Forget the comparisons to Manuel Pellegrini, and forget comparisons with Roberto Mancini. Forget, even, comparisons to Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Pep Guardiola’s situation at Manchester City this season is an entirely unique one for both club and manager.
Success has come at fairly regular intervals for City since their takeover in 2008. Steady progress is one thing, but a trophy every two years or so is essentially what they are used to now. Last season brought League Cup success, though most would consider success in that competition as the cherry on the top of another, bigger success. Not the entire cake by itself. This season, it looks as if the FA Cup now represents the best chance of salvaging anything from this season.
So Pep Guardiola, 46 years old today, will go into his 47th year on the planet in unchartered territory. With an expensively assembled team who are, frankly, unsuited to the style of play he demands.
But whilst the territory may be unchartered, it’s hardly new ground in footballing terms. Every manager who’s been in the game for longer than a few seasons has experienced a period similar to that which Guardiola is experiencing right now. There are always ups and downs, and this one can be explained quite easily. It was explained in the last paragraph, in fact: City don’t have the players for the style they want to use.
The answer may be dipping into the transfer market again for the right players, or it might be more time to retrain the players currently at the club. The reality is that a mixture of those two solutions will be necessary. Guardiola is rightly criticised for the current situation. To go from a 5-0 win to a 4-0 defeat with no in-between shows something wrong, even if there was an element of bad luck in losing 4-0 to a team whom City’s defence limited to four shots all game.
And yet, it’s hard to point to a tangible example of failure.
If you take Chelsea out of the equation, City are only three points behind the pacesetters – the setters of the pace in their particular pack at any rate. If City have failed already this season, exactly how many points short are they? One? Two? If not, then has Jurgen Klopp failed? Has Arsene Wenger? Has Mauricio Pochettino?
We don’t judge Guardiola by the standards of any other manager because the standards he has set for himself are so high. Sir Alex Ferguson is probably regarded in modern Britain as the greatest manager in the game – there may be a bias of modernity separating him from Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Brian Clough, or a bias of proximity which discounts Helenio Herrera, Bela Guttmann, Arrigo Sacchi or Rinus Michels – but his record didn’t set the bar for Guardiola. The Catalan’s own record did that for himself.
He has never been knocked out of the Champions League before the semi final stage as a manager. He has won the league in all but one season as a manager. This season might see both of those bars reset slightly lower. He has already suffered his heaviest defeat (against Everton), and the Premier League title is surely out of reach. A Champions League semi final would be a success, too.
And yet no other manager has attained such premium heights every single time.
Guardiola’s 46 years so far have been about excellence, and now the bar is set at an impossible height. He was warned before arriving at Manchester City that this would be his toughest test yet. He has inherited an ageing squad and a defence that is quite simply not fit for purpose. And perhaps to still be in touching distance with all of his Premier League peers – apart from Antonio Conte – is a success of sorts given his squad’s limitations and his insistence that they play in a way they are clearly maladapted to.
When Guardiola fails, none of the watermarks of true failure appear. And if he is failing now, then no definition of success makes sense. But maybe it’s that, above all else, which makes him so special.