It still hasn’t been signed off or confirmed but, for the past few weeks, Manchester City have been utterly convinced Pep Guardiola will be their next manager. He has given their key figures like his old teammate Txiki Beguiristain “verbal assurances” that he will join, while other clubs like Manchester United have been put off by the fact they are so far behind in the race.
It would be a significant coup for City, victory in a pursuit that has superseded that for any coach - or, arguably, any player - in history. Few managers have had so many options.
Despite all of that, there are still a significant few that are unconvinced by Guardiola, that don’t think he is worth such intense interest. It was an argument articulated this weekend by Yaya Toure’s agent Dimitri Seluk, who reduced it to the root point.
“Pep is a great coach, but he has won the title at Barcelona and Bayern Munich,” Seluk said. “The truth is that my grandfather would win the title with Barcelona and Bayern Munich because they are big clubs with great players.”
That is the criticism that has been most directed at Guardiola’s career, other than his failure to so far win a Champions League with Bayern. The clear implication is that he hasn’t had to work very hard for success because of what’s there, that he’s had it relatively easy to succeed.
That itself is a facile and simplistic view, even if it is very superficially correct.
To begin, and go back to the start of his career, it’s worth correcting a few other points.
The Barcelona team that Guardiola took over in 2008 were very far from being in great shape. They had just finished third in the league, 18 points behind a relatively mediocre Real Madrid, and the widespread feeling around Camp Nou was that the squad was in need of a period of transition. That was part of the reason behind hiring someone as fresh as Guardiola in the first place. Old heads like Deco and Ronaldinho no longer looked motivated, and the excess kilograms the number-10 carried were reflective of a bloated team that needed sharp refocus. Another sign of that waste was the fact that Leo Messi had not gone a single season since his debut without a confidence-debilitating injury. It’s easy to forget now but, at the time, there did seem a danger he might not make the absolute best of his talent.
Guardiola made it his mission to right Messi’s career, while streamlining and revitalising the squad in every other sense. The effect of that was not just that Barca were competitive again, or even that they won again. It was that they had extreme success and made history, by winning Spain’s first treble, and then made history again with another league and Champions League double.
In narrowly losing to Internazionale in 2010, they also came within one offside call of the gold-standard historical feats of retaining the trophy and winning it three times in a row. Despite that defeat, Arrigo Sacchi - the last manager to retain it - still felt compelled to put Guardiola’s work in historical context: “Like my Milan, this team mark a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in world football.”
The gap between what Barca were before Guardiola took over and after he left should be the clearest indication of his intense effect, but the argument could still linger that he merely facilitated fine players, as Carlo Ancelotti has regularly done.
This is also where the root of the argument really lies.
Guardiola might have had squads of such quality that he wouldn’t have had to work very hard for success, but the reality is that it is hard to think of any manager who works harder.
That is why he created history at Barcelona, and historic displays like Bayern Munich’s wins at Roma or at home to Manchester City, rather than just winning teams. That is also what strikes most people when they work with him up close, and why he ultimately convinces so many people who work with him. This is what changes minds.
After all, the argument that he has had it easy implies that Guardiola just comes in and let’s good players do their thing.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Guardiola has a clear idea about what he feels is the best possible way to play football - intense pressing-possession - and seeks to impose it rigorously. Again, it’s hard to think of a more hands-on manager. Many current Bayern players enthuse about the sophistication of his coaching and Guardiola’s one-on-one interactions, how he would try and bring out the best of their inherent talent. The Catalan once spending an afternoon talking to Javi Martinez about a specific type of marking, while also integrating that with the side’s ball possession. All the while, the defender was asking his coach questions about whether these approaches had been applied when Guardiola’s Barcelona twice battered Martinez’s Athletic. The point was he understood.
There are few better managers on the micro details, but Guardiola is also exceptional on the macro. Marti Perarnau’s book ‘Pep Confidential’ details a near football savant, who “thinks about football every 32 minutes”. He is always rolling ideas around in his mind, always wondering what is the absolute best way to win the next match.
He effectively tries something different in every match, and is always looking to push the boundaries of what is possible.
The fundamental point here is that this is very far from a manager who just coasts on the ability of his players.
Sure, there are fair arguments over whether his approach is always right and he is well capable of getting it wrong, but he is always the ultimate architect of his teams. They win and lose according to his designs, not just the players’ qualities. He imposes his idea.
None of this means that Guardiola is the perfect manager or a guarantee. It's just that, right now, he is the closest to either in the game.
Read more from Miguel Delaney