Has Pep Guardiola set the bar impossibly high for himself?
When I was 13 it was arranged that my friend would have his first kiss down a laneway in our local housing estate. The girl he was meant to kiss was tall, blonde and pretty and all the lads were routeing for him. All except me, because this girl was stunning and the problem with that is because it was his first kiss and he was going to set such a high bar for himself and would have to maintain these high standards for the rest of his days.
I pleaded my case and his better judgement prevailed, he was now free to dabble into the lower leagues, but this is not the same for Pep Guardiola.
In his debut year or his first kiss, he hit the jackpot winning the treble.
And the relationship between managers and clubs are much like partnerships, by and large, the good looking get with the good looking in the same way as the good managers get with the top tier of clubs.
Of course there are exceptions, such as the person who exudes confidence and punches above their weight, see Pablo Di Canio or the guy who hangs around with the good looking girls long enough and eventually gets his shot (David Moyes & Tim Sheerwood) but for the most part, natural progression prevails.
Guardiola is one of the good looking guys, playing an attractive brand of football that has delivered at every club he has gone to but are the ridiculously high standards he has set himself coming back to bite him?
Perfection was achieved with Barcelona and his reputation couldn’t be tarnished because it was only the evil Jose Mourinho that could put scratches on his record. The pantomime villain played the style of football opposite to Guardiola.
Mourinho was the reason the unstoppable Barcelona were beaten in Europe in 2010 as their negative defensive style of football was the complete opposite of Guardiola’s free flowing, pass-heavy attack.
While Barcelona boasted the exuberant trio of Xavi, Iniesta and superstar Lionel Messi; Inter Milan’s star players were the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Diego Milito, and Samuel Eto’o but their real stars were Maicon, Lucio and Samuel in defence.
Milito may have proven decisive in the final scoring a brace and netted another four goals in the tournament on top of that but Messi was well on his way to becoming the all-time top goal scorer in Europe, albeit temporarily, leading the scorer’s list that year.
It was Guardiola who was ‘saving’ football, exhibiting how the beautiful game should be played; to pass and move is the fabric of the game after all. The man stopping the party was the brash, arrogant Portuguese with the ugly football.
As the rivalry continued into Spain, it became more heated. Mourinho lived up to his pantomime villain role, cracking the ever-calm Guardiola.
The Spaniard said as much before one of their El Classico clashes.
“Tomorrow at 8.45pm we will face each other on the pitch. Off the pitch, he’s won. He’s been winning off the pitch all season. Let them give him a Champions League for it so he can enjoy it and take it home. In the press room, he is ‘el p*** jefe’ (the ******* boss) and the one who knows more than everyone else.” Quote via Sky Sports.
Barcelona, in the perspective of the onlookers, seemed to be the happy camp where all the players got on as best friends; a photo of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta was often seen on Facebook after key victories. It was a camp of positive reinforcement that seemed to be winning this battle.
Guardiola was the good guy in all of this and Mourinho was the antagonist. If they were to ever lose to Real he was not receiving much criticism, most of the public were digging for him, in the same way they rooted for the small and modest Lionel Messi compared to the sun-bedded, muscly machine that was Cristiano Ronaldo.
And then the shock: Guardiola left for Germany. After a brief sabbatical he joined Bayern Munich and the only major competition that faced the European champions were the runners-up in Borussia Dortmund and Jurgen Klopp.
The title had now changed for Guardiola, he was no longer the gifted the pass from the press and fans. Romping to domestic titles was no longer good enough for Guardiola. The supposed best manager in the world had to deliver European success.
In a way, he was now the villain, the big dog joining the biggest club in Germany with all the money and resources that poached Klopp’s best players. The resentment felt in Bundesliga when Mario Götze moved to Munich was unparalleled.
The Bundesliga was effectively monopolised under Guardiola as he helped Munich become the quickest team to ever be crowned champions (March 25th, 2014) and most consecutive wins (19) in winning the league was not a major achievement, even if the records were smashed as the year before they finished 25 points ahead of second place.
