From being tipped to win the Premier League with a talented Manchester City squad to fighting for fourth, Pep Guardiola has struggled to adapt to English ways
“I will end the season without titles, but a lot of people will”.
Pep Guardiola here, assessing the press before the Manchester Derby on Thursday which ended in an uninspiring goalless draw. Not an incorrect analysis. But Guardiola is Guardiola, a manager able to win 20 titles in eight years on the job at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. To say he has been disappointing is the minimum, but he will have time to recover, starting from August.
A unique man, a footballing philosopher, a game changer, and a winner. What Pep has brought to Manchester City could be the roots of the first two, but he hasn’t brought titles just yet. And after the flabbergasting start to the season, the way the Citizens played – and the consequent results – have gone downhill.
After the first month of Premier League, many would have put a bet on Guardiola’s eventual victory. On match day number ten, Manchester City were leading the table. Already a week later, Pep was third, showing how difficult it is to find consistency in England’s top flight, especially when coming from the Bundesliga. If it’s not Manchester City, it’s Liverpool, if it’s not Liverpool, it’s Chelsea. Or Leicester City, once in a while. The competition is huge, the balance omnipresent. Guardiola had to adapt: he didn’t.
In the first games Guardiola rapidly instilled his footballing credo in his team, surprising for how quickly it happened. Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Nolito and the likes seemed a reproduction of “his” Barcelona and the latest Bayern Munich. It was only an immediate impact. Just as rapidly, the magic faded away, hammered down the table by Antonio Conte’s solidity and pragmatism, which took longer to build, but has much stronger roots.
Chelsea demolished Man City at the Etihad: 3-1, a game which could have ended differently had Guardiola been more lucky, sure, but a game which exposed the Citizens weaknesses and the Blues strengths. Conte has since embarked on a march to the title, and Pep has gone backwards. Now only Tottenham could snatch the title from the Blues, who deserve it more than anyone. Solidity has beaten philosophy: Conte had overshadowed the great Pep.
A season of suffering
City had to do everything better in both major competitions: being knocked out by Monaco in the Champions League was unexpected, quite frankly. It would be a lie to say that Guardiola wasn’t favourite both in the Champions League tie and also to win the Premier League at the start of the season. Now he is risking a top-four finish, the bare minimum for any club of the size of Manchester City. Simply not enough.
His inability to adapt to the English game – that still maintains some differences despite all the foreign influences – shows a lack of flexibility that Pep needed to bring with him. He changed German football, that he managed, but it will take time to do the same in a league where nobody gives you time. If you experiment and it goes wrong, you end up in fifth place: simple. In the Bundesliga Bayern is superior to most; everything is easier.
Guardiola started playing full-backs as centre midfielders, rotating the squad too much, leaving out a monument like Sergio Aguero and taking away confidence from his players, who all underperformed after that first two months. It’s not Pep’s fault alone, but the responsibilities are there.
Manchester City and English football will give him time, and Pep will have the chance to continue his philosophical campaign to take City to play in his way and also win the titles. Until he manages this, though, he will have been one of the biggest disappointments of recent years.