When I first heard that Pep Guardiola would be taking the manager’s job at Manchester City I speculated that he would be in for a rough ride. Halfway through his first season his team are sitting 3rd in the table and 7 points off the leaders Chelsea; not a disaster by any means, but the strain is beginning to show.
Guardiola is considered one of the top managers in world football, and there is no doubt that he is very good. He is tactically aware and likes his teams to play a style of football that is both attractive and wins trophies. However, he rose to fame as the manager of a Barcelona team in which he inherited Messi, Xabi, Iniesta, and Piqué from the departing Frank Rijkaard. He also had Puyol, Busquets, and Eto’o at his disposal. This is not to say Guardiola didn’t have to do anything, but his 2008-2012 reign at Barcelona coincided with the Spanish national side winning the World Cup in 2010 and the European Cup in 2008 and 2012. Of the players that ran onto the pitch in the 2010 WC final, six were Barcelona players. Add Messi to that lot and Guardiola had the privilege of managing one of the finest set of players ever assembled.
He departed Barcelona in 2012 and took a sabbatical, returning to football management in 2013 when he joined Bayern Munich. From 2009 until now the Bundesliga has been won by only two clubs: Bayern Munich and Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund. Bayern Munich have won the league in 5 of the last 7 seasons, Guardiola winning it for all three seasons he was there. It has long been my opinion that the Bundesliga is run for the benefit of Bayern Munich and the national football team, whereby anyone who shows a smidgen of talent in the other clubs is snapped up by Bayern Munich who immediately trebles the player’s wages. Other clubs have almost no chance of competing unless they could stumble upon a few youngsters and assemble a side that could be held together long enough to win before the bigger clubs came and swiped their best players, as Klopp managed to do. As a method of winning the World Cup it proved successful as Bayern Munich players formed the core of the German team that won in Brazil in 2014, but I am doubtful that it benefit the long term health of German football. Bayern Munich won the league by 10 points last year, 28 points ahead of the 3rd placed team; they won by much the same margins the year before that; in the 2013-2014 season – Guardiola’s first in charge – they won with 90 points, 19 ahead of their nearest rival and 26 ahead of third place; much the same was true for the season before that.
Bayern Munich are not so much a big fish in a small pond as the only shark in a fish tank at the aquarium. Their success in the Bundesliga is almost assured before the season begins, which leaves them to concentrate on the big prize: the UEFA Champions League. Guardiola won it twice with Barcelona in 2009 and 2011, and was expected to do so again when he took the reigns at Bayern Munich, particularly since the German club were the defending champions having beaten their domestic rivals Borussia Dortmund in the final the previous season. Sadly for Guardiola it was not to be: in his three years at Bayern Munich the trophy went to Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Real Madrid respectively and his side didn’t even make the final in any of them. An argument could therefore be made that Guardiola’s stint at Bayern Munich was not an altogether successful one.
So when I heard he was coming to the English Premier League I thought he might be in for a shock. Far from being the one-and-a-half horse race that is the Bundesliga, the Premiership is tightly contested between five or six top-level clubs and yet still a team like Leicester can stroll up and beat the lot of them. A weekend of football in the Premier League is a lot more competitive than the Bundesliga or La Liga, and with even the smallest clubs stuffed with players who are highly paid and highly motivated it is a fiendishly difficult league to win as you’re going to have to play well almost every match. I reckoned Guardiola would have little idea what that was like, and he would be going into it with a Manchester City squad that was ageing, prone to injury, and nowhere near the skill level of those he had under him at Barcelona. If he wanted a challenge, he would find it at Manchester City and now it appears he has.
Jurgen Klopp has fared much better with Liverpool probably because he’s used to working with what he’s got against much bigger and richer clubs, and Antonio Conte is doing splendidly well at Chelsea, perhaps because he inherited a very good squad whose players simply decided they were not going to make the effort for Jose Mourinho last year. Of the three top-name newcomers to Premier League management, Guardiola has the furthest to fall and seems to be struggling the most. I suspect that explains his rather odd behaviour in the interview I linked to in my opening paragraph, in which he hints at retirement. Things can change quickly of course and Man City are still in the Champions League, but Guardiola is likely going to have to work harder in the next five months than he has in his entire managerial career. Welcome to England, Pep!