Premier League: Most un-English manager, Pep Guardiola set to form legacy at Manchester City
Manchester City will be the most interesting football projects to follow, even if the results take a long time to come (or don't come at all). For at the helm is one of the most stubborn and un-English managers imaginable.
In a recent press conference, Manchester United's newly appointed manager Jose Mourinho stressed the one outstanding feature of the English Premier League: How revenue earned from TV rights is now shared equally among all the clubs in the English top flight. In Jose-speak, meaning is drawn from suggestion and drives the imagination; explanations and understanding are not Mourinho's speciality, not in his public statements, at least.
However, he is right about EPL's revenue management, which allows smaller clubs to compete. Which is why a club like Leicester City can win the EPL. But on every other count, English football is more about the money and less about the players and fans. The tickets are too expensive in the bigger clubs, as the frequent fan protests show.
There is no real effort to take football to the communities, or to groom young playing talent; remember, England lost to Iceland (what a fantastic youth system there!) in Euro ’16.
The English game is organised to facilitate the movement of capital. Hence the foreign oligarch owners, the glut of foreign players, and a great spectacle that is marketed successfully on TV around the world. The two leagues Jose loves to deride — La Liga and Bundesliga — are actually built around fans who own clubs, and around young players who are groomed by these clubs. They are also the two leagues in which Pep Guardiola has prospered. And now Pep is in England, a stage naturally more suitable to Jose.
In several ways, large European clubs are more similar than not. The agents, the players, the bureaucracy, the will to profit, the sponsorship... The limelight on managers gets so much traction only because we have a need to read and write stories. Their differences are more interesting than similarities. It makes for a better contest: Jose-versus-Pep, City-versus-United. Capitalism-versus-social control. Sports is about a contest, after all.
Which is why, even if Jose hogs all the attention with his headline-friendly ways, Pep will attract more interest and curiosity (along with Jurgen Klopp, that other oddball). For he has thrived in an atmosphere of football that is different from England, an atmosphere in which fans carry a lot more weight (even owning the clubs) and local talent means a lot more than punditry in the local language.
Guardiola does not have the best of reputations in the transfer market. He has a distinct manner; his approach to football is clearly defined. Players either fit into it or they don't. It's not just about how he (mis)handled Zlatan Ibrahimovic, making him sit out game after game. Thierry Henry once revealed how particular Pep can get about positioning. Henry had been instructed in a game to stay wide on the left to stretch the defence, but he moved in and scored a goal from where Pep did not want him to be; he was soon substituted, the goal notwithstanding.
His major league debut in 2008 began with Guardiola selling away the entire star cast of FC Barcelona that had won the Champions League two years ago. At the fag-end of the 2008-09 season, six of Barca's top players were fined for arriving a few minutes late for training; late-night revelries after winning the Spanish cup had kept them up. Other managers might have let something like that slip. Not Guardiola the obsessive. We've already had a glimpse of that in Manchester City: Samir Nasiri arrived slightly overweight after the off-season, and was kept out of training with the first team. Pizza has been banned after games. The stories will slowly begin to accumulate. Question is: Will the trophies accumulate?
Guardiola's methods will be a sharp learning curve for the City squad. Not everybody will climb that curve, it's guaranteed. Pep's signings are all young, promising players. The only tried and tested footballer in the squad is Ilkay Gundogan, just the kind of player Guardiola likes: Skilled, technical, likes to pass and move, has a sharp sense of positioning, a thinking player. Expect him to run the engine room in the middle.
The question is: Who will line up alongside Gundogan in central midfield? Fernandinho and/or Yaya Toure? It is likely David Silva will move deeper, given his control and passing skills, and the attacking line already getting crowded.
It also won't even be a surprise if Fernandinho or Toure is put into defence, given Pep's predilection for having ball-playing midfielders in defence (and given City's shoddy defending, especially when captain Vincent Kompany is injured, which is quite often).
Toure is too slow, and Guardiola prefers a high defensive line, in which Toure's lack of speed might be an impediment. Pep sold off Toure in favour of Sergio Busquets at Barca in 2009. The Ivorian was rumoured to leave Manchester after Pep's arrival was announced. That Toure hasn't left can only mean one of two things: Either Guardiola's grand scheme has a role for Toure, or he cannot land a decent offer. Or a combination of the two. For Pep knows Toure well, and how he handles the big Ivorian will be a significant indicator of his plans.
The English league will severely test Guardiola's approach to defending, given its physicality and bustle, as also City's lack of players who can control the game in the middle, like Pep expects his teams to do.
Besides, the defensive line of Guardiola's Barcelona of 2008-2012 was held by Carles Puyol, a pure centre-back, an all-time great at the peak of his career. That team struggled when Puyol was not around, and Gerard Pique never looks as solid as he did alongside Puyol. Landing John Stones will boost the defence, but he's young. It will be a while before people speak of him as a replacement for Kompany. Reinforcements will be required on either side of the defence, given that Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta are 33 and 31 respectively.
Players who are likely to flower under his approach, apart from Gundogan, include Kevin de Bruyne, Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane. The Belgian will shine, as he has both the talent and the attitude that Guardiola likes. His sparkling instincts, paired with Gundogan's vision, could be the partnership that shoulders City's future. City is rumoured to be interested in landing Real Madrid's Toni Kroos, a player who spent only one year under Guardiola at Bayern Munich, but is still rated very highly by the Spaniard. Aguero's prodigious appetite for goals can only prosper with increased service from the middle.
Raheem Sterling, like Toure, is a mystery. While he has individual skill, the maturity of his decisions is seriously suspect. Besides, his position will constantly be under threat from Sane, who also likes to run in from space on the left. In fact, with the signing of Gabriel Jesus (joining in December) and Nolito, City is loaded with talent in wide areas; in this battle, Jesus Navas is likely to fade to the periphery.
As football projects unfold, Pep will find himself in a similar situation to 2008. He will have to begin with a clean slate. Just that he will not have the likes of Leo Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta to work with. On the contrary, Pep is more experienced now.
Manchester City is one of the most interesting football projects to follow, even if the results take a long time to come (or don't come at all). For English football has one of the most stubborn and un-English managers imaginable, with a long-term vision. Rich clubs are obsessed with creating a dynasty, a tradition. No recent manager has done that like Pep Guardiola.
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The City fan, a Belgian national, was badly beaten at a motorway service station where rival fans first stole his club scarf.
Raheem Sterling has made just two Premier League starts this season under coach Pep Guardiola.