March 26, 2017

LEE | Guardiola’s Growing Pains Represent an Opportunity

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When the whistle sounded last Sunday at the Etihad Stadium, there was a palpable sense of relief around the stadium.  Liverpool and Manchester City had just played a breathless game of soccer, filled with end to end action, clear chances and controversial calls on both ends of the pitch. It was exactly the kind of edge-of-your-seat play which the Premier League has become famous for.

It is also a source of concern for Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Since joining in the summer, Guardiola has found Manchester City to be a far different endeavour than any he has previously undertaken.  When he first entered management, he took on the helm of Catalan juggernaut Barcelona and turned it into one of the best sides ever, with the team becoming the only club to win six major trophies within a calendar year. Guardiola tasted similar success — albeit not to quite as great extent — with German giant Bayern Munich, winning three consecutive league titles in his three years at the helm.

But key among these teams is that, prior to Guardiola’s leadership, they were already forces to be reckoned. Barcelona, despite a somewhat disappointing season in the previous year, was still composed of a core of Spanish national team players which would eventually deliver three straight major international trophies for the national team. Similarly, Bayern was hot off a treble when Guardiola joined. Manchester City, on the other hand, is very much a work in progress.

Summer signing John Stones, who cost a whopping 50 million pounds, resembles a newborn gazelle, both in his gangly running style and his inexplicably naive and self-destructive decision making on the ball. Center midfielder Fernandinho leads the league in red cards, while İlkay Gündoğan, who was signed to be Fernandinho’s midfield partner, has been injured more often than he has been fit. Guardiola himself has shouldered some of the blame for the team’s underperforming personnel; his decision to ship out fan-favorite Joe Hart in favor of bringing in Claudio Bravo has been roundly condemned due to poor performances of said keeper.

In addition to these shortcomings, the very nature of the Premier League clashes with Guardiola’s coaching style. Compared to the Bundesliga and La Liga, the Premiership is known for chaotic, end-to-end action, with patient possession taking a back seat to high-octane, vertical play. This chaos is seen in the league’s top two seeded teams. Chelsea and Tottenham trot out midfield pairings — Kante and Matic for the Blues, and Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama for Spurs — which are designed to destroy, not to control.

Of course, criticism with the league-wide lack of control has come from all aisles. Former Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez has criticized the ease of scoring in the Premier League, citing that “the action is everywhere and the midfield is non-existent,” while Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas claimed that it was “easier to shine in England” compared to Spain because it was “much more crazy, out of control.”  Perhaps the most infamous quote comes from former Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, who, as a form of tactical instruction, once told a player to “just fucking run around a bit.” Such a style of play is at great odds with a manager like Guardiola, who is famously fussy and has been repeatedly labelled a perfectionist.

However, despite all the stumbles he has had in England, Guardiola still has a career-defining opportunity in Manchester City. His tenure will afford him the chance to dispel what has been a recurring criticism of his: that his managerial success has largely been carried by world class players, and that his philosophy and skills as a manager has largely been peripheral to the success of his teams.

At each of his prior clubs, Guardiola has inherited elite players capable of playing in a distinctive style, but at Manchester City — as the chaotic, frenetic game against Liverpool would suggest — there is yet to be a cohesive team identity. Coupled with some less than stellar personnel and the chaotic nature of the Premier League in general, Guardiola is facing challenges which he has never faced before in his career. And while he has certainly struggled, these problems also represent a chance for Guardiola to demonstrate that his philosophy actually works and that it is he that is truly responsible for the success of his teams. This is a make-or-break opportunity for Guardiola. Despite all his past successes, it is succeeding in Manchester that will truly cement his reputation as a world-class manager.