Pep Guardiola: A Continental Success and English Soccer’s Measuring Stick

Pep Guardiola during a match against Chelsea this month. Credit Phil Noble/Reuters

The criticism itself will neither surprise nor sting Pep Guardiola. He made that perfectly clear months ago, on the day he was presented as Manchester City manager.

“I know when it is not going well, you are not going to help us,” he told the assembled news media that day. Guardiola has spent his entire coaching career at clubs where crisis and defeat are synonyms. The pressure cookers of Barcelona and Bayern Munich soon remove any thin skin. “When we play badly, you have to say, ‘Oh, this team played badly,’” he said.

Over the last 15 games, Guardiola has heard that more than he would have liked. Manchester City has won just four times since the start of October. Against Leicester City on Saturday, Guardiola’s side allowed three goals inside 20 minutes. His team is now 7 points behind Chelsea, the Premier League’s ever-more-imposing leader. In recent weeks, Manchester City has played poorly more often than not.

Guardiola has not especially enjoyed hearing it, of course. His news conferences have become awkwardly staccato, most of his answers preceded by a brief, pointed glare at his inquisitor. He would have expected nothing less, however. “I know this is business,” he said back in July.

At times, however, it has not felt like business. In defeat, or even the absence of victory, Guardiola — more than any of his peers — is reproached not just for his professional decisions, his tactics and team selection, but for his personal flaws, too, as if the number of games City loses is directly proportional to the number of character failings its manager possesses.

After the defeat at Leicester, for example, Peter Schmeichel, the former Manchester United goalkeeper, declared that Guardiola’s refusal to adapt his tactics to try to combat the reigning Premier League champions marked him as a “very arrogant man.”

“That is a man saying: ‘I know best. My way of playing football is the best,’” Schmeichel added.

That is not the only accusation that has been leveled at Guardiola during City’s stutter over the last 10 weeks: Intransigence has been featured, as has a supposed tendency to overcomplicate matters, and a perfectionist’s restlessness. For his part, Guardiola admitted after leaving Bayern that he is “arrogant,” though not to the point that he thought he could change German soccer.

All of this illustrates just how acidic, how charged, the subject of Guardiola has become. This is not just another of those quibbles and squabbles that sustain the soap opera of the Premier League over the course of a long season; it runs deeper than that.

There are few subjects — perhaps José Mourinho apart — more contentious, more keenly felt than the issue of whether Guardiola deserves the lofty reputation that precedes him. That is because, at root, the debate is not actually about Guardiola at all. It is about English soccer’s sense of self.

Almost every week since Guardiola arrived, in those news media briefings he finds such a chore, one question has recurred. Now, he is almost waiting for it. He knows, at some point, he will be asked whether the Premier League is the strongest in the world.

His answer is not always the same. In the middle of October, he chided the lazy assumption that soccer in Spain and Germany was lacking in intensity. “You have not been there, so you do not know how intense it is,” he said. A couple of weeks later, he seemed to have changed his tune. “Guys, you have to be so proud,” he said, his tone studiously flat. “The Premier League is so difficult.”

His reaction to the question is now more consistent. He smiles, fleetingly, when he hears it: It is so familiar that it has almost become comforting. He is also, it is fair to say, just a little bit amused by the fixation; it is, after all, curious that a league so bombastic in its self-promotion should appear to be so desperate for validation.

There is, however, a reason for it. Guardiola, in English eyes, is the epitome of Continental sophistication. He has enjoyed unparalleled, almost unbroken, success in the two domestic competitions that might be considered the Premier League’s superiors, in Spain and Germany.

He is also — from what he wears to how he thinks — resolutely other. He eschews both the traditional options for Premier League managers on the sideline — tracksuit to convey dynamism, business suit to project authority — in favor, usually, of a turtleneck, skinny jeans and sneakers.

On the surface, so below: Many of Guardiola’s principles border on heretical in England. He does not mind that his goalkeeper, Claudio Bravo, is not a wonderful stopper of shots or a fearsome collector of crosses, because Guardiola believes it is more important that he plays a role in starting attacks.

“I’m sorry, but until my last day as a coach, I will try to play from my goalkeeper,” he said after a draw with Everton in the middle of this difficult run.

Nor does he have much time for England’s obsession with the physical. “I am not a coach for the tackles, so I do not train them,” he said after the defeat at Leicester. In a league and in a country that treasures its reputation for blood and thunder, where, as Xabi Alonso once observed, a tackle can be applauded almost as loudly as a goal, such an out-of-hand dismissal is unthinkable.

It is that otherness that makes Guardiola’s presence in England so fascinating, of course; it is also, however, what makes him the subject of such heightened emotions.

In part it is because his endorsement is a considerable prize in a public relations battle; if Guardiola, of all people, can be won over by the idea that England’s top division is the most demanding of all, then it would prove beyond doubt that there is substance behind the spin.

But it is more than that. If Guardiola struggles — or if he fails outright — at Manchester City, then the myth of English exceptionalism is vindicated. The Premier League can continue to regard itself as a world apart. He will have failed the Rainy Night in Stoke test, the idea that greatness accrued elsewhere in Europe can only ever come with an asterisk until it has been proved when faced with the unique array of challenges on offer in England.

If he succeeds, though, then all of that falls away. He has made it plain that he does not intend to compromise his beliefs for his new surroundings. “I won 21 titles in seven years: three titles per year playing in this way,” he said earlier this season. “I’m sorry, guys. I’m not going to change.”

This, in essence, is a battle of ideas. Guardiola, in many ways, represents a new way of thinking. Should he thrive, it would not just represent the triumph of his philosophy, but also the failure of so many of the tenets that are central to England’s identity. That is where the vitriol comes from; that is why it has become personal. It is not about Guardiola; it is about us.

Source: NYTimes