiola calls "the Maradona of water polo." He acts as Guardiola's eyes and ears in the dressing room, which allows Guardiola to take a step back.
"Apart from being a more experienced trainer now than he was at Barcelona, Pep has also learnt to distance himself from the dressing room," says Ballus. "He's more mature. He's not the young coach starting out at Barca he once was. At Barca, he was very close to players like Xavi, [Carles] Puyol, [Andres] Iniesta, [Gerard] Pique.
"Now Pep is more conscious of his role. He's a trainer in the end; he's not a player anymore. He's not in the middle of the players' dynamic in the dressing room, their jokes and their [mischief]. His job is to make the team function without getting immersed in their day-to-day lives and their commentaries in the press.
"When he wants to talk to his players, he'll call them to his office. It's maybe to mark out a little bit his position. He has figures like Manel Estiarte that tell him everything that happens in the dressing room. Estiarte can read the moods in the dressing room for him—if there's something awry; if there's a player who hates him; or a player who's not training well. Guardiola can draw on his assistants to help him in this regard."
Guardiola, who is renowned for his perfectionist streak, is also less severe on himself. He's learnt to stop getting bogged down in detail.
"Pep isn't the trainer that he was starting out at Barca, when he was more [obsessive] about the errors he committed," says Martin. "Before, when his side had played a game, he would sit down to watch the game again on video two times. Now, for example, after the game at Newcastle United at the weekend, he won't have watched this game again. It's over.
"He doesn't torture himself about the game—what he did well or poorly. He's faster now at dissecting things. He doesn't beat himself up over the things that went wrong. He doesn't suffer as much. He's learnt how to draw a line in the sand and move on."
Marti Perarnau, a Barcelona-born former Olympian and author of two behind-the-scenes biographies of Guardiola, also senses a more relaxed Guardiola, one who is more philosophical about the vagaries of sport than the young trainer who announced he was walking away from Barcelona after losing to Chelsea in the 2012 UEFA Champions League semi-final.
"Pep's situation in Manchester is very different to that of Barcelona 2012. Pep now is comfortable and happy at City," says Perarnau. "Yes, there is the problem of an 11-point gap with respect to Liverpool in the league, but that is only a problem that he—like any coach—has to tackle in a highly competitive sport. You can't always win. And after two history-making seasons, this Premier League season is very, very difficult.
"Pep is really content in Manchester and with his players. I was with them recently and I did not detect any tension or problems or stress, outside of the ordinary push to win matches. There are players in better or worse form, but that is another logical factor of competition at the top level."
As to Guardiola's future, Martin reckons he'll possibly take a one-year sabbatical after he finishes at City and may well end his working life back training at Barcelona's youth academy. Guardiola also has an ambition to lead a national team, although it won't be Spain—the country he won 47 caps for as well as a gold medal in the 1992 Olympics—given his overt support for Catalan independence.
"It's impossible that he would become trainer of Spain," says Martin. "First of all, because the Spanish wouldn't want him and, second, he wouldn't feel any identification with the team."
Guardiola's contract with City runs out in the summer of 2021. Both Martin and Ballus believe it wouldn't be in his nature to break a contract and walk away before it concludes, but Martin adds a caveat.
"The doubt is whether he will continue next season or not," says Martin. "It's the doubt that everyone has. Every year, his assistant coach Mikel Arteta has offers to leave. He has to be Pep's successor at City. If Pep stays, I think we'll see a transition next year—that Mikel will assume responsibility for a lot of games, preparing the team, taking team talks. Mikel would be like a co-manager."
In the meantime, there's a Premier League game away on Tuesday at Burnley and the Manchester derby at the weekend on the horizon, and, of course, the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League to come in the New Year. It's the club's holy grail, a trophy that has eluded Guardiola since his landmark victory with Barcelona at Wembley Stadium almost a decade ago, and one that he'll desperately want to deliver before leaving City.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz