Pep Guardiola is akin to a Roman Emperor – a man who plans, controls and wages war against opposition teams in relentless pursuit of total domination.
In 2012, Manchester City began a campaign as champions for the first time in 44 years. And yet, even as Mancini – the man tasked with spending billions of Sheikh Khaldoon Al Mubarak’s pounds – was the first man to lift the trophy for Manchester City in the Premier League era, the attention was somehow off the pitch and in the stands.
Hired towards the fag end of the month, Ferran Soriano would be instated as Chief Executive Officer at the City Football Group. In less than two months, he was joined by the confusingly named but equally familiar face of Txiki Begiristain as director of football.
With this, Manchester City laid the foundations to hire, arguably, the greatest manager of the last decade.
When Frank Rijkaard left his job, Barcelona were coming off a disappointing season and looking for a new gaffer. Both Begiristain and Soriano were members of the FC Barcelona boardroom who had decided to ignore Jose Mourinho’s presentation in Lisbon. Both men were instrumental in ensuring the Catalan giants promoted their B-team manager and former captain, Pep Guardiola, to the top post.
In retrospect, August to October of 2012 will go down in City folklore as laying the groundwork for the future. The objective was simple in the mind of the City Football Group – Manchester City was to be the world’s first modern superclub. In 2012, the red carpet was ready for Guardiola. That he took a diversion via the Allianz Arena to get there is just another facet. Having won it all in Spain with Barca and a year-long sabbatical, Guardiola went about the impossible task of improving on Jupp Heynckes’ treble-winning Bayern Munich. The European Cup may have evaded him at Bayern, but the Catalan’s shadow still looms large at Die Roten. That he arrived last season was lauded by many as the beginning of an era in Manchester where the two traditional rivals in Sky Blue and Blood Red would dominate. One season later, we can be certain that the Citizen wave is here to stay.
When asked in May 2017, when his Manchester City side sat 15 points behind Chelsea in the table in 4th place, what he thought of the Premier League, Pep Guardiola enthused “intense, funny, I have enjoyed it”.
But his side were struggling to secure an automatic qualification spot for the Champions League at that point. His demeanour became more serious when pressed again, and the Catalan added he expected to be fighting until the end of the season, to be there or thereabouts with four games to go. It was not to be.
Instead, over in London, at the creaking and leaking cauldron of old-school known as Stamford Bridge, an old school manager in Antonio Conte was barking at his team to show the desire to wrap up the Premier League title. Many will point to both the Manchester clubs and Liverpool appointing new managers as the reason Conte’s Chelsea won the Premier League. To do that is to forget the brilliance of Conte and that Conte himself was a new addition. The former Azzuri and Juventus coach built a side on a solid, three-man defence, transforming David Luiz from the butt of all jokes into a centre back who looked comfortable among the elite of world football. He unleashed Willian, Pedro and Eden Hazard to devastating effect and the Blues were crowned champions as the rest of England looked on. What a debut the Italian made.
The onus was now on Guardiola to deploy his tactical nous and know-how on his second attempt at the Premier League. Suffice to say, less than a year on from May 2017, we are looking at a Manchester City team truly imbibing Guardiola’s philosophy. Young players, mixed with experienced heads, and a hard taskmaster of a manager is a success formula in football that most try to follow but few can pull off with aplomb.
At Barcelona, Pep Guardiola took a side that was, at best, also-rans after Rijkaard’s departure and transformed them in one season into a sextuple winning side. He promoted youth and mixed it with experience. Dusted with the magic of Messi – Iniesta – Xavi (why no one abbreviated this to MIX I will never know), they trampled all of the world football landscape before them.
At Manchester City, Guardiola may not have had the fabled La Masia to pick talent out of, but instead was supplied with another enviable resource – unlimited funds. Bolstering his playing squad with options and back-up players that would make most other clubs jealous. Leroy Sane, John Stones, Bernardo Silva, Gabriel Jesus and Ederson among just a few to have joined the Catalan revolution happening in the biting cold of Manchester. Manchester City suddenly looked formidable on paper. But, what has followed has blown away fellow players, managers and pundits alike. The gap between Manchester City and Manchester United is over 13 points wide. Theoretically this City side could romp to the title against their most bitter rivals at home.
Over in North London, another oligarch stares into the distance from his not-so-humble abode in the VIP stands of Stamford Bridge. Below him, his manager shouts furiously and intensely at a playing squad who, too often, look disinterested in the task of breaking through Manchester City. The defending Premier League champions went 25 points down on the current leaders of the table without so much as a whimper in protest. Unlike a wounded animal in a corner, there was no gallant last stand from the Blues. For Antonio Conte, this is frustrating and insulting. A man who fought tooth and nail as a player himself could not tolerate the timid way in which his players conceded defeat (even though it was only 1-0 on the night). He ranted post match about lack of togetherness, transfers and some other jumble that will fade into irrelevance. At Chelsea, as a scorned Mourinho will tell you, the dressing room is king. Even without Drogba, Terry and Lampard in the locker rooms at the Bridge, there is a tendency of players standing up to and overwhelming their manager. Eden Hazard’s post-match comment seemed to confirm the same as he disagreed with being played as a false nine by Conte. Just a few weeks earlier, however, that same formula worked against Pep Guardiola’s first love – FC Barcelona.
Perhaps Hazard looked on in jealousy at the Sky Blues and imagined a better life where he played in his preferred position. Perhaps he daydreams of wearing the all-white of Real Madrid next season. And who would not? With Guardiola in charge of Manchester City, the rest of the Premier League seems like a bunch of also-rans. Teams that respect Man City from kick-off have no chance. The ones that attack eventually tire and crack. The ones who defend can’t do so for the full 90 minutes. The losses suffered by this City have come when the tie is already won, or when they have had blips in form that were all too easily brushed aside in the next time they took the field.
In building a squad that answers to him, Guardiola is, as he once famously quipped, the ‘f**king boss’. His players buy into the gaffer’s mannerisms or suffer the maelstrom and eventually the wilderness. Yaya Toure tried to do a number on Pep. When was the last time you saw him warming up with Manchester City before a crunch tie? Pep tried hard to and failed to convince Alexis Sanchez to move to the Etihad. Now, the Chilean plies his trade at Manchester United with an inflated pay package that assures his agent a fantastic retirement. Guardiola identified Sanchez as an improvement to his playing squad but also recognized greed and pulled out of the deal at the last minute. Guardiola’s system requires players who are committed to what the gaffer asks of them. He imbibes every player with the belief that the badge on the front is much more important than the name on the back of the jersey.
At every club he calls home, Pep Guardiola is tasked with turning a winning machine into an unstoppable force. With FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich, you still see the effects of his ethos in the way the first XI plays. He was expected to do it in Germany and Spain, however. To turn those two stalwarts into teams that made the rest of their respective domestic league look silly. He was expected to suffer in the Premier League and struggle, admitting to it as much in his first season as City manager. But in the few months since, his work has led to the shattering of the myth that the English Premier League is the most competitive on the planet. Just one glance at the Premier League table will confirm the brilliance of the Catalan coach. He has butchered the notion of competitive leagues in Spain and Germany. And he is here to conquer and subjugate the British isles too.