Is Pep Guardiola the greatest manager of all time?
This year, perhaps more than any other, has showcased Pep Guardiola’s coaching qualities. Evidence for that is clear, with his Manchester City side on the brink of the treble. Having already wrapped up a fifth Premier League title in six seasons, only Manchester United and most crucially Inter stand in their way in the finals of the FA Cup and Champions League.
Trophies are the currency on which footballing success is measured, but Guardiola has plenty of them already. Even winning a third European crown this season, extinguishing the one straw his critics cling to, he can’t win that trophy away from Barcelona and without Lionel Messi, wouldn’t be definitive. What really makes Guardiola stand out about all competition in modern world football is the manner in which he has brought about such a consistent string of glory for Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now City.
Sure, the possession-based style has almost been trademarked by his teams; the way they kill opposition with beauty is breathtaking. But it is his ability to instil that approach in the most pressurised of situations, adapting and adjusting but never deviating from the core formula. Mentality is where Guardiola has proven himself most of all; if City don’t crush everybody from the outset, they can be counted on to comeback from most positions in games. Should they fail once, they’ll return again even stronger and finish the job.
The best two examples of those qualities are on the final day of the last Premier League season when, needing just a victory at home to Aston Villa, they found themselves 2-0 down. There was no panic, no frantic search for impetus or pointing fingers; City had been there before, they trusted Guardiola and kept going in the same way. Changes were made, Ilkay Gundogan was brought on, and they won 3-2. With Liverpool buoyed in their game at the same time against Wolves with an opportunity to steal in for the title, many teams would have folded.
Then, against Real Madrid in this season’s Champions League, there was a statement. It felt like the ghost of every setback suffered in pursuit of their goals, under Guardiola and before, was dispelled in the demolition of the reigning European champions. The football was exquisite, but there was extra power and precision to go with it. City has come of age and there is a fair argument to suggest that was their greatest ever performance under Guardiola.
Without doubt, City’s money has been a crucial part of their success. But since being taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008, they have not enjoyed such dominance before. The financial gulf has always been there under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, but they both oversaw seasons where they underperformed, allowing Manchester United and Chelsea to capitalise with title wins. It is Guardiola has set this standard and turned City into this winning machine; now the Premier League is in the grips of a dynasty that made England sneer in derision at other top leagues. Yet, it is the richest of all of them; Chelsea have spent £600m this year, that should be more than enough to put them in the conversation, but they haven’t got a footballing structure in place. City’s is the best.
Newcastle’s takeover by the Saudi Arabian PiF-backed consortium, and subsequent qualification for the Champions League, means they’ll be a greater threat in years to come too.
Jurgen Klopp and Mikel Arteta have put Guardiola’s side under pressure with their work at Liverpool and Arsenal, and they could argue that money is the difference in bridging the gap to City. But really, the manager is the key, and although Sir Alex Ferguson has long been seen as the undisputed greatest in English football, and possibly the world, has seen, but the manner in which Guardiola changed the Premier League, should put him in the conversation too.