The Bundesliga Fails Again

I’ve been critical of the cosy arrangement between Bayern Munich and the Bundesliga before:

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.

Last week Bayern Munich crashed out of the Champions League quarter finals with a 6-3 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid. This is the shape of the Bundesliga table right now:

As usual, Bayern are cruising to a 5th successive Bundesliga title having lost only 2 games in the league (and they’re still in the cup). Probably the first difficult match they had all season was when they met Real Madrid. Little wonder that, despite the vast array of talent on their benches, they lost. The players probably forgot what it’s like to have to mark the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored a hat-trick in the second game, including one with his head.

The other German teams aren’t doing much better: Borussia Dortmund also lost their tie 6-3 on aggregate against Monaco in the CL, and Shalke went out of the Europa League at the hands of Ajax the next day.

Despite the entire German football system favouring Bayern Munich at the expense of all other teams, they’ve not won the Champions League since 2013, and before that it was in 2000. This is not a great success rate. True, they have a good history of getting to the semi-finals, but this is hardly worth sacrificing an entire league for.

The problem was summed up neatly by two of the English commentators during the Real Madrid match. One speculated what would happen when veterans like Philipp Lahm and Thomas Müller retire. The other quipped that they’d just buy Borussia Dortmund’s best players in those positions.

The quality of football in the English Premier League might not be as good as that of Spain’s La Liga or even Italy’s Serie A, and English clubs have performed woefully in Europe for several years now. But at least the EPL is fiercely competitive and hasn’t become the farce that the Bundesliga now is. I’m wondering how long German football can continue like this before people start losing interest.

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The Price of Winning

Sometimes I wonder what the hell people really want:

A “medal at any cost” approach created a “culture of fear” at British Cycling, says former rider Wendy Houvenaghel.

The Olympic silver medallist accused the organisation of “ageism” and having “zero regard” for her welfare.

British Cycling subsequently admitted it did not pay “sufficient care and attention” to the wellbeing of staff and athletes at the expense of winning medals, an approach Houvenaghel attested to in her BBC interview.

Houvenaghel, 42, spoke to BBC Sport during its State of Sport week, which on Thursday examines the issue of athlete welfare versus a win-at-all-costs culture.

A government-commissioned review, headed by 11-time Paralympic champion Baroness Grey-Thompson, into safety and wellbeing in British sport, is due to be published imminently.

It is expected to recommend significant reforms designed to improve the way athletes are treated by governing bodies.

Okay, right. But I remember years ago Britain was spectacularly crap at sports, damned near all of them, and we reached a particularly low point at the Atlanta Olympics 1996 when we won a single, solitary gold medal. One of the reasons offered for why British teams and individuals did so poorly at sport was that we didn’t take it seriously enough, we lacked professionalism, and we did not have the ruthless, win-at-all-costs mentality that others, particularly the Australians, seemed to live by. The government decided that this was not good and Something Must Be Done.

So they hosed money at the Olympics, particularly at those sports where Britain stood a good chance of winning medals in the future, one of which was cycling. With the money came professional coaches, many of them pinched from Australia, and the adoption of highly-professional training regimes aimed solely at delivering medals and securing victories. And it worked: Britain finished 4th in the medal table in Beijing, 3rd in London, and 2nd in Rio de Janeiro. We also saw a British rider win the Tour de France in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 as Team Sky practically dominated those years. Whatever we once were, British cycling is now a serious force to be reckoned with, and similar stories can be found elsewhere, particularly in those niche sports which for which decent funding makes a big difference and which deliver easy medals at the Olympics. No longer are we a nation of bumbling amateurs who believe taking part is all that matters and winning not really all that important.

Until today, that is. Now it appears that winning medals at any cost is unacceptable, particularly if sexism is involved, and our athletes have been treated unduly harshly. So here’s my suggestion: defund all efforts to win Olympic medals immediately and let these sports go back to people doing it for fun. If we get laughed at for finishing behind Latvia in the medal table, then so what? At least we know everyone will be happy, including the taxpayer.

