There was a moment after Bayern Munich’s 1-1 draw with Borussia Monchengladbach in the Bundesliga at the Allianz Arena, when Pep Guardiola trudged off with his head down towards the exit and his name was called out. He looked up surprised, and realised the caller was Andre Schubert (Monchengladbach’s manager). Guardiola looked genuinely abashed as he rectified his mistake and exchanged his pleasantries. For a moment he looked utterly human, a man who looked genuinely engrossed in his own thoughts. It reminded me of a moment, 7 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of Iniesta’s stoppage time strike against Chelsea at the Bridge. This goal is often considered to the watershed moment in the European football landscape over the last decade. Right after the goal, everyone on the Barcelona bench sprinted towards the corner flag. The celebrations were frantic for a minute. As the staff and substitutes ran back to the dugout, Sylvinho came charging towards Guardiola. We can only speculate as to the words said, but Guardiola looks utterly bewildered as Sylvinho speaks and just nods, wild-eyed. A moment later, Sylvinho is stripped and ready. These were two moments from Pep Guardiola’s supernatural coaching career which were amusing. But these were also moments, when he looked what the footballing fraternity has increasingly suspected him to be over the past couple of year…not in control of his destiny.
Bayern were knocked out of this year’s Champions’ League on Tuesday and it’s now confirmed that Guardiola will leave the Bavarian giants without having accomplished what his primary objective was, ensuring continued European success. He has already been announced as Manuel Pellegrini’s successor at the Etihad Stadium for next season. Pep’s tenure at Bayern Munich has divided opinion over his three-year regime there. He was introduced in extremely unusual circumstances (how many teams have a new manager by choice after a historic treble?) and to uniform fanfare. It was clear that Bayern’s bosses, Messrs. Beckenbauer, Hoeness, Ruminegge et al had been sold on the idea of a self-sustaining footballing model like Barcelona. The same seems to have happened to convince Manchester City’s bosses to hire him. It’s been obvious for a while that City are desperate to replicate as many of Barcelona’s facets as possible. This led them to appoint Aitor ‘Txiki’ Begiristain as the Director of Football and Ferran Soriano as the CEO of their operations. Txiki Begiristain, especially, is known to be close to Guardiola. Back in 2012, when he was appointed, Mancini was the manager for the Blues but assumption everyone made was that Guardiola was going to be on his way soon. He is almost there, albeit after a three-year pit-stop at Munich.
Let’s get to the football specifics, what defines Guardiola? Trophies, you might say. But let’s first understand his football philosophy. It’s important to remember that he’s a proud alum of La Masia himself and perhaps Johan Cruyff’s most illustrious disciple. He managed Barcelona in the 2008-12 period and then Bayern from 2013-16. We will first look at some facets of his game-plan which seems to have been retained across both tenures:
- Presence of a pivot/quarterback: The position is common nowadays. It wasn’t till the early 90s. Guardiola himself was perhaps one of the first. As the legend goes, Cruyff himself saw him play for the youth team in right midfield and put him in the centre. The position demands all that Pep Guardiola showed as a player, balance, vision, excellent passing range, ability to dictate the pace of the game, decent tackling and strong reading of the game. As a manager, Pep requires this position. Much is rightly said about Messi at Barcelona. But it can be argued that Sergio Busquets is their most influential player on the field. He dictates the tempo, vital for Barcelona. He is the singular reason for ensuring high possession. Busquests is responsible for breaking up play often and then a quick turnover. Guardiola never quite found a natural pivot at Bayern. But he tried, with varying degrees of success, Philip Lahm, Javi Martinez, Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal in that position.
- Charging full-backs: Another factor which contributed to Barcelona’s success was the presence of the attacking wingbacks. In fact, in Guardiola’s setup, these players have a much greater role offensively than otherwise. One of Guardiola’s first signings as Barcelona manager was Dani Alves from Sevilla. At Barca, he balanced Alves’ marauding presence with Abidal’s sedate one. At Bayern, he balances Bernat or Alaba with Lahm. Earlier, he also used Rafinha at Bayern, another fullback who doesn’t quite try to earn his salary defending.
- Ball-playing centre-backs: It’s a testament to Cruyff and the success of his total football that centre-backs are expected to be good with the ball at their feet. To this effect, Guardiola brought Gerard Pique back to Camp Nou to pair him with the tough-tackling Puyol. Later, he converted Javier Mascherano just to make use of his ability with the ball at his feet. At Bayern, Boateng developed brilliantly to fulfil this role. At other times, Guardiola has used Alaba as a centre-back for his dribbling and passing abilities.
