Man City and Pep Guardiola are surging through the Premier League. Their flow is an affront to Brexit and the bulwarks of English football’s old insularity.
Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good,
Now, cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good,
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.
– Led Zeppelin
A few days back, I was walking down a beach on the outskirts of Madras. I enjoyed the peace and quiet, the lack of human chatter to pierce through the sound of waves crashing on the seashore on a high-tide evening. There were a few young bare-chested kids, though, repeatedly running into the water to ride the waves back to the shore. It must be fun to let buoyancy and inertia guide you, rather than your own two feet.
Oftentimes, in the age of internet, social media and all its extras, this is a grave danger to following a popular religion or cult. You’re surrounded by so many opinions, so many insights, you struggle to find the headspace to make your own. Those in it for the social aspect of it all just ride the wave. They go to protests with “I’m with this guy ->” written on placards. Conviction is as passe as print newspapers and hand-written letters.
Born out of a country of miners, millworks and shipyard dwellers, English football is all about the conviction of honest, tooth-grinding toil. The last century and a half has seen the evolution of everything about the game, barring England and it’s fascination with what they consider masculine football.
“The story of British football and the foreign challenge is the story of a vast superiority, sacrificed through stupidity, short-sightedness, and wanton insularity. It is a story of shamefully wasted talent, extraordinary complacency and infinite self-deception.”
– Brian Glanville in Soccer Nemesis after Hungary beat England 6-3 in 1953.
Tottenham Hotspurs and Manchester City are currently two of the most progressive clubs in England. With owners who realised the power of continental talent early, they’re right now playing and teaching football in a way alien to these shores. The quality of football expected out of a match like this was worth giving up your Saturday night-out for.
The Spurs team is littered with young, exciting English players, which has allowed them immunity from the media and public. City, on the other hand, have had to fend stones at every step of their incredibly successful last half a decade. Pundits in Rolex watches and Armani suits dissing the Qatari royal family for spending money made for irony and comedy that would find a way into many Netflix shows.
Manchester City had only conceded points to Everton in the second game of the season, and won 15 on the bounce since. Even accounting for David Silva’s absence, there weren’t very many people willing to bet large money on Mauricio Pochettino’s men obstructing the juggernaut from Manchester.
Pep Guardiola shares a queer relationship with England. As a 21-year-old, he was part of the starting lineup at the old Wembley as Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona beat Sampdoria to win their first ever Champions League. English football would change forever that year, completing the move from First Division to Premier League.
In the summer of 2001, thirty years of age and approaching what is usually peak age for a central midfielder, he was ready to change colors. Incidentally, it was also the year Sir Alex Ferguson completed his first hat-trick of Premier League titles with Manchester United. Perpetually hungry for evolution and success, he identified Pep as the perfect pivot in a midfield already boasting of Paul Scholes and Roy Keane. The move never materialised.
Eight years later, Pep was finally on English soil, back with Barcelona. He was still their puppeteer, but not from the centre of the pitch anymore. He was now a animated, beard-scratching, young coach in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final in his first year of top-flight management. As the full-time whistle rang at Stamford Bridge, Pep sprinted – harder than he’d have ever done for intercepting opposition play – and jumped onto the pile of his players celebrating Andres Iniesta’s tie-winner. The English were disgusted, and for once, found support across the world.
“It’s a fucking disgrace”
– Didier Drogba
Over the next twenty-four months, he’d win two Champions League finals against Manchester United, the latter at the new Wembley. He was destroying English football’s royalty with a style of football that they considered borderline feminine and beneath them to practice. As Fernando Torres ran forward with the ball at the Camp Nou in 2012, the entire country lit up in the Chelsea blue. “Down with the Spanish imbeciles”, you could hear from a million miles away. Gary Neville wasn’t the only Englishman orgasming that night.
Half a decade from those heady days, here we are, with Pep Guardiola reducing a league known for its closely-fought competitiveness to a relative cakewalk. The English are boggled with conflict. They’re lost for superlatives, yet secretly hoping for the other Latin manager in the room to bring down the beast and put an end to their misery. Pochettino’s starting lineup had six English players, while Pep fielded three. You could hear one final plea to the Almighty as the referee whistled for kick-off.
