‘Bald Fraud Exposed” – so says the internet every time a Pep Guardiola team loses a game. You could say BFE is typical of a social media-accelerated culture in which mindless abuse has become the dominant form of discourse – but that would be to misunderstand it: in most instances this isn’t abuse, it’s just a joke. The meme began as parody and its humour is self-satirising; the idea that Guardiola, the outstanding manager of his generation, has been rumbled as a “bald fraud” is funny largely because it’s stupid.
Yet that still leaves the question of why this phrase in particular should have become the meme: why should “fraud” be the insult of choice for Guardiola, rather than anything else?
You can trace the answer to the placard a City fan was waving before the game: The Genius. No other manager is praised as much for his genius. Guardiola resembles not so much other football managers as the stars of more traditionally cerebral cultural fields.
The journalist Marti Perarnau, writing a book, The Evolution, on the latter stages of Guardiola's time at Bayern Munich, sought opinions not only from other people in the game, but from film directors, chess grandmasters, philosophers, and so on. One of these contributors is Ferran Adrià, the Catalan chef – and confidante of Pep – who was so dedicated to his craft that he closed his world-famous restaurant, El Bulli, in order to concentrate more fully on the pursuit of culinary excellence.
Adrià chides Guardiola for failing to take long enough sabbaticals: rather than take over at Bayern, he should have gone somewhere like MIT and worked to “decodify” the game. “Obviously it’s a tough ask because it would involve getting away from football altogether for a couple of years,” Adrià says. “But it’s the only way to get the mental space necessary to start decodifying the game and then begin to construct the right methodology.”
What does Adrià even mean by “decodifying”? It’s hard to know for sure – the word doesn’t appear in the English dictionary – but one surmises he means to describe an effort to break down everything we think we know about football in order to create new and better principles. You might say he’s urging Pep to reinvent the wheel. Adrià brings this “deconstructivist” approach to cooking: for example, his take on the Spanish omelette consists of the usual ingredients in unconventional form: a small glass containing one layer of potato foam, one layer of onion jam and one layer of egg.
There will be those who are wowed by the ingenuity and the imagination of the presentation. But there will also be those who grunt, hmp, at the end of the day, it’s still just a potato omelette, which has been overcomplicated by someone who should know better.
Almost everyone who is hailed as a genius will also be scorned as a pseud. This is especially the case when being hailed as a genius happens to be incredibly lucrative. As Adrià tells Perarnau: “Innovation is, and has always been about earning a living.” He means that you have to innovate in order to stay at the top of your game, but another interpretation instantly suggests itself: innovation at this level is also the best form of branding. You can earn a good living if you establish yourself as a top chef, running a restaurant where everyone wants to eat. But you can earn a much better one if you can convince everybody that you are a visionary who will change the way they think about food.
It's clear that what we're seeing is an extreme interpretation of the game, one that has not been seen in England before
Guardiola is the world's best-paid manager because he is the only current manager who is commonly said to have changed the way we think about football. He might not give himself so much credit; he's said that he has simply combined other people's ideas, fusing the tactical imagination he learned from Johan Cruyff with Italian defensive concepts and 21st-century physical preparation. But the fact that other people often make this claim for him is irritating enough.
And yet, there is no denying that the football his teams play is different. Every season they have more possession, more passes, more touches than any other team in the league. This season City have averaged more than 66 per cent possession, with a ratio of 15 short passes to every long one. Since 2011, no team has managed more than 60 per cent possession over a season except City last season, and in that time no team has had a ratio of more than 11 short passes to one long. You can argue over the merits of City’s football – who cares how many passes are short, and how many long? – but it’s clear that what we’re seeing is an extreme interpretation of the game, one that has not been seen in England before.
Such extremes follow Guardiola wherever he goes. Bayern were dominant when they won the treble under Jupp Heynckes in 2012-2013, a fact that was reflected in the high average positioning of their defensive line, 36m from goal. In Guardiola's last season the defenders were 48m from goal, which is to say their average position was almost at the halfway line. The Bundesliga had never seen anything like it.
Guardiola sticks with his principles of play no matter what, and sometimes this looks frankly insane. In second-half injury-time at Anfield last week, City patiently circulated the ball through midfield, up the left wing and back again, without ever looking likely to create a chance. The instinct of every City player would have been screaming: get it in the box. But a Guardiola team doesn’t start hoofing it just because it’s injury time and they desperately need a goal. On the one hand City’s commitment to their principles was admirable, and yet to most of us would probably say that in such dire circumstances, there was madness in their method.
You can argue that maybe the way Guardiola wants to play is unnecessarily complicated, that it is too totalising, too controlling, that it demands too much of his players. But you can’t deny that his influence is a real and measurable thing, that his stamp can be seen on every team he has coached, and also on all the opposing teams who concoct special plans to counteract a team they know in advance will dominate them.
You can’t deny that his style is a winning style, that his teams have won six out of eight league titles (soon to be seven out of nine) for which he has competed, and that Guardiola-coached players have provided the core of the last two World Cup-winning teams. And he could never have had such an impact over such a long period of time, convincing so many top players to do things his way, if he were merely a self-mythologising guru or some other species of fraud.
There will always be something inherently funny about a Guardiola team coming a cropper, all that high-concept talk undone by one well-flighted cross, his best-laid plans waylaid by the chaos at the heart of a game that will always resist “decodification”. But if you’re taking the shouts of “bald fraud” too seriously, the joke is on you.