Guardiola won the league in each of his three seasons as well as two DFB-Polkal cups, close to sheer dominance but his inability to guide the German outfit to European glory raised question marks.
He inherited a Champions League winning team and the following year they crashed out in the semi-finals after a 5-0 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid including a 4-0 thrashing in Allianz Arena. The year after was another master class but this time from old club Barcelona in a 5-3 aggregate win and last year saw them lose to Atletico Madrid.
The following year, they were bested by another master class ,but this time from Barcelona in a 5-3 aggregate win and last year saw them lose to Atletico Madrid.
What sort of legacy did he leave in Germany? Goal.com summed up to sentiments of many.
“While his failure to win the Champions League means his stay has not been an unqualified success, there is no denying he has achieved something special in Munich.”
The highest win percentage of any manager in Bundesliga history is something that should not be undermined so when it was announced he would be taking over and Manchester City, a new challenge was born.
Could he bring the same level of domestic dominance to the Premier League as he had won the six of his seven league campaigns between Barcelona and Bayern Munich?
It seemed so. Man City started off with a perfect five from five including a footballing demonstration in the Manchester Derby, and a whooping of Borussia Mönchengladbach in Europe meant things were well on course.
A league title seemed all but wrapped up not even by October but oh how things changed? A return to Barcelona saw a 4-0 embarrassment in the Nou Camp and Man City’s style of play wasn’t being received well.
£49m man John Stones and Claudio Bravo completed more passes to each other than any other pairing for the Sky Blues and Stones was at the centre of the Barcelona beating looking like a schoolboy against Lionel Messi but some would argue who doesn’t?
The chance has now arisen for Guardiola to prove his calibre, to dominate in a league that has never truly been dominated consistently (with the exception of Manchester United three in a row in the late 00’s)
He takes over a team that has somewhat struggled despite their massive financial advantage. Spending over £1bn since their takeover, City has won the Premier League and League Cup twice and the FA Cup once. A decent return on investment but even with Sheikh Mansour’s money, Manchester City haven’t been the most the most dominant team in England, Manchester United have achieved more with six major trophies and Chelsea have eight since 2008.
And this is what Guardiola was brought in for, to dominate. In one way or another, he’s done it wherever he has gone even if there are question marks arising about his European record.
Not too dissimilar to Bayern Munich fans, supporters at the Etihad are hoping for a change in their continental fortunes, despite last year being Man City’s best in the Champions League it ended on a bitter note.
A 1-0 aggregate defeat to eventual champions Real Madrid does not look bad on paper especially with the decisive score being an own goal but the gulf in class between the two sides was evident. In Madrid, City did not muster up a single chance; one limp shot on target in each leg was all they managed as they came crashing out.
Former manager Manuel Pellegrini described Real Madrid as “very lucky” and goalkeeper Joe Hart, who is also not at the club this season, tried to take a positive spin on the defeat.
“There’s not a lot we can take from this game but in the Champions League, this season we have grown and shown some good moments and we have to take that into next year.
“It’s not a proud moment losing a semi-final when we like to think we could have done a lot better. But we didn’t and we are out.” Quote via BBC.
And now it is Guardiola’s turn of bridging the gap between champions and challengers, and even in their turbulent season, there have been signs.
City managed to recover from their nightmare defeat to Barcelona with an impressive victory over the Catalan side two weeks later. They held only 35% of possession but dominated the important stats such as total shots, shots on target and most meaningfully, goals scored.
But will Guardiola be a victim of the high standards he has set himself? Fourth in the league is certainly not good enough especially after just scraping that position last season and for fans who have already gotten on his back the thoughts of finishing below Manchester United is unthinkable, but for Guardiola finishing below Mourinho could be a critical blow to his credibility.
It is still early days for the former Barcelona coach and it would simply be ludicrous to suggest the axe given this is the manager that the club has been waiting for but Guardiola is the type of man whose first kiss was the pretty girl down the laneway and not upholding his high personal standards could prove too much for his peers, the supporters, the pundits and the board of directors.