Some perceptions just stick. Whether it’s fair or not, when a Sam Allardyce plays a long ball, everyone picks up on it.
The same might be said for Pep Guardiola.
Seen as a sophisticate both inside and outside of football, the Manchester City coach gets tarred as arrogant if there’s even a whiff of snobbery. Accusations of disrespect are never far away when the public has that view of you.
This week, it happened again: an ungenerous reading of Pep Guardiola’s compliment to Harry Kane has led to accusations of disrespect aimed at the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager as well as headlines proclaiming jibes at title rivals. His crime? Referring to Tottenham as ‘the Harry Kane team’.
Whilst factually true – Tottenham is, indeed, the team Kane plays for – surely everyone can see how, in isolation, this could be seen as a dig: no one likes to be thought of as a one man team. But the written word is not the same as the spoken one, and just as everyone can see how it could come across as a jibe in one way, surely it takes a thoroughly ungenerous being to accuse Guardiola of disrespect after actually watching him speak.
Guardiola speaks about his rivals: Chelsea , ‘Harry Kane team’ ‘Mourinho’s Manchester United’ pic.twitter.com/16HsNnNBMY
— The Pep (@GuardiolaTweets) October 1, 2017
It made for a cold-sounding quote when reduced to text ink, and may also have been clumsily worded, but if we’re genuinely going to criticise a foreign man’s misuse of the vagaries of the English language’s use of possessive apostrophes, then that’s a particularly callous way of weaving a narrative, even for football media.
Guardiola’s smile is warm at the mention of a young goalscorer performing at the highest level of football is clear. It’s also unavoidable: not only does Kane score in most games, but in 2017, he’s scored more braces and triples than he has done single goals in each match. His stats are so crazily prolific that you can’t help but be amazed. He surely deserves special praise, and when it comes to opposition managers, special fear. Is there anything really wrong with that?
Despite the fact that Guardiola has had to deal with similar criticisms of his own managerial ability from large sections of English football’s fandom and other onlookers, who routinely brand him a ‘fraud’, this isn’t a case of an irked manager responding in kind to a seemingly random and wholly undeserving bystander. He hasn’t lashed out here. Indeed, if there’s one team in the league who don’t rely on one man, and who are instead built mostly upon work rate and ethic, creating a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts, it’s Tottenham: they are not, and under Pochettino can not be, a one-man team.
In addition to that, if anyone knows what a threat they are, then it’s surely Pep Guardiola. His first defeat as Manchester City manager came away from home against Spurs, when he saw first hand what the high-pressing and ruthless north London team were like, and when he saw his own team destroyed in a way that would dog them through the rest of the season. That Spurs victory was sealed without Harry Kane in the side.
Guardiola has also seen his side draw a game they maybe should have won at the Etihad last season against Spurs, too. A Kyle Walker push on Raheem Sterling went unpunished leaving City fuming in January, but it was Pep’s side who were to blame in some ways, letting a two-goal lead slip. Kane played that day, but didn’t score, as goals from Dele Alli and Heung Son-Min showed the spirit and quality that Spurs have in their side.
So how could Pep possibly think that Spurs a one-man team? Would it not make a lot more sense to see this as a professional compliment towards a goalscorer whose stats are up there with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, mixed with a hint of fear that his side will struggle to contain him? But clearly not, it’s better to use Pep’s broken English to create a storm of fury.
Perhaps most people saw the comments as a written quote rather than hearing the spoken word or seeing the footage. That’s understandable, but avoidable if those reporting the quote reported more than the words themselves. Self-expression – especially in a foreign language as anyone who’s ever tried to order a beer in a different country will tell you – is often about more than the words that come out of your mouth.
More insidiously, though, it’s a standard of the internet age that bad faith is always assumed. Ever tried to make a harmless point on Twitter only to be made out to be a someone who’s out to get the original poster? Has a harmless compliment you’ve made found its way into newspapers and blogs who accuse you of disrespect and arrogance? That’s the sort of thing we’re dealing with here: an ungenerous reading of a generous professional compliment.
Sometimes public perceptions are so ingrained that anything which reinforces it sticks and looks like it should be true. The reality is almost always more nuanced – but it’s dangerous that nobody seems to care about that.