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Ford, Farrell, and Rugby League

Back in the late ’90s and early ’00s it was common to see articles in the English press taking swipes at rugby league in favour of rugby union. This was particularly the case when, as rugby union became professional and the money started coming in, the trend of high-profile union players switching to league reversed and union clubs in England began to pinch what were thought to  be the best league players. Jason Robinson, Andy Farrell, and Henry Paul all switched codes, although only Robinson really made the impact everyone hoped for. There was a lot of talk around 2000 about Kris Radlinski, the Wigan fullback, being enticed away from league and this was seen by some as being the death-knell of rugby league. The transfer never happened: Radlinski stayed at Wigan until he retired, to be replaced by Mike Ashton who did make the switch, but there was a lot of animosity between the codes at the time.

There were a lot of complaints from rugby league fans about bias against their sport in the “southern” press. Stephen Jones at the Times was particularly idiotic in this regard, coming out with demonstrable nonsense regarding the state of rugby league (e.g. denying the league clubs’ extraordinary ability to replace departing stars with talent coming through the youth systems and feeder clubs). The league fans also took aim at the BBC for not covering their sport, particularly in relation to televised games. The supreme irony was that the bulk of rugby league fans were dyed-in-the-wool, old-school lefties who worshipped the BBC and absolutely despised Murdoch, yet it was Sky TV which single-handedly save their sport from oblivion while the BBC, even by their own admission, ignored them. If you ever want to know why English rugby league – which was probably the superior code in the period I am talking about – never managed to grow beyond its heartlands as their union cousins went from strength to strength, just spend a couple of hours on the forums of a rugby league fansite and see what kind of morons you’re dealing with.

Anyway, I say all this in order to explain why I found this article on the professional relationship between George Ford and Owen Farrell refreshing:

Ford and Farrell were first introduced to each other’s abilities while playing rugby league as under-11s, Farrell at the famous Wigan St Pat’s club, Ford from 30 miles east in Saddleworth. But they were already linked, both born into league royalty, raised with ball in hand and obsession the all-around norm.

Ford, the son of Mike, scrum-half for Wigan, Oldham and Castleford; elder brother Joe, a Premiership 10 himself; younger brother Jacob to scrap with and wrestle; his next-door neighbour Paul Sculthorpe, St Helens and Great Britain great, always happy to throw a ball around with the kid on the street outside.

Farrell, his dad Andy making his full Wigan debut at 16, winning the Challenge Cup at 17, playing for England at 18, becoming the youngest Great Britain skipper in history at 21; his uncle Wigan captain Sean O’Loughlin; his grandfather Keiron O’Loughlin, who played for 260 times Wigan and 119 times for Widnes, including at stand-off in the Challenge Cup final win over Wigan at Wembley in 1984.

The young Farrell had sat in a Wigan dressing-room containing talents like Jason Robinson, Kris Radlinski and Denis Betts. Ford, 18 months younger but never deferring to his older and bigger friend, had followed his father through his peripatetic coaching career: living in camp with Ireland aged eight; going on the 2005 British and Irish Lions tour as an 11-year-old; sitting in England’s dressing-room before the 2007 World Cup final.

I liked that nod to the rugby league influence on the current England rugby union halves combination. I never quite understood the animosity that existed between the two sports, a century after the split. In many ways they are quite different sports utilising different skills watched by different people for different reasons. Like the animosity which sometimes exists between fans of rugby and association football, I don’t know why people cannot enjoy both. I know I do.

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A Question on Rugby

Tom Fordyce, Chief sports writer at the BBC, asks:

England equal the All Blacks – but are they on their level?

I can answer that emphatically: no.