- Inverted Wingers:It would be a disservice to call Messi one, but he did start out as one. Indeed, established strikers like Thierry Henry and David Villa transformed into inside forwards playing in the wrong channel. This provided Barca with numbers in attacking without compromising on the width due to the attacking fullbacks. At Bayern, this has been equally pronounced with Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, XherdanShaqiri, Douglas Costa, KingsleyComan playing the role rather successfully at various points of time.
- The False 9: Yes, Guardiola needs this role played to perfection. In fact, he needs it more than an outright forward. At Barcelona, Messi did it at towards the middle part of his tenure and later he even tried to fit Cesc Fabregas in the role with unspectacular results. At Bayern Munich, the inimitable Thomas Mueller does it for him to perfection.
Barcelona 2008-09 Initial Setup
Barcelona in possession
Has Guardiola been successful? It’s a foolish question. The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. He won 14 trophies for Barcelona in 4 years playing a brand of football which was glorious to behold. Has he succeeded at Bayern Munich? This is much trickier. The statistics suggest that he has been. But too many factors go against him in this judgement:
- Failure in Champions’ League: Yes, three semi-final appearances in three years is failure if you are at Bayern. With a status as one of the three biggest clubs in the world currently, this is failure given that the other two members of that exclusive club have won the trophy in the last two years.
- Inheritance of a treble-winning team: Guardiola took over an underperforming team at Barcelona when he took over from Frank Riijkard. On the contrary, at Bayern he got JuppHeynckes’ all conquering team, a team which had made three European finals in four years preceding Guardiola’s arrival.
- Weakening of the field: In the three years before Guardiola’s arrival, Bayern truly had a challenge in Bundesliga in the form of Borussia Dortmund. Juergen Klopp’s rapid counter-attacking team had rampaged to a couple of leagues including a domestic double and ran them ragged in the 2012-13 league season before succumbing in the final moments of the Champions League final. Since then, Mario Goetze and Robert Lewandowski swapped the Signal Iduna Park for Allianz Arena in Guardiola’s first two years. This has not just strengthened Bayern, it weakened Bayern’s principal league opponents.
All this just bring us to the most pertinent point, WILL Pep Guardiola succeed at Manchester City? Looking at the silverware he has won, it only seems to be a matter of time. However, take into account the two stints at the two European giants, and it does not seem to be such a clear eventuality. In fact, my prediction is that Pep will struggle. Both in the league as well as in Europe. My arguments backing such a bold statement:
- Guardiola is tactically inflexible: Yes, he extended the success of a glorious school of football. He’s Johann Cruyff’s true heir and perhaps the finest proponent of their possession based tiki-taka football. But his experience at Bayern Munich suggests that he’s only looking to apply the same template wherever he goes. He does not seem to be very capable or keen on bringing in a new philosophy, either because he believes the strategy might still work or that it can actually be applied everywhere. At Bayern, especially in the last season, there has been a new feature of play, crossing from the wings. Especially, in-swinging crosses after cutting in. Credit to him for the success it has got him. However, yet again, he has shown an over-reliance on the tactic. For more than a game and a half, Juventus sorted them out. Benfica too, almost. Ultimately, Atleti did too, in the first leg especially.
- There is no Plan B: in the 2009-10 season, Barcelona were drawing the Clasico at Camp Nou when Zlatan Ibrahimovic was introduced from the bench. About 15 minutes later, he scored from a deep cross from the wings. Till his introduction, it had all ben short intricate passing and Real coped with it. The change made all the difference. Curiously though, Guardiola has rarely changed the dynamics of his team’s play during a match in this way. It’s almost always like-for-like with substitutions. Coman-for-Costa, Shaqiri-for-Robben, Thiago Alcantara/Seydou Keita-for-Iniesta/Xavi/ Alonso. Nor does he change the shape of his team much during the match. It’s like ‘keep calm and hope it finally works’.
