Why Premier League pressure could crack Pep the flat-track bully
If Pep Guardiola needs any education about the environment he might soon be stepping into, he only has to ask the man who will succeed him at Bayern Munich.
In May 2011, Carlo Ancelotti was sacked by Chelsea after a final-day defeat at Everton, having failed to emulate the ‘double’ he’d won with the club in 2009/10. His reward for what had been, on the face of things, a two-year spell that compared well to the best of them? A swiftly executed dismissal in a Goodison Park corridor, and a lukewarm club statement explaining that the club’s performance had “fallen short of expectations”.
Guardiola is unlikely to be found approaching Mourinho of all people for survival tips, but there is little doubt that he has set himself up for the biggest challenge of his professional life
It’s fair to say that Ancelotti’s career hasn’t exactly suffered since then, but it is equally true that the Premier League is an even more capricious beast these days. Assuming Guardiola arrives in England before next August, he will be walking into a bearpit that at times makes Barcelona’s rivalry with Real Madrid resemble a parochial squabble. The most richly decorated can see the rug pulled from under them in an instant, and the very best stand open to remorseless ridicule – as both Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal can currently testify.
Guardiola is unlikely to be found approaching Mourinho of all people for survival tips, but there is little doubt that he has set himself up for the biggest challenge of his professional life. Nobody else in football has cultivated the aura that Guardiola, who was coaching Barcelona B eight years ago, has developed since 2008; he holds his public in thrall – and that includes the supporters and directors of England’s top clubs, most of whom have been credited with some level of interest in attracting him.
Two Champions Leagues and five Spanish and German league titles, along with a brand of football that may have changed the game forever, have earned him that allure but replicating both style and substance in the Premier League would give him a convincing claim to that nebulous title – the best manager of all time.
It is little surprise that Manchester City – whose board includes ex-Barcelona men Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain – are overwhelming favourites to get their man
The fear is that, up close and personal, the halo might slip. While Barcelona and Bayern Munich are high-pressure jobs, Guardiola has always benefited from a soft landing.
Generations with the quality of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta don’t come around often and nor does the opportunity to spend the majority of your playing career working under Johan Cruyff, Bobby Robson, Van Gaal and the slew of outstanding coaches working at La Masia. Nor does the chance to walk into a club like Bayern, the Champions League holders when he arrived in 2013 and an organisation whose resources extend far beyond those of an otherwise egalitarian Bundesliga.
None of that is to denigrate Guardiola’s astonishing level of success. But with the suitors lining up it would be as well to choose his next club carefully and it is little surprise that Manchester City – whose board includes ex-Barcelona men Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain – are overwhelming favourites to get their man. City’s steps in recent years almost seem calculated to accommodate Guardiola; their City Football Academy now has facilities that outstrip any in the Premier League and the style of play introduced to the first team by Manuel Pellegrini has, at its best, involved an element of the pressing and whirlwind of attacking movement the Spaniard demands of his teams.
Pellegrini himself said at the weekend that “I hope [Guardiola] will have the option to work at Manchester City ... I am sure that he will be very important to the club.” It doesn’t take a genius to suppose that a smooth accession may have been planned.
The new television deal that kicks in next year will add to the spending power of City’s rivals and it is a far cry from the situation in Spain
If a move to City would provide the right environment, the wider universe may yet pose problems. The most obvious is the Premier League’s remorseless intensity – something that has become increasingly clear this season with the rise to prominence of several teams that had not previously troubled the European spots. The new television deal that kicks in next year will add to the spending power of City’s rivals and it is a far cry from the situation in Spain, for example, where Barcelona and Real Madrid enjoy revenues that are impossible for anyone else in La Liga to bridge.
The division’s sheer size will also test Guardiola – the Bundesliga that Bayern dominate is composed of 18 teams – and it will not be lost on him that many (the recently departed Mourinho included) have complained that its schedule makes success for English clubs on the European stage an almost impossibly exacting demand.
Success at that level is the ultimate ask, but his two titles suggest that – even at the best of times – it is no sure thing. Guardiola’s teams are renowned for their stamina and physicality as much as for their sparkling football; what would happen if, over a particularly harsh and congested winter, they simply couldn't sustain the level required to sweep all before them in league, cup and European campaigns?
If even he can’t manage to last the course, would that count as the defining argument for those seeking an 18- or even 16-team league?
In one sense, how Guardiola fares in England may provide a litmus test for the Premier League itself: if even he can’t manage to last the course, would that count as the defining argument for those seeking an 18- or even 16-team league? Appearances are vital and you wonder whether failure for Guardiola at City – or elsewhere – would be seen to reflect negatively on the division’s ability to accommodate the game’s most popular characters.
All of that will be left to hang in the air, with English football’s propensity to veer into soap opera ensuring that any ‘will he, won’t he?’ saga places it at the centre of the Guardiola narrative until his next destination becomes clear.
“I think I know where he is going,” said Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, adding to the impression that an opportunistic leap into one of the Manchester United or Chelsea hot seats is less likely than a carefully planned move to City. If Guardiola can apply that level of certainty to what he would be letting himself in for, then his chances of avoiding the fate that befell Ancelotti – and reaching for footballing immortality in the process – will be greatly enhanced.
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