Don’t get me wrong, England are good – and I say this as a Wales supporter. Since Eddie Jones has taken over he has given what was already a talented squad the ability to both win games with some style and, if necessary, grind out a win by holding off defeat. England have become extremely difficult to beat as their 18-match streak attests, and they are by quite some margin the best team in the northern hemisphere.

But there is one thing here that is not being acknowledged: there is the entire rugby playing world, and then there are the All Blacks. This has been the case for some years now: Australia has always been able to beat them in the odd match, but they haven’t held the Bledisloe Cup since 2002. Australian rugby is still strong enough to beat Wales, Scotland, France and on most days England and Ireland, but as I wrote here, Australian rugby is in somewhat of a slump and has been for a while. South Africa are in even worse shape, having taken a reasonable team to the last world cup but are now fielding an embarrassment of a side ridden through with racial politics which are borne out in performances on the pitch. Meanwhile New Zealand have just gone from strength to strength as Fordyce notes on the way to answering his own question in much the same manner I did:

The World Cup-winning All Blacks side contained arguably the two finest ever in their positions, fly-half Dan Carter and flanker Richie McCaw, as well as other superstars in Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. They were the first team in history to retain the Webb Ellis trophy, like the Brazil side that won football’s World Cup in 1970 at a sanctified level, taking their sport to heights that none before had touched.

When McCaw and Carter stepped away, the team continued to develop rather than atrophy. The XV that set the original 18-match mark with the 37-10 Bledisloe Cup win over the Wallabies contained eight players who would make most critics’ fantasy world team: Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read.

Most England fans don’t watch the Super XV rugby, and I suspect even fewer Wales supporters do. The Super Rugby is shown at odd times on Sky TV, meaning most people in the northern hemisphere won’t have the time to watch this tournament which produces something like eight or ten games per weekend. This isn’t a problem for me: lighthouse keepers go green with envy when they see how much time I have on my hands. At least those guys have to polish the lamp every now and again. Ever since I went to Nigeria in 2010 I’ve watched most Super XV matches in which at least one New Zealand team featured.

I’ve also watched almost every Six Nations game played over that same period, and the difference couldn’t be more stark. I might have mentioned this on TNA’s old blog, but the basic skills of the New Zealand players are an order of magnitude better than those of their northern hemisphere counterparts. A Welsh side will be attacking the opponent’s line at the five metre mark and the scrum-half will, from the base of a ruck, fling the ball to the inside centre who has made a charge from miles back and is at full pelt. Only the ball will be either way above the centre’s head or down by his knees, meaning he will have to check his run and reach up or down for it. By the time he’s got going again, he’s tackled. Watch a Kiwi team in the same position and the ball will be taken right on the chest, nine times out of ten. That’s just one example, but it is representative of almost every aspect of the game. The Kiwis have not only mastered the basic skills at age ten, they’ve then gone on to master the secondary skills such as offloading in the tackle, passes out the back of the hand, and all the other little tricks that make for good viewing.

The weekend before I went to Portugal I watched a Six Nations match with a foreign friend of mine, who (thanks to a Welsh ex-boyfriend) was not a complete stranger to rugby. Shortly afterwards we watched the Chiefs play the Blues in the Super XV, and even she noticed the difference in speed and skill. It really was like watching another sport. It wasn’t only the skill, it was the thinking behind it all. One of the things that frustrates me the most when watching Wales is how damned thick they are: there is no imagination, no inventiveness, no sneaky cleverness. They can’t even manage angled runs half the time: Jamie Roberts is incapable of doing anything other than barelling straight into his opposite number, who in the modern era duly tackles him with ease. England aren’t much better, with the geniuses running the show on the pitch taking an entire half to work out that Italy were playing within the laws during their recent Six Nations match. Watch Aaron Smith and Dane Coles for a while and see how finely tuned their match awareness is, or track the off-the-ball movements of Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith. As my friend pointed out, they’re passing the ball without even looking because they know damned well a support player (or two or three) will be hurtling up on their shoulder.

