Premier League
June 21, 2017

Pep’s Boulder: the difficulties of being Josep

What does the Man City manager have in common with a fallen king?


No one would want to be Sisyphus: once a king then condemned to rolling a boulder up a hill only to see it roll down again, doing this for all of eternity. It was a punishment for trying to use his dishonesty and cunningness to cheat death by locking Thanatos, the personification of death, in chains. It was all rooted in the fact that he thought he could outsmart Zeus, the all-powerful ruler in Greek mythology. In the end, Zeus showed him that the difference in power between himself and Sisyphus. Albert Camus’ philosophical essay using Sisyphus as an example of an absurd hero, wherein he knows the futility of his task and recognition of the absurd situation allows for him to be contented acceptance.

More people would definitely want to be Josep Guardiola than Sisyphus. Adulation and accolades have followed him wherever he has plied his trade as a manager, mostly for his unique brand of football that he implements. Much like a musician producing a brilliant debut album followed by the ‘sophomore slump’, Guardiola’s time with Barcelona and Bayern followed a declination in the consensus of how good of a manager he is, despite the success in Bavaria. There had always been an air of caution among his detractors about how well he could do with a lesser quality of player than those employed at his previous clubs.

Conflict of Philosophies

It had always been a dream of the Abu Dubai group in charge of Manchester City to have the Catalan at the managerial helm; they had even done their due diligence in preparing their club for the easiest transition. They got the executive duo, Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, who were part of the board headed by Joan Laporta, that appointed Pep in 2008. They appointed a manager to begin a footballing philosophy, conducive with Guardiola’s, in Manuel Pellegrini (who was on the shortlist for when Barcelona were looking for a new manager in 2008), and began preparing for the Catalan’s arrival signing players a year in advance that would be considered more to Guardiola’s taste than the then incumbent Chilean manager, like Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne.

No matter the previsions put in place, Guardiola suffered what has been the toughest season of his career to date. Despite a circa £160m spend in the summer, what started off with ten straight wins in a row, grew into a season with comedy at the back and profligacy up top. Guardiola’s first season at Man City saw them finishing third in the league, out in the fourth round of League Cup, losing a semi-final to Arsenal in the FA Cup and a 12 goal thriller over 2 legs being lost on away goals to Monaco.

Finding it difficult in your first season is not something to be ashamed of, especially in what many considered the most competitive Premier League season ever with six top teams managed by six top managers. Arguably, it was the Catalan that faced the most heat throughout the season, somewhat justified given the squad and summer outlay. Even with these factors, the English media’s ulterior motives shone through. You see, much had been made of how Guardiola’s style of play would have issues being practiced here as well as it was in the La Liga and Bundesliga; a sort of an award that would tick another box to confirm the Premier League as the hardest, most competitive league in the worldTM.

So when Man City begun to falter, first with the draw vs Celtic and then the loss to Tottenham Hotspur in the autumn, the stumble was met with glee. When a two-time Champions League winner’s remark about ‘not coaching tackling’ was generalised to the narrative of him being blasé towards his attention to defending, in comparison to the offensive side of the game, it was a microcosm of the philosophical battle raging between Guardiola and the archetypal English fan, journalist, pundit etc. He had an added pressure of having to prove to the audience of English football that you can win football playing his type of way and without a certain type of spine; powerful athletic players, who are omnipresent within all Premier League title-winning teams.

The P’s of Guardiola

As mentioned before, Guardiola’s rendition of Total Football is unique and it really stems from the unique journey that he undertook in the efforts to become a coach. By the time he realised that his illustrious playing career was ending, he went to a Mexican club, Dorados de Sinaloa, presided over by Juan Manuel Lillo to act as an apprentice to the manager, learning the ways of coaching and ideas for his own way. It was here that the idea of attack and defence blending into one another, possessive football and defending from the front were hardened along with the working under Johan Cruyff and his fandom of Marcelo Bielsa.

Much has been written of Guardiola’s philosophy but it is rooted in two ideas: pressing and possession. Guardiola likes to employ a type of press where he sets up players in between or in front of potential receivers to attack the pass itself rather than the man on the ball. This is known as passing lane orientated pressing, detailed more in this piece by the wonderful Rene Maric.

One of the reasons for Guardiola picking this is that when the ball is retrieved, players are roughly still in the positions they would have to be in the offensive phase of play, and that means less work for the players to get into the attacking positions. Players are coached to stand in particular zones in order for the possession to have a greater effect in breaking down teams. The whole team is as wide as possible in possession, with the wingers and full backs creating the width. The thinking is that by them standing in these positions, it attracts opponents to mark them, making space for the creative and dangerous players inside. Thierry Henry explained on MNF how the first two thirds of the pitch were coached in order to give them the freedom to create and score in the final third. This way of playing is widely referred to as Juego de Posicion, Positional Play in English, a better explanation offered here.

In order to achieve this, a certain type of player is needed. Technically secure, intelligently flexible and incredibly fit players are required to make this way of playing work to the best of its ability. His lack of it in this current squad of Man City could have shouldered some of the reason his first season was considered a considerably failure in the books of many.

Defensively, City were haphazard, to put it nicely. The goalkeeper, whether it was Claudio Bravo or Willy Caballero, inspired no confidence. John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi always had a mistake in them. Sometimes, they were paired alongside Aleksander Kolarov or Pablo Zabaleta in a pairing of back three and it looked as shaky as it sounds. Vincent Kompany was perennially injured but his introduction at the end of the season gave some sort of stability. The full back area as a whole was an area of great issue as the lack of suitable energetic full backs to support wingers meant that the wide forwards were often faced being doubled up, making the opponents comfortable in their shape.

The injury to Ilkay Gündoğan at a time when he was finally getting into form gave an issue in midfield as the metronomic figure he provided in there was missed in his absence, something Yaya Toure could only offer in part, as he lacked the energy the German international has. In attack, despite scoring 80 goals, they were still incredibly profligate. The fact that Guardiola had coached them into a wonderful attacking side meant the amount of chances created meant they were bound to score a lot anyway but they could have comfortably scored more, as explained in a part of my article here comparing Man City and Man Utd’s scoring issues.

Contented acceptance or walk of fatigue?

However, Guardiola knows himself that he needs to improve and that has been seen already in the almost hurried acquisition of Ederson and Bernardo Silva, with Dani Alves and Benjamin Mendy looking likely to follow. Guardiola may be close to the stage where he considers management as a whole all meaningless, saying as much earlier this season. Not just in England but in Germany also, to a lesser extent however, the media have treated him as if he too needs to be punished for deceitfulness and craftiness.

But for what? The only thing Guardiola could be charged with is trying to lock convention in chains. Pep’s boulder, in effect, is the pressure of philosophy from all walks of the football public and the hill is what he has to go through to get his team to that level. His detractors will always have something new to say and the boulder will roll down with him having to prove himself once again. Camus’s essay about Sisyphus, about the walk back down the start over again, concludes with the idea of Sisyphus being happy, as “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart”: you wonder if this could be said about Guardiola.

Only, Guardiola knows this is not for eternity, and perhaps it is the reason for his burnout at Barcelona, and why he decided to leave Bayern Munich after his three-year stay there. Rather than Camus’s theorised contented acceptance that Sisyphus had developed, perhaps Guardiola’s walk back down to that boulder is filled with fatigue and this from the fact he thinks he can ‘outsmart’ normal principles of football.

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