Why Pep has a point to prove at City


Pep Guardiola – www.express.co.uk

Pep Guardiola is a man that many students of the game respect and admire. He did an excellent job in his time at Barcelona, for which he undoubtedly deserves credit. Guardiola had the bravery to ship out underperforming big names and build the team around Lionel Messi, who has since become the best player in the world. His work was a big factor behind Blaugrana’s Champions League successes in 2009 and 2011, meaning he left Camp Nou as a club legend and rightly so.

Yet from this point on, his CV gets tainted. In 2013, Guardiola inherited a Bayern Munich side that had just won the treble under Jupp Heynckes, who retired at the end of the 12/13 campaign. Heynckes was a disciplinarian who got every player doing a job for their team out of possession, he setup a deep defensive block and encouraged quick counter-attacks. That type of football proved more successful in the big Champions League games than Pep’s keep-ball approach, with which Bayern got semi-final thrashings by Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Guardiola has not guided a team to a Champions League final since 2011. Considering the resources and world-class squads he has had to work with, that is not ‘great’. The Catalan man’s record is not bad, but nor does it justify the love and adoration he still gets. For a manager of elite European clubs to be regarded as ‘great’, they need to guide their team to consistent Champions League success. Guardiola has not done that in recent years, therefore the idea that he is still a tactical master unique to the game can be re-evaluated.

The man he will replace at Manchester City this summer is Manuel Pellegrini, who has faced a lot of criticism from Manchester City fans, some of which was justified. Pellegrini’s time there has not been a complete failure given the domestic success, but his main problem was tactical naivety in big games. The Chilean has been known to play two up front against top level opposition and rely on his side’s ability with the ball, whilst neglecting the importance of structure without it.

To those fans who are happy to see Pellegrini leave whilst welcoming Guardiola with open arms, the question has to be: what is the difference between the two managers? Had you given Pellegrini Guardiola’s jobs for the last five years, would he have done worse?

In 2011-12, Barcelona finished nine points behind La Liga winners Real Madrid and went out of the Champions League to 6th place Chelsea. In 2013-14, Bayern Munich got beaten heavily by Real Madrid in the semi-finals, before suffering a similar fate against Barcelona the following year. We cannot expect that, with so much quality, Barca and Bayern would have performed worse under Pellegrini. Nobody claims Pellegrini to be a world-class manager, therefore the evidence that Guardiola is one instead, is based on what has happened over five years ago.

Since Barcelona’s European dominance under Guardiola, there have been managers who have found answers to the former Spain international’s tiki-taka tactics, as covered in a previous piece. Since Guardiola last reached a Champions League final, Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone have done so with a fraction of the kind of budget he has had to work with in that time. Klopp and Simeone base their philosophy on high intensity pressing, unity out of possession, aggression, teamwork and sharp transitional attacks. To them, the position of the ball is more important than the team that has it. They would rather close down the opposing team in their own half than have the ball in a non-threatening position. That philosophy works, and more to the point, it has worked without the benefit of proven world-class performers. There were no individual stars in the Dortmund and Atletico teams that reached the Champions League final.

Why then, is Guardiola still talked about as a manager that is as good – to some better – than Klopp and Simeone? They are the true geniuses of football. They have seen hardship and they have pushed their team to heights that never seemed possible. Guardiola, since winning the Champions League with Barcelona in 2011, has achieved the bare minimum with ideal squads and resources.

Of course, the quality of player he has worked with in the past brings its own advantages for Manchester City. Due to his reputation, he will have a useful book of contacts and the club will be able to attract a higher calibre of player than they could under Pellegrini. Manchester City have recruited poorly in recent years and they need to get their transfers right this summer. They must deviate from their reliance on Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, so the potential for better recruitment under Guardiola might help re-vitalize the side.

It is important for City to reduce the role of Yaya Toure, due to his lack of defensive diligence. Guardiola authorized Barcelona’s sale of Toure in 2010 and may see the need for a more dynamic central midfielder, who can contribute in different phases of play. He is likely to get the best out of Silva, having worked with similar types of players at Barcelona. Lionel Messi’s clean injury record under Pep suggests he may have some insight into how to solve Aguero’s ongoing fitness problems too.

Manchester City could be the club at which Pep cements his reputation as a world-class manager. If he helps them put an end to their European woes and guides them to historic Champions League glory, few will need more proof of his credentials. For him to achieve that, however, he must show a willingness to alter his approach. He must learn the limitations of possession football and be willing to move away from his keep-ball principles at times.

Playing out from the back worked for Barcelona and for Bayern Munich domestically. Opposing teams defended from deep and gave the defenders the time and space to hold onto the ball and pick their passes. In England, opposing teams press further up the pitch and often have quick, energetic strikers, so the consequences of a risky pass from a centre-back can be fatal. No fan in their right mind would want a ball rolling loose in their own half with a striker like Odion Ighalo or Jamie Vardy lurking. Defenders such as Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi may not have the concentration levels required to try and play the ball into midfield without giving it away unnecessarily.

Matches in the Premier League tend to be of a helter-skelter, end-to-end nature and trying to slow the game down has few advantages. It makes it harder for that team to penetrate, because opposing sides have more time to organize themselves. And, when that team loses the ball in the middle third of the pitch, there is less protection for the defence, because the midfielders had been trying to create space further forward.

Guardiola’s tactics were once hugely successful, but now they are in danger of becoming obsolete in the modern game. For all the love and adoration he gets, Pep must adapt his philosophy if he wants to truly earn it once again.