The All Blacks are beatable, very occasionally, as Ireland proved a few months back. The opening test of a series is normally quite close as the Kiwis overcome some sort of lethargy before obliterating their opponents in the final two matches. Anyone who has watched the All Blacks over the past five years or so will know that they can be beaten over 60 minutes without much difficulty. Only they bring on five or six world-class players from the subs bench and never let up on the intensity, which almost always secures them a comfortable victory by the time the final whistle blows.

England are good, and they might even run the All Blacks close in a single game, and half time could well see the men in white leading comfortably. But over a three-match series we would see that, despite being top of the rest of the pile in world rugby, New Zealand are way off on the horizon and the distance is growing.

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Australia v India Second Test

I was going to comment on this anyway, but I thought it would be another grudging acknowledgement of another Australian win. But as things have turned out, Australia have managed to lose their second test against India having started the match bowling their opponents out for a paltry 189 thanks to a mind-boggling 8 for 50 from spinner Nathan Lyon. Australia’s reply saw them take an 87-run lead and then restricting India to 274 in their second innings, leaving them a target of 187 to win the match. Surprisingly Lyon didn’t take a single wicket in the second innings, and it was paceman Josh Hazlewood who did the damage taking 6 for 67. Batting fourth is never easy, particularly on a spinning wicket in India, but 187 ought to have been gettable. Instead they were skittled for 112, with Captain Steve Smith – who is being accused of cheating – getting the highest score of 28.

It will be interesting to see how Australia respond from here with the series at one apiece.

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Football Commentators and Statistics

There are few things in life more irritating than football commentators, and nothing makes them more so than their insistence on citing meaningless trivia and statistics while the game is in full flow. I can only imagine they do this because they have nothing else to say. When I was watching the EFL final on Sunday, the commentator decided to treat us to this (paraphrasing):

And you would have to go back to 1972 to find somebody older than Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring in a League Cup Final, when Jack O’Sullivan scored for Aston Villa against Charlton Athletic at the age of 35 years and 272 days, making him 29 days older than the Swede. Aston Villa went on to win the final that day by two goals to nil, beating a Charlton side that featured Jimmy Ramsbottom, who went on to play for Chelsea of course.

It was woeful stuff, utterly irrelevant to the game being played and containing no information that anyone would find interesting. It’s not as if one can admire the commentators for holding this kind of knowledge in their heads, they’re sat there with laptops in front of them and probably a dozen or so of these idiotic trivia items lined up in advance. I suspect the commentators think it makes them look as though they have a deep understanding of the game and its history, as if anyone cares.

Earlier in the week I was watching the Manchester City versus Monaco Champions League match on my computer, streaming it from an American channel (naughty me). Whereas I confess my unfamiliarity with their style and simple prejudice makes American commentary on soccer games grate in my ears, I noticed that the statistics they were throwing out were at least relevant. Again, I paraphrase:

John Stones is coming up for this corner kick, and we must remember that he is the highest scoring defender from set pieces in the Premier League season so far.

As I said, the style grates a bit, but American sports are conducive to being described in terms of statistics so it is hardly surprising that the commentators stateside have kept this approach when it comes to soccer. But at least the statistics being presented over there are relevant to the game at hand: when Stones came up for the corner I did keep an eye on him, thanks to the commentator telling me there was a chance he could score a goal here.

This isn’t the only area where the Americans have the Brits beat when it comes to football. I think it was James Hamilton on his sadly defunct More Than Mind Games blog who pointed out that the best websites discussing football tactics are American ones. Again, when you consider the American sports and their obsession with tactics (as opposed to woolly concepts such as pride, passion, and “character”) this is perhaps not surprising. The guy(s) running it don’t post on as many games as they used to, but Zonal Marking was my go-to place for football tactics for a long time.