Spurs started in earnest, pressing-high and hassling the usually-calm City midfielders into hurried possession, making them look like they missed David Silva. But if you’ve read the book on breaking a Guardiola team by Mourinho, Di Matteo and Ancelotti, you’d notice a very distinct foreword. Until the full-time whistle is blown, do not let up. It’s never over.
For all their qualities, Tottenham still have this raging problem to solve. They’re not at their intense best for ninety minutes against a top team. It took 14 for City to find a gap in their defence. Silva’s fill-in for the night, Ilkay Gundogan, found himself in enough time and space to walk in, enjoy a glass of cold martini, and put a header through Lloris’ goal.
This City team is beginning to function like a battalion of artillery gunners. You give them an inch and they’ll barge through you. Manning their most powerful cannon, is Kevin de Bruyne. He is to Guardiola at City what Guardiola must’ve been to Cruyff. Young and forever on the upward path towards growth, there are not a lot of things the Belgian isn’t prepared to do. He allowed Pep to mould one of Premier League’s best-attacking midfielders into Premier League’s best central midfielder.
As the evening wore on, de Bruyne cast his spell deeper into the match, laying first-time passes into the path of Sane and Sterling without breaking stride. There were times when the naturally combative Moussa Dembele must’ve wanted to stop and admire the sheer ability of his counterpart.
“I have no words for Kevin de Bruyne’s performance tonight.”
– Pep in his press-conference after the match
Like a well-rounded show, this match too had its fillers which distracted you before the main protagonists pulled you back in, reminding you of the main story and narrative. Otamendi succeeded in arranging a quick meeting between his boots and Harry Kane’s face. The resultant yellow-card led to a now-usual nationwide anguish about the falling refereeing standards in England.
Spurs managed to muster a couple of half-chances of their own too, before letting their customary haste run them down the gutter. Their entire game thrives on staying compact, but in their chase to equalise, they started opening gaps in their midfield. Ederson, a goalkeeper Pep bought from Benfica solely for his long-range passing ability, put a 70-yarder straight onto Raheem Sterling, taking the entire Tottenham press out of the game.
It was a matter of time before the gunmen put one more bullet through them. For a right-footed player, Kevin de Bruyne has among the best left-footers in this country, and Hugo Lloris couldn’t deal with his power in the 70th minute.
Five minutes later, Spurs were left gasping for air and de Bruyne’s trailing leg inside their penalty box. Jesus missed the penalty, but like a misfired bullet from a young shooter, it was put behind with utmost ease as City made up with two goals in the next fifteen minutes. 18 matches, 17 wins, 1 draw.
The season’s not over yet, but over the last four months, Pep Guardiola and his men have given enough answers to the English for resolving their internal conflicts. Transfer/wage budgets and a team rich in talent and ability will only take you so far in the Premier League. It takes merit to land a 50-metre pass onto Leroy Sane’s forward leg, and it takes merit to get Sterling and Aguero to move in perfect synchronisation to receive Sane’s low pass into the box.
English football is suffering from a strange paradox right now. As the likes of Moyes, Pardew and Allardyce keep recycling managerial jobs in the mid to lower table clubs, the top shelf is graced by some of the world’s elite. Out of nowhere, with Mourinho, Klopp, Conte, Wenger, Pochettino and Pep, the entire footballing world has conspired to give England front-row tickets to a coaching seminar that could shape their future in unprecedented ways.
British football enjoys a heavy symbiosis with its culture and politics at landscaping the future. Tony Blair’s victory at the Commons with the Labour Party in 1997 came about as the country was changing on all fronts. Oasis had just released (What’s The Story) Morning Glory and a young Manchester United side took the country by storm, winning a league deemed too tough for “a bunch of kids”.
Twenty years later, as a left-leaning, fierce Catalan arrived on English shores, newly crowned Prime Minister Theresa May was announcing herself with passing the Brexit referendum. Over time, both Pep’s reputation in England, and the country’s stance towards the European Union has changed. A recent poll run by The Independent suggested that a majority of the country had finally seen light and wanted to continue their ties with the European Union.
If a second referendum comes through, Britain would give itself another chance at riding with the rest of the continent towards progress. The question remains, will it translate to football? Accepting the quality of Pep and his Manchester City team would be a fantastic start on the road to redemption.