Pep Guardiola’s first season in the Premiership has not met his own stratospheric standards. While hardly a disaster, even he is willing to admit that his City team have underperformed. Now, about to enter into a battle to the finish with Arsenal for fourth place, his displeasure at his team’s performance, criticisms of his approach and the questioning of the English media is obvious.
Few managers in the history of football boast a CV as glittering as Pep Guardiola’s. During his time at Barcelona, then a novice with no experience beyond managing the B team, he became the architect of one of Europe’s greatest ever teams. His time in Germany with Bayern was equally dominant; three seasons, three titles. Considering his relatively short career, his achievements are spectacular.
But despite all this, there has always been an abiding strain of scepticism towards Guardiola in England. His supporters usually sneered at this as no more than the tired English inwardness of the “could Messi do it on a cold night in Stoke?” variety. Certainly there has been a churlish tendency to diminish his 14-trophy haul in just four years at Barcelona as if it were “easy” or that he faced no real competition. Real Madrid may have something to say about that, as would, in Champions League terms, the rest of Europe’s best teams.
But leaving aside the Premier League’s endlessly self-declared specialness, or any attempts to unfairly dismiss his successes, there were genuine questions over how well Guardiola could adapt to the league. The Premier League, even to those dubious of the “Greatest League in the World” tag, is undoubtedly different. The physicality, though sometimes exaggerated, can be greater than on the continent. The lack of a winter break can also prove a challenge. Guardiola himself seemed to acknowledge this, speaking in terms of proving himself on his arrival in Manchester. Some publicly expressed the opinion that he might find it harder than expected to do so.
This season has provided bountiful ammunition for Guardiola’s doubters to use against him. As soon City began to falter after a strong start, the knives were out for the team with the most merciless criticism reserved for the manager and his playing style. The chorus of disapproval has rarely let up since then.
Domestically, an early emergence as title favourites has faded into a struggle to secure Champions League football next year. Since October at least, questions have abounded over Guardiola’s decision making and perceived tactical stubbornness. A 4-2 defeat to Leicester in December, in which City floundered helplessly in the face of rapid counterattacks, prompted a mauling in the media. Being knocked out of the League Cup by Manchester United and the FA Cup by Arsenal means that for the first time in his career Guardiola will finish the season with no domestic silverware.
Such disappointments may have been forgiven if City had fared better in Europe. It is hardly a secret that City’s owners are hungry for Champions League success and this was behind their long time desire to recruit Guardiola . But against Monaco, City failed to capitalise on a dramatic first leg comeback. Defensive frailties were too easily exploited and once again it was Guardiola who was found to be at fault.
Guardiola has reacted defiantly to this criticism. He has repeatedly rejected any criticism of City’s playing style and seems to have grown weary of the subject of England’s relative difficulty. The tone of his press conferences has increasingly become one of defensive exasperation. On Monday when asked if he had found managing in England harder than his previous roles he responded; “No – maybe you have more experience than me and can explain to me how it’s more difficult here than in Germany, Spain and Italy.”
Last week Guardiola also reacted dismissively to Gary Neville’s assertion that City lack the physicality needed to compete in the Premier League. After casting doubt on Neville’s knowledge of continental football he reiterated, “the teams will play the way I want to play.”
In fairness to Guardiola, he is hardly guilty of peddling a rosy illusion of a team without issues. No one seems more mystified or frustrated with City’s season than the manager himself. He has not shied away from criticising his team for failing to perform at both ends of the pitch and has demanded more from his players throughout the season. The lack of a satisfying response has led to speculation that Guardiola is planning a radical reshaping of the team this summer.
Guardiola has also proved too tempting a target for the British press who cannot resist the narrative of a manager long trumpeted as Europe’s best being humbled by the Premier league. Pundits and sports writers have leapt at the opportunity to simplistically declare Guardiola has been “found out.” The despairing head shaking at Guardiola’s assertion he didn’t train tackles was massively exaggerated as if evidence of some sort of maniacal disregard towards the whole concept of defending. He has unquestionably had a bad season, but it is the first of his career and it seems absurd to write off a manager with such a track record on this alone. With a fourth place finish and readjustments over the summer, he may well still prove to be a success at City.
There are limits on the amount of sympathy we can seriously grant Guardiola though. He is after all the manager of Manchester City, hardly a cash strapped underdog. If Guardiola has lacked the correct personnel to apply his system this season it could quite persuasively be argued that the fault is his own. The promising additions of Sané and Gabriel Jesus have not been enough to create a team that looks ready to compete for the title.
It also does not seem wildly unrealistic to suggest that Guardiola could have done much better with the resources he already has at his disposal. Antonio Conte seems to have had markedly less issues implementing his system or adapting to English football in the same timeframe.
While the shortcomings of this season are already being analysed, City cannot afford the distraction. The final two games of the season remain crucial for the club. With Arsenal only three points behind and also desperate to claim the last European place City will have to fight to retain fourth. Guardiola’s time so far in the Premier League has not been great, but failing to secure European football next year would make it a whole lot worse.