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Zlatan Good, Pogba Crap

I spend the last part of yesterday afternoon watching the EFL cup final which saw Manchester United beat Southampton 3-2. Southampton were desperately unlucky: they had what would have been an opening goal disallowed for offside when it wasn’t, and were the better team for most of the game. Having gone down 2-0 I expected them to give up but they came right back into it with a goal from their new signing Manolo Gabbiadiani each side of half time.

The Southampton players were fit, fast, and strong and caused the Man Utd defence no end of trouble. Gabbiadiani was bought at the end of January for £15m, which even a short time ago would have been a lot of money. In my post on Jurgen Klopp I said:

[T]he English Premier League is an altogether different arena where you have five or six big, well-funded clubs all vying for the top spots plus another ten or twelve clubs who have plenty of money (thanks to the lucrative TV deals) to employ a squad of fit, motivated, highly-professional players who are paid handsomely.

That last part well describes Southampton yesterday. The days of a “big” club being able to steamroll a lesser club in a match are not quite gone, but they are a lot harder to come by. Southampton lost yesterday mainly because of some good saves from David De Gea, a lot of luck which went the way of Man Utd, and the sublime skills of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (ably assisted by a wonderful, inch-perfect cross from Ander Herrera).

Zlatan has always been a controversial player and has more clubs under his belt than Tiger Woods. I always thought he’d do well in the Premier League, mainly because of his physicality and the fact that Scandinavians are suited to English football. Before he arrived at Manchester there was a lot of talk among an excited media about whether he would be a team player, if his ego would get the better of him, whether he would cause trouble in the dressing room, or if he was too old to go through another season with another 30+ goal tally. I was optimistic, mainly because it was Mourinho who was hiring him and they worked together well at Inter Milan a few years back. Every great team (and Man Utd are not a great team, but they hope to be) needs a star player with a big ego but managing that player is crucial. If anyone could manage Zlatan, it was Mourinho.

And boy, has he proved his doubters wrong. Those goals he scored yesterday put his tally for the season at 26: even if we ignore everything else, he is doing what he is paid to do and then some. At times he seems to be carrying the team, certainly insofar as his strike partners are concerned. But what has surprised everyone is his attitude on and off the pitch: he seems to have matured into somewhat of a role-model for the younger players around him, and all the talk is that he is a huge influence in the dressing room in terms of his work rate, positive attitude, and desire to win. Who saw that coming? He has carried with him the reputation of being a troublemaker his whole career, but in Manchester he seems to be the exact opposite. Sure, he still has a giant ego and talks about himself a lot, but he does so these days with a huge, ironic grin on his face and, as one of the commentators pointed out, when you are scoring goals like he does then he can get away with it. And I noticed yesterday in the post-match interview he stressed that the win was a team effort and wasn’t down to him alone. He’s actually quite a classy bloke these days. Good for him.

The contrast with Paul Pogba couldn’t be more different. Pogba talks the talk like Zlatan but, as the saying goes, doesn’t walk the walk. He was useless yesterday: gave the ball away in midfield, lost his man when he was on defensive duties, and created very little going forward. Pogba swaggers around as if he is the biggest name at the club, and perhaps he is, but there is no doubt who the biggest performer is. I am extremely sorry that Zlatan is 35 and not 30, because the prospect of him settling in for another 3-4 seasons would be mouth-watering. Pogba, unless he bucks his ideas up, may as well clear off to PSG or somewhere.

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Well done, I s’pose.

I’ve been highly critical of the Australian team fairly recently on this here blog, and so it would be a bit churlish of me not to acknoweldge that they have pulled off a spectacular win against India in the first test of the series. I didn’t see any of it but it appears spinner Stephen O’keefe took 6 for 35 in each innings to secure a 333 run victory. In an age where it was looking as though the home side would each time walk away comfortably with the series amid moans over doctored pitches, a lack of exposure to foreign conditions, and the effect of “too much” T20 cricket, this win by Australia is all the more impressive. It is also worth contrasting Australia’s performance with that of the England side in recent series with India, where their bowling was found to be seriously wanting in the spin department. So much as though I dislike saying so, well done Australia.