- Guardiola’s transfer record is mediocre, at best: At the start of the 2009-10 season, Barcelona made two big money signings at two ends of the field. Chyrginsky from Shakhtar in defence, and of course the legendary Zlatan Ibrahimovic in player-and-cash deal for Samuel Eto’o. At the end of that season, Chygrinsky was back in Donetsk and Zlatan was back in Milan (though he swapped the blue-black for red-black). Of all the signings he made at Barca, only Dani Alves became a truly integral part of the team. Pique was already well versed in their ways and hardly was a fish out of water. Mascherano floundered for a year before pulling things together and Villa did well as a straight-replacement for Henry. At Bayern, his record is even patchier. Lewandowski and Costa may be considered his only successes. Again, as straight replacements with Lewandowski just continuing what he was flourishing at. Vidal seems to be a classic case of an albatross-around-his-neck. Often misread as a ball winner and thus, a quarterback, Vidal’s positional indiscipline almost cost Bayern the round-of-16 tie against Juventus. Alonso has been a stop-gap but without spectacular impact. In other words, for the hundreds of millions that Pep Guardiola has spent, he has NO game-changer to show for other than Dani Alves. He has three other successes at best. His failures include Zlatan, Fabregas, Goetze, Benatia, Hleb, Shaqiri.
- He forces his system on players, which doesn’t always work: Guardiola called Philip Lahm the most intelligent player that he’d ever worked with in his first year at Bayern. Classic man-management? Or maybe he was just being grateful as the formidable right-back had accepted the task of playing the pivot’s role. Guardiola believed that Lahm was only one fit, physically and in terms of talent, to play that demanding role. He brought in Fabregas to replace either Xavi/Iniesta in the XI. It was clear that he couldn’t, that was not his game. Pep failed to tweak anything to suit Fabregas.
- Guardiola is a naïve manager defensively: Strong statement? Yes. But let’s look at it, it’s clear that Guardiola believes defence to be a necessary evil in the game of football and as a result, is willing to put only the bare minimum thought and effort and even respect into it. He believes defensive midfielders or wingbacks are fine in central defence. The result, Inter unlocking his team with simple, direct attack. Morata making a mockery of his centre-backs during that virtuoso run. He’s unwilling to splurge for an established defensive general. That could be because he inherited talented players in that position in the form of Puyol or Boateng. But none of his teams look comfortable under sustained pressure. True, he hardly ever faces it with 75% possession but he can be hit on the break. As Real Madrid had devastatingly proved three years back, as Barca and Dortmund (Pokal Semi) showed last year and as Juventus and Atletico Madrid realised again this year. On the counter, there is no organisation, there is no leadership barring one player. This is all the more pertinent knowing Manchester City’s innumerable defensive clowns. Mangala, Demichelis, Otamendi have all taken it in turns to mess up. Guardiola might not be the man to address it.
- Manchester City plays in EPL, NOT Bundesliga or La Liga: Yes, the EPL is more competitive. It might not have the same quality as a few teams from other leagues, but it’s far more intense. It’s infinitely more difficult to opt for tiki-taka when the opposition are not interested in the ball. Can they do it on a cold, wet afternoon at Stoke? Probably not. Can they do it on a sunny day at the Hawthorne? Still unlikely. The possession based football needs deft touches, late release. In the tough tackling Premier League, that will just mean injuries. Just ask Arsene.
- He needs tiki-taka, which comes with time:Man City might buy any players, but it cannot buy a lifetime of understanding which clubs like Bayern and Barca can afford. At both, with a robust youth system, players come up through the ranks, have played for years together. He’s not going to get any such partnership at Man City.
All said and done, Pep Guardiola remains a massive figure in the world of football. He cannot be called anything but successful and must be given his due. He has his limitations though. The story goes that Txiki and his board were in search of a replacement for Riijkard. They approached the super-agent of a truly reputed manager who was available. A stop and presentation followed in Portugal. A truly impressive presentation and the board were convinced that this manager would win them trophies undoubtedly. But was it enough? Not for Barcelona according to Txiki and Soriano. ‘Més que un club’, ‘more than a club’ as they say. Thus, they needed to more than just win. They looked closer home and took a gamble upon one of their own. A balding student of the game. A year later, they were triumphant in their choice with Josep Guardiola having led his team to European glory and a treble in his first season itself. More glory did follow. But on a balmy night in Catalonia in April 2010, Mr. Guardiola tore out the remaining few strands of hair on his head as his team were thwarted at every step by a stubborn Inter Milan. Inter played with 10 men for 70 minutes after Thiago Motta was sent off as an appreciation for Busquests’ theatrics. But Barcelona got just one goal, a scrappy goal from Pique. Upon the final whistle to mark Barca’s improbably tame elimination, one man ran onto the pitch with a clenched fist and sheer jubilation. The very reputed manager from Portugal had been rejected by a club where he was once a translator. He took his revenge, Jose Mourinho had returned to haunt his former employers and the man they chose over him. Maybe Guardiola’s teams play more beautiful football. But sometimes, to win, you have to play ugly. Mourinho knows that, he perfected that art in England. Over to Guardiola to see what he can do in the city of Manchester.