As Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United consider potential managerial appointments for next summer, it appears there is only one act in town – Pep Guardiola. The name currently on the lips of every journalist and Premier League fan, the man whose immediate future is selling more stories than David Cameron’s alleged relationship with the head of a deceased farm animal.
Indeed, since the Spaniard announced his plans to leave Bayern Munich for the ever-dramatic world of the Premier League earlier this month, the British media has been caught in a ferocious frenzy of hear-say and Chinese whispers, misinterpreting every quote and drawing the most superficial of information from the most innocuous of sources to sustain the narrative of a Mexican stand-off for his services between Chelsea, City and United – with title rivals Arsenal lurking somewhere in the background.
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The 44-year-old has been billed as a footballing god, here to rescue the Premier League from its apparent dark ages of underwhelming Champions League results by transforming one of its flagship clubs into an impenetrable institution of the Barcelona or Bayern Munich variety.
Yet there are two sides to every argument and whilst Guardiola’s accomplishments in silverware terms remain undeniable, winning everything there is to win at the Nou Camp at least twice whilst honing in on a third consecutive Bundesliga title with the Bavarians, he’s not necessarily the unparalleled manager of tiki-taka greatness often made out in the tabloids.
No doubt, Guardiola’s Barcelona were a great side. Perhaps the greatest club side ever witnessed in the beautiful game. They changed football into a different type of sport altogether for a few years; them controlling the ball for all-but-a-handful of 90 minutes, their opponents chasing it around like headless chickens feeling more laboured and aimless with every conceded goal. For three straight seasons, there was the rest of world football – and then there was Barcelona.
But Guardiola was luxury to an incredible cohort of talent during his spell at the Nou Camp. Dani Alves, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa – to name a few – will all be remembered as amongst the all-time greats in their respective positions.
Then there’s the small issue of Lionel Messi, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner who finds himself amongst legends like Zinedine Zidane, Pele, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff. Although always championed by Guardiola and arguably at his best in Guardiola’s ‘false nine’ 4-3-3 formation, Messi’s natural talent is surely so vast that he was always destined for the top, regardless of the Spaniard’s early intervention into his career.
Nonetheless, the way Barcelona played was truly something special and recognised by their two Champions League titles in the space of three years. It would be fallible to try and take that away from Guardiola, even if there is a lingering sense of chicken-or-the-egg behind it.
His stint at the Allianz Arena, on the other hand, has been largely underwhelming and it’s not that surprising to see Guardiola close the curtain after just three years. The devotion to making Bayern Munich a taller, more physical reincarnation of the tiki-taka Catalans has stalled the progress of a side laden with 2014 World Cup winners and sent the club down a philosophical path that it never truly needed to venture.
Jupp Heynckes lead Bayern to the Champions League title the year before Guardiola’s appointment playing direct, hard-working and relatively basic football – a style that got the best out of a group of players whose technical quality and tactical utility matched their physical menace.
It now takes them three times longer to get up the pitch, with counter-attacking strictly prohibited, and they’ve now been eliminated from the Champions League’s semi-finals for two consecutive seasons to an aggregate aggregate scoreline (if there’s such a thing) of 10-3.
It can’t be a question of talent; Bayern’s squad is the most copious in world football with the likes of Mario Gotze and Javi Martinez third or fourth down the pecking order; and rather tellingly, it was none other than Barcelona who got the better of Bayern in the competition last year. So much for falling apart at the seams without Guardiola in the dugout, Barca are once again the seemingly immovable kings of world football.
Of course, the Bavarians have sustained their usual dominance domestically – but what do you expect from a club that has simply cherry-picked their closest rivals’ biggest talents for the last three summers? Hardly the greatest of achievements – in fact, failing to claim consecutive Bundesliga titles with Bayern’s current squad would have been deemed a resounding failure.
Don’t get me wrong, the former midfielder is clearly a very talented manager, capable of providing the discipline and motivation to get the top players in world football playing exclusively in his way – no easy task with player egos seemingly larger, louder and more selfish than ever before. But will that necessarily transition to the Premier League, where the quality is so widely dispersed and the cohort of those considered to be genuinely world-class is getting smaller by the year?
Although Barca and Bayern’s greats may possess the natural pedigree to produce effective results whilst employing a tiki-taka style, that’s not necessarily the case with Chelsea, United and City. Likewise, the Premier League is the most competitive top flight in world football with an unrivalled underdog culture; Guardiola won’t find the likes of West Brom, Crystal Palace or Leicester City simply bowing down to him in the way certain La Liga and Bundesliga minnows have throughout his illustrious career.
Of course, many see the Guardiola philosophy as an integral asset in itself and that’s certainly a valid point. It’s created a legacy at Barcelona and will probably have a similar effect at Bayern Munich as well, not only at first team level but throughout the academy system.
Similarly, fans enjoy attacking football and that is what Guardiola guarantees, albeit within the rather strict framework of what he views as the ‘right’ way of playing. Amid football’s increasingly corporate era, the 44-year-old’s footballing brand can be an incredibly effective marketing tool as the Premier League’s top clubs look to expand their global reach.
Yet, the implication amongst the tabloids is that missing out on Guardiola next summer to the benefit of a Premier League rival would constitute an almighty catastrophe to the extent that we may as well stop the 2016/17 season before it’s even started. In my opinion, that’s not the case at all.
Serious question marks still linger over the Bayern boss and countless top-class managers have struggled to live up to expectations in the Premier League before – Roberto Mancini, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho to name a few. Even Jurgen Klopp’s start to life at Liverpool has been rather patchy. Guardiola isn’t mystically immune to enduring a similar fate to those aforementioned names.
Likewise, there are other managers out there who have recorded arguably greater feats. Unai Emery, for example, has lead Sevilla to consecutive Europa League titles despite parting with considerable contingents of his first team for two consecutive summers. Diego Simeone took Atletico Madrid from the brink of financial meltdown to becoming the first non-El-Clasico La Liga winners for over a decade – once again, whilst being forced to sell his best players every year. Or how about the Premier League’s very own Eddie Howe? He’s lead Bournemouth from League Two to the top flight and is still just 38 years of age.
So what’s the greater achievement? Simeone, Howe and Emery’s borderline miracles, or Guardiola winning the Champions League with arguably the most talented footballer of all time in his starting line-up?
I’m not suggesting Guardiola is overrated, as Yaya Toure’s agent surprising has during the last few days. But nothing guarantees success in the ever-unpredictable world of the Premier League and Guardiola will be venturing on completely new territory; the team at his disposal will be inherently weaker than Barca or Bayern’s and no country places a greater demand on it’s footballers than England.
At the moment, there is equal chance that he’ll fail to repeat his feats from abroad in the exceptionally unique Premier League. So if Chelsea, City or United miss out on Guardiola’s services this summer, it’s by no means the end of the world.
In fact, amid all the furore surrounding the Spaniard, the club who decide to target a less in-demand alternative could well end up coming out on top.