While I’m on the subject of grudgingly acknowledging sporting results I don’t like, I might as well say well done Scotland. Thoroughly deserved. Guh.

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Welcome to England, Klopp!

Liverpool managed to secure a decent win against their top four rivals Tottenham Hotspur last weekend, thus ending a 10-match run during which their only win came against Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup. Having lost in the Premiership to Swansea and Hull and drawn with Sunderland, by beating Spurs Liverpool continued a tradition that has been in place at least since I started watching football in the mid-nineties: beating those at the top of the table but struggling against clubs propping up the bottom and fighting relegation.

Despite this victory over Tottenham, I don’t think Liverpool’s troubles are behind them yet. Spurs have been notoriously rubbish against “big” clubs away from home, and Jamie Carragher was on Sky Sports last night making that very point. Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s charismatic German manager made his name at Borussia Dortmund where he played a pressing, hassling style of football played high up the pitch that journalists call “gegenpressen”. Under Klopp, Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga in 2010-11 and 2011-2012 and made the Champions League final in 2012-13.

The problem with making your name in German football is one that I mentioned in my post about Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola: the competition is dominated by Bayern Munich with the occasional appearance by an also-ran. When Dortmund were managed by Klopp they had two difficult domestic fixtures per season, and they were Bayern Munich home and away. Dortmund finished the Bundesliga in 2011-12 8 points ahead of Munich, and 17 points ahead of 3rd placed Schalke 04. They won the league in 2010-11 by a tighter margin of 7 points but one can hardly call it a hard-fought campaign that went down to the wire. Klopp’s success in the Champions League, particularly when they beat Real Madrid 4-3 on aggregate in the semi-finals, was in my opinion partly due to the fact that nobody had much experience with this gegenpressen style of play outside of Germany.

But as Guardiola is rapidly finding out, the English Premier League is an altogether different arena where you have five or six big, well-funded clubs all vying for the top spots plus another ten or twelve clubs who have plenty of money (thanks to the lucrative TV deals) to employ a squad of fit, motivated, highly-professional players who are paid handsomely. The EPL also seems to have attracted some of the top managers of the era: Mourinho and Guardiola have won several leagues and Champions League trophies between them, Conte and Klopp have won the league in Italy and Germany respectively, Wenger is no idiot and nor is Pochettino and the mid-table teams have solid managers like Koeman at Everton and Ranieri at Leicester. At the risk of repeating a football pundit’s favourite cliché, no game is easy at this level.

Klopp started well at Liverpool, winning 9 of their first 13 games which included beating Arsenal and Chelsea away from home. Burnley beat them in the second game of the season and Man Utd locked them out at Anfield for a 0-0 draw, but for a while Klopp and Liverpool were looking to take the Premier League by storm.

So what happened? I reckon teams simply learned how to play against Klopp’s genenpressen style. At the beginning nobody was familiar with it, but a combination of familiarity and injuries to Liverpool has meant the Premier League’s wily and experienced managers and fit, aggressive players have learned to neutralise it. The best managers adapt their style of play to counter the opposition, and the Wenger-Ferguson head-to-head matches were brilliant for this. It was like a game of rock-paper-scissors where each manager would try to neutralise the other’s game plan and somehow find a weakness so they could get their nose in front. Mourinho is another manager who historically has been able to change his tactics to best counter the threat the opposition poses, even if this has led to him being called boring at times.

By contrast, Klopp is a manager who made his name playing a particular style that proved very effective in a weak league and against strong opposition who were not familiar with it. Now he is up against strong, well-managed opposition who have learned his style and his side is struggling (even taking into account the injuries). If Klopp wants to succeed in the Premier League he is going to have to learn a new trick or two: 38 matches of gegenpressen are not going to cut it. Like his counterpart Pep Guardiola, the rest of this season could define Klopp as a manager.

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Welcome to England, Pep!

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!

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