Pep Guardiola has never been one to exhibit overt displays of either petulance or pleasure when ex-pros, press, pundits and the public pontificate – positively or negatively – about his coaching capabilities within that English footballing nirvana that is the Premier League.
But even he must have permitted himself a little smile when he heard none other than Alan Shearer, a former English striker and about as English as it is possible to be, announce on BBC’s Match of the Day that this season at Manchester City Pep was “taking football to a new level.”
Lest we forget this is a coach who less than a year ago was being widely described by many as a fraud; as someone who would not be able to cut it in the Premier League and if he did manage to achieve something it would only be because of the massive financial backing he enjoyed at the Etihad.
Cheap, uneducated shots made as a jingoistic attempt to exalt the praises of their own league not by actually doing anything really exciting like win a Champions League, but by demeaning the achievements of Guardiola in other countries’ competitions.
“Yeah, he might well have done it in La Liga or the Bundesliga, but the Premier League is another story altogether,” was the rallying cry.
A borderline racist attack, sometimes from those who should have known better, but more often than not from that armchair army of badge-kissers, empowered by an anonymity bestowed upon them by the social networks.
As things stand Pep has just one more season to go on the three-year deal he penned with City and although nothing by way of an extension has yet been discussed at this moment it is almost inconceivable that he will not be extending his stay in the North West of England.
All the important decision makers at the club know precisely his modus operandi and basically the plan is to sit down at the end of the season, take stock and add a further year to his contract.
I feel a two-year deal extension is not going to happen for the simple reason that it is something that he has never done, not even during his all-conquering times at Barcelona. Both on and off the field Pep is a man that has always taken full responsibility not just for his own, but also his family’s, destiny.
After the addition of another year all parties will look at the situation on an annual basis
Nothing is signed yet, but my sources are telling me that Guardiola feels that he does not have enough time left on his contract to achieve everything he wants to at the club and that is not just about merely winning pots but also about laying the foundations for what he believes can become something special.
Whatever he achieves this year – and before we get too carried away let’s be clear that so far at City he has nothing ‘silvery’ to show for his efforts – Guardiola is a past master at knowing when not to overstay his welcome. He left Barcelona when he felt he couldn’t take the club any further following an unprecedented success that made them the envy of the footballing world and a Bayern Munich that he took to three consecutive Bundesliga titles and two German Cups.
Guardiola’s coaching mantra has always steadfastly maintained three things.
Firstly what you need, over and above anything else, are the players to take you and your club where you want to go. He has said this time and time again and now answers “the players” with a mixture of disbelief and incredulity when asked repeatedly what he believes is the most important thing needed at a football club to guarantee success.
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And you can take them the way you want by coaching them for months. Only three new players were in the line up against West Brom. Most of what he is constructing now and that makes him so “special” all of a sudden is the work he has put in from day 1 and that only the blind could not see it.
Secondly you need the time not only to get those players of quality you need, but also to ‘teach’, ‘persuade’, ‘convince’, cajole’ – call it what you will – them to play the way you want them to because, quite simply, that is how you want them to play. No middle ground, no compromise.
And thirdly the courage, self-belief, or if you prefer, sheer uncompromising obstinacy and single-mindedness to be fully committed to doing it your way, or no way at all, despite the constant calls and urgings from lesser mortals to change your style, to compromise your principles.
Building a winning machine
No league has even been won after just ten games but with 35 goals scored, 12 more than their closest rivals his side’s performances this year have merely rubber-stamped what we already suspected, namely that this is a City side that, home and abroad, is going to take a lot of stopping this time around.
There are still cynics out there that will claim that anyone could achieve success at a money-no-object Manchester City.
They are wrong of course, although there is certainly a semblance of reality in what they say. In today’s Premier League you will not succeed without spending loads of money (Leicester apart maybe) but the the mere act of writing out a whole host of cheques is never going to be enough to guarantee any success, short, medium or long term.
Leicester City, in fact, achieved less once they actually started to splash the cash following their title winning season and try telling Everton fans that the key