Champions League win with City would be Pep’s Porto moment
Champions have been a rare gift in contrast to Man United’s expensive brand of stodge
Pep Guardiola is routinely venerated as the best manager of his generation. Photograph: Getty Images
You won. Fine. Now win again. Win better. Even in a moment of triumph, with his beautifully engineered seventh domestic title safely stowed away, it is hard to avoid that nagging paradox that runs through Pep Guardiola’s managerial career.
Although not before making space for a little grateful applause. It was fitting Manchester City’s Premier League title arrived at a canter in the end, leaving some clarity around the edges, some time to step back and simply admire. A prolonged stutter to the line may have confirmed a few hard-to-shift Proper Football Man Prejudices. But it would also have been misleading.
City have the most points, most shots, most goals and most passes. They’ve been strolling away at the top of the league since the fifth week of the season, a 6-0 win at Watford nestled in the middle of a 5-0, a 4-0, a 5-0 and a 7-2.
In reality it is not possible to win more convincingly than this. Not least when, besides the numbers, there is also the basic tone and texture of this league title, the sense of players stretching out into the fringes of their own talent, finding new patterns and rhythms.
From August into April these Premier League champions have been a rare joy, a team that keep the ball with the usual Pep-issue mania but come forward in a relentless swarm, spreading the game into every available part of the space whatever the score, whatever the time on the clock, always unapologetically itself.
It is worth noting that had City failed to deliver this season the same Manchester United team who clanked their way to a square-headed title-sealing defeat by West Brom may now be in line to win the Premier League.
In the event United’s expensive brand of stodge is a reminder of just how difficult it is to engineer drive and fluency in a standard modern team of expensive bolt-on parts. By contrast, the champions have been a rare gift, a reminder that for all its vested interests, its fixed hierarchies, elite modern football can still be a genuinely uplifting thing.
At which point the wheels start to clank, the screen dissolves and another version of this movie begins to roll. This is the alternative history of Pep. For all its brilliance this City team are also a ruthlessly assembled winning machine. Just as for the manager another league title is another season spent exclusively in the company of the sport’s financially incontinent elite.
En route to winning the title and a League Cup Guardiola has spent £448m on players in two seasons, the greatest single transfer splurge in history. And so that paradox kicks in: a brilliant team who also have a sense of inevitability about them, a project that simply cannot be allowed to fail.
How to resolve this contradiction is not immediately clear. There are shades of a footballing version of the Peter Principle. Guardiola has been so good at managing teams he only ever gets to manage the ones who are so powerful they cannot fail.
Even through this glaze there are other contradictions. For all this, Guardiola has somehow managed to retain not just the moral high ground but an air of likable asceticism. He seems an oddly monk-like figure, known for the purity of his methods, the idealistic obsession with detail.
At times this can be endearingly comical. Even in the middle of the title stroll Guardiola spent Christmas Day watching videos of Newcastle, the kind of festive viewing choice that brings to mind the response of one exasperated friend to the news that the dying poet Philip Larkin was seeing out his days drinking “nothing but cheap red wine” – the suggestion that he could, at least, try some expensive red wine.
At the same time he is clearly a brilliant manager on a very basic level, venerated in England partly because so much of what he does is an upgrade on the old managerial tropes. Like a George Graham for the non-contact age, Guardiola spends hours drilling his defensive line, enacting what is in effect a more fluid version of moving up and down together holding a piece of rope.
In the old Don Revie style he makes a point of knowing the first name of everyone at the club, of urging his players to bond and spend time together socially, although rather than nine pints of lager it is breakfast with the club nutritionist and quinoa doggy bags after training.
Yet for all the graft and detail, there are those obvious blind spots. Guardiola has never managed a team where success would not have arrived anyway in some form or other. He is rightly feted for his 12 trophies at the Camp Nou. But Barcelona have won almost as many since he left and as many Champions Leagues without him since Lionel Messi showed up.
Similarly with City, where this season’s achievements on trophies alone are an exact replica of what Manuel Pellegrini rustled up in his first season. There is nothing here to compare with Porto winning the Champions League, or Inter, or Atlético Madrid’s rise. Winning a title he had no right to win, wrestling against the tide of history. This remains the unticked box for a manager routinely venerated as the best of his generation.
With this in mind next season presents another kind of opportunity. It may be harsh to say Guardiola must win the Champions League for his time at City to be judged an unqualified success but it is also true, as it was at Bayern Munich. Albeit this time around there is a chance to enter, for the first time, a frontier territory.
Winning the Champions League would be undeniably Guardiola’s own work, at least with this current City, who are not a collection of ready-made global stars but a team with an attacking unit aged 21, 22 and 23, where nobody in the regular first XI has won this competition before.
This may well change as City strengthen in the summer. No doubt Guardiola’s obsession with the Champions League will contribute to this. Seven years on from his last victorious semi-final, this competition has undeniably got away from him, evolving instead into a series of tactical glitches, Pep blinking first in the glare.
Never mind, for now, the money spent, the will-to-power of the Premier League’s Emirati overlords. If this title has been a freewheeling joy, next season presents something else, a chance for Guardiola to do something different, to win for the first time against the prevailing tide.