When Pep Guardiola joined Manchester City it was clear that two warring tribes were going to make his leadership a battle about something bigger: Guardiola, and the progressive style for which he has become the standard bearer, and a glut of commentators, observers and Real Football Men who really just want to watch him fail.
You could gather that much from the comments about Guardiola as he left the Bayern Munich in May. After a Champions League semi-final defeat to Atletico Madrid, Guardiola was fairly emphatically branded a failure for his failure to bring the Champions League trophy back to Munich.
For a start, that’s an obvious category mistake which should be all the more glaring given the above sentence: his failure isn’t an overall failure, just a failure to win one particular trophy. The hardest trophy to win. It’s why the word ‘failure’ makes sense when used twice in the same sentence. It’s because they both refer to different things.
So calling Guardiola’s time at Bayern Munich a failure because he didn’t win the Champions League once in three seasons is baffling to most. He failed in his brief, but no one can be so entitled as to expect to be at the top every year, or even in the space of three years.
This is Pep Guardiola’s eighth season as a top flight manager. He has already set his hands on the Champions League trophy as a manager as many times as Sir Alex Ferguson who spent 26 years as Manchester United manager. No one would call the other 24 years where Ferguson didn’t win the Champions League ‘a failure’, though it would be perfectly reasonable to point out that he failed in his brief to win the Champions League on many occasions. That doesn’t take much away from his greatness.
Because in fact, only two men have managed teams to victory in the European Cup more times than Guardiola and Ferguson: Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti have both won the competition three times.
Failure to win the Champions League in three years with Bayern Munich is not, in itself, all-round failure. It might, however, be considered an all-round failure if he didn’t win it once in 26 years: something more akin to Arsene Wenger’s time at Arsenal – which, surely, won’t be considered a failure either. It might have been failure if he didn’t reach three semi-finals in three seasons. Guardiola might be a failure if had ever been knocked out of the competition before the semi final stage.
Just like this season might be considered a failure if City weren’t second in the league at the time of writing, just hours before a Merseyside derby could give that spot back to Liverpool.
It might be failure if Guardiola didn’t win the title six times in seven seasons. He’s still alive in the league in this, his eighth.
It might be failure if Manchester City didn’t break their Champions League duck in beating Barcelona on their way to the last 16, drawing Monaco in a difficult but eminently winnable knockout tie (anyone who watched their capitulation of mind, body and tactics in front of just over 7000 people at home to Lyon on Sunday night would surely nod in agreement).
The fact that the debate lacks nuance speaks volumes for what the debate is: black versus white, with no grey areas.
Why can’t we accept that Guardiola is a once-in-a-generation coach who plays football in a way that won’t necessarily work with every team? Why can’t we accept that there’s more than one way to win a match?
Guardiola is not a fraud, he has not been a failure, and any attempt to paint him as one points either to impossible standards or utter disingenuousness.
But one final thought: look at the men who are revered as the best – Ferguson with two Champions Leagues in 26 years, Wenger who hasn’t won any, Mourinho who’s won two Champions Leagues in 13 years. It can’t be impossible standards.