Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have rightly been celebrated throughout this season for their unrelentingly dominant and dazzling football. Many observers have talked about the Spaniard changing English football for the better.
But it wasn’t like that last season.
From when the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss pitched up on these shores – maybe even before that, when his impending arrival at City was announced – discussion was dominated by how well he could adapt to Premier League football.
How well could he cope in a league with more than two genuine title contenders? What adjustments would he make for the intensity of English football? For not having the undisputed best squad? For managing in a league where ‘anyone can beat anyone’? It became almost embarrassing.
In some quarters, the scrutiny on Guardiola manifested itself as a desire to see him fail. The failure of the world’s most feted manager in England would prove once and for all that ‘tiki taka’ would not cut it in this country; in this league.
But in reality, the pressure on Guardiola across as desperation for approval. There has been a general acceptance for a few years that the Premier League is not the best in terms of technical ability so it was almost as if it needed the reassurance from Guardiola, the master of possession football, that it really was a tough league to conquer.
Whenever he did fall at the hands of typical, frantic, explosive English football, the response was almost gleeful. Guardiola refused to lavish too much praise on the Premier League but defeats at the hands of rapid counter-attacking sides left nothing more to say, in the eyes of some.
The first such example came in December 2016, when Leicester tore them apart on the counter attack. The Foxes’ 4-2 win was inspired by a Jamie Vardy hat-trick but Claudio Bravo and Aleksandar Kolarov in particular provided shambolic resistance.
The vultures had started to circle at that stage and Pep’s admission that he doesn’t get his players to work on tackline was held up as further proof that he just didn’t ‘get’ English football.
Yet, Leicester were still reigning champions and still in the Champions League, which allowed Guardiola and City a small amount of grace.
So, just over a month later, the Spaniard’s Etihad reign reached its nadir and this time, there was no place to hide.
There is a certain symmetry to the fact that it came on the very ground he takes his side to, 13 months on, with the chance to go within just one win of the Premier League title – Goodison Park.
Back in January 2017, his fifth-placed City side travelled to Merseyside to face Ronald Koeman’s Everton looking to go within seven points of leaders Chelsea. Bravo was still between the sticks but Kolarov had been dropped in favour of Gael Clichy.
Aging duo Yaya Toure – who had recently patched up his differences with Pep – and Pablo Zabaleta were in midfield.
As you would expect, City dominated the ball but Everton were tenacious, energetic and clinical. They were everything their visitors were not and the struggles of Bravo gave Guardiola’s side no chance of masking the cracks.
Everton scored with their first shot of the game, through Romelu Lukaku, and then with every shot on target thereafter as Kevin Mirallas netted just after half-time to puncture any City hopes of a revival – before two young English starlets took over.
Tom Davies had desire and energy that City’s aging midfield could not match all afternoon and when he burst between the lines on 79 minutes, it became clear that their defence couldn’t live with him either.
The academy prospect produced a sumptuous chip, his first goal for the club, to provide the moment of the match and send Goodison wild. There was still time for Adamola Lookman to add a fourth and City had been roundly beaten. They were now surely out of the title race.
Throughout his entire time in this country, never has Guardiola looked more ill at ease with the demands of English football. Never has the idea that his possession-based style will not work here felt more legitimised.
City were punch-drunk and shell-shocked, and so was Pep. Bravo, the goalkeeper he had brought in because of his superior distribution, had been beaten by 14 of the last 22 shots on target he had faced. The Chilean was not fit for purpose and neither were the senior Citizens playing at full-back and in central midfield.
Fast-forward to March 2018 and we can see that Guardiola had the right ideas they just needed tweaks – and so did his personnel. It is clear now that his passing style not only works in the Premier League but has turned into a procession. Even England are passing it out from the back.
He was pilloried for jettisoning Joe Hart based on his distribution but that is exactly the criteria England’s number one is being selected on now. Few would start Hart in Russia. There are even many who wouldn’t take him.
There will be those who look at the money Guardiola has spent at City and call him a chequebook manager and he is of course fortunate to manage a club who can invest over £100m on full-backs. But look at the improvement he has coached out of Raheem Sterling, Nicolas Otamendi, Fabian Delph and others.
Guardiola’s critics have never been louder than they were after City’s last visit to Goodison. They have gone very quiet indeed ahead of their next.