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What does Pep do next?
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have won the Premier League. That’s his ninth league title in twelve seasons as a manager. He’s had plenty of resources, yes, but it’s not bad. Win one game against Chelsea and he’d have a tough to dispute case as the best manager in the world right now.
He’s had nearly all the success one could ask for, but it never quite feels as though that’s what drives him. It takes me back to conversations I had in the 2000s about the old “Big Four” managers. Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez were all “winners”. See, they were here at their clubs to do one thing: win trophies. Mourinho talked of himself as a “special one” for one reason: he won the Champions League with Porto. He won against all the odds. Benitez arrived at Liverpool with significantly less bluster, but the intent was the same. Though he spoke of wanting “the supporters to be proud of the team” and playing “the right way”, there was a clear emphasis on results. “I am very, very proud to be joining one of the most important clubs in the world in one of the best leagues in the world - and I want to win.
“I have come here to win, and my players have to have the same mentality.”
We could be here all day with Ferguson saying the same thing.
But Arsene Wenger, see, he was different. He won, yes, but he did it his way. He wanted to engage players’ imaginations and create a style of play distinctive in English football. It was delightful, it was beautiful, and it was ultimately infuriating to a good chunk of people. But he arguably did more to advance the way football is played in the Premier League than any of the names above.
Guardiola is undoubtedly more of a Wenger than a Ferguson, Mourinho or Benitez. In fact, he makes Wenger look quaint in many ways.
He came in with the clearest idea of how he wanted to change top-level European football since Arrigo Sacchi. Throughout the second half of his playing career, Guardiola had watched slight passers like him go all but extinct at the highest level. The game was about more physical midfielders battling it out. “If I were a 20-year-old at Barcelona today, I would never make it as a professional”, he said. “At best I’d be playing in the third division somewhere.”
He changed that very quickly. In his time at Barcelona, he moved sharply towards playing all of Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta in the same midfield. He took the principles he had been taught by Johan Cruyff years earlier and brought them to a new place, running everything through this intricate positional play game. People ask whether his later Man City team changed English football, but that misses the point completely: he’d changed football, in every country on the planet, before ever working outside of Barcelona.
And he won a lot of trophies, but that wasn’t really the point. He’d turned football on its head. He arrived to a game that was growing increasingly reactive and broke it entirely. His sides were no less complexly structured than the best Mourinho or Benitez teams, but they moved that structure into what they did with the ball. I don’t know how much of this was an ideological conviction on his part, but he made it so that players like him were suddenly more in demand than ever, after going extinct years earlier. If only young Guardiola had the chance to play in a Guardiola team.
He made the move to Bayern presumably to test himself in a different environment and see if he could integrate his ideas into a club with a very different culture. Obviously, his team played fantastic football, giving Bayern a level of control and dominance not seen before or after, even as the trophies continued to pile up. But there was never a sense his approach really became integrated into the club. It always felt like an add-on rather than something they intrinsically wanted to do. When Bayern won the Champions League last year under Hansi Flick, they did so with a modern German approach. One couldn’t necessarily say Guardiola laid the groundwork for that side.
This is, I suspect, exactly why he went to Manchester City. With his longtime associates Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano calling the shots at the club, he could be sure he’d be allowed to do things his way. That’s exactly how it’s played out, and he’s built a team exactly the way he wants it, starting with something closer to his Bayern template but gradually returning to a different model, with more emphasis on control in midfield. While his Barcelona side were a better football team, this is arguably a more impressive achievement since the players were not previously familiar with concepts of positional play.
Everyone knows Cruyff is Guardiola’s mentor and inspiration. “Cruyff painted the chapel”, he once said of the man’s time in Catalonia, “and Barcelona coaches since merely restore and improve it”. When you look at Cruyff’s career, the path is clear. The Dutchman had incredible success at his beloved Ajax, both as a player and manager. Then he went to a different country, bringing the Ajax blueprint with him, and painted his own chapel in Barcelona. He did it better than anyone else at home, then went about teaching everything he knew to a new generation in an unfamiliar place.
Is this the next chapter of Guardiola’s time at Manchester City? Will we be watching along in 2040 as manager Phil Foden’s City win the treble playing “The Guardiola Way”? Is there going to be a long lineage along with endless debates about how a given manager is ruining the traditions of Guardiola’s style? I have to imagine this is his aim. He got to restore Cruyff’s chapel, but now he’s building his own.
What does that look like going forward? City have integrated the youth sides’ playing style to what he wants. We’re seeing Foden as the first young player to really become an important part of the side. What we need to see is a sense of something different developing. The Catalan interpretation of Cruyff’s ideas is distinct from anything ever done in the Netherlands. It’s evolved a step further. I’m not seeing evidence of this happening at City.
Perhaps Guardiola’s time at City can’t be properly assessed until after he leaves the club. In the years following, we’ll be able to gauge whether he properly laid down foundations for the next generation of City coaches, whether the club built on what he did, and whether we can say the chapel was built.
For now, enjoy the ride.