Pep Guardiola is human. Yes, some people need reminding of it sometimes.
The youngest European Cup-winning manager in history; a man who lifted fourteen trophies in four years at Barcelona and a further seven in three seasons with Bayern Munich. A visionary who achieved that playing some of the most sumptuous football that either club had either seen, opposite Mourinho at Madrid for a time, an equal berated for negative play. When he left the Nou Camp, it was hard for some to imagine that Guardiola couldn’t levitate, let alone that he wasn’t the footballing equivalent of the Beatles; critically and commercially successful, and almost mythologised to the point where “the greatest” just seemed synonymous with his name.
When the Spaniard left Bayern though, he left a very different man. A cloud of niggling disappointment hung over his tenure, as three successive Champions League semi-final defeats represented one whopping, red cross next to his own lofty expectations. This was not his club for a start; the board were among those critical of his methods at times. Medical teams quit before him. Word spread about him disliking “strong” characters. And then to add insult to further injury, it was Real, then Barca, then Atlético that killed Bavarian hopes of another European title. The monster that Pep had helped shape were the ones to put him to the sword, either side of two rivals who rose in retaliation to his masterful Barca revolution.
Spain defeated Germany three times with Pep on the losing side. Of course, he almost swept the board in Germany, trophy-wise. But then he wasn’t hired for an “almost”.
The Pep Guardiola unveiled at the Etihad in the summer, was not the god-like figure of Barcelona, but worn by three testing seasons in Munich. Some half-expected him to take his Messi-led brand of the game and simply translate it into German, with another world-class side. It wasn’t to be that way. Instead, he lifted a template of geometric interplay and evolved it into something new. It was less pretty at times, more direct, with Lewandowski the focal point over a Messi type; and other times it was just as beautiful, ballet-esque in its movement and incisive as you’d expect from a student of Cruyff.
But it was this ability to shapeshift that defined Guardiola’s time at the Allianz. Formations came and went, regulars dropped in and out of the side; Lahm discovered a home in holding midfield, Alaba, Alonso found themselves reborn as centre-halves at times. The Pep Guardiola ideals of how to play football begun to integrate the Bayern Munich DNA, seamlessly at times actually, and in a way, he mutated as a result.
Manchester City and the Premier League are changing Pep Guardiola as a manager, again. Mutterings of more directness were mentioned pre-season, confirmed somewhat by Sergio Agüero’s blistering early form. Agüero found himself suspended, and De Bruyne shone brighter. İlkay Gündoğan put in a world class performance against Barcelona, the side has switched from narrower, inverted wingbacks to a Chelsea-aping 3-4-3, and across the course of the season so far, City have fielded more line-up changes than anyone else in the division. As the Bayern years suggested, this is now part of the Guardiola way.
The problem is that Man City have been crying out for consistency for a while now. Linchpin defender Vincent Kompany’s fitness can’t be relied on, and whether it’s Otamendi or Mangala, neither can the centre-backs signed with the intention of playing alongside him. The side stuttered last season dramatically when De Bruyne became injured and the talisman was lost; Agüero played 1,000 less minutes than Kane or Vardy, too. The hope was that Guardiola would build a new foundation for club to move forward on; there is less friction to build on than there was at Bayern, but the current City squad are like quicksand.
Though there were changes a-plenty at the start of the season, it’s no surprise that Guardiola maintained a 100% win record by keeping the philosophy clearer. Look at Conte with Chelsea: his ideology allows the Blues to keep to the basics. Passing triangles are easier in a more compact system, and because each player has a clear and defined role, Chelsea are able to outnumber in midfield, play out of defence, give Hazard and Pedro more freedom, and as Man City themselves found out earlier this season, counter attack more efficiently.
Compare that to the Guardiola way of thinking. Pep sides thrive on invention, and midfields packed with Silva, Gündoğan, De Bruyne and Sterling are clearly primed for eye-of-the-needle football. He’s experimented with full-backs in the centre, brought in a new goalkeeper and signed John Stones; Guardiola is looking for passing, movement, and when it’s come off – see Bournemouth at home, United away – it’s been spectacular. Pep’s Positional Play panders to its personnel. Just as Bayern Munich found out, just as Samir Nasri and Joe Hart were warned, not everyone can play to Guardiola’s ideals. Otamendi, Kolarov, even Bravo have been caught out this season with defensive errors; confusion reigned against Leicester, as Pep fielded what looked like a 3-1-4-2 at times, and lost by those last two digits.
There is an element of truth about the long-running joke of how Pep Guardiola can’t paint the Mona Lisa with crayons, or build the Taj Mahal with Lego at City. It’s a harder job because his philosophy relies on specific footballers, sure, but halfway into his first season in Manchester, we still don’t know for sure the kind of team that Guardiola will leave behind him. He’s still adapting to the Premier League, learning about his players and as three straight wins since the Leicester defeat suggest, he’s just beginning to find his feet, in what was always going to be his toughest test yet.
Guardiola adapts no matter where he goes. Man City are changing too. Hopefully, into a much more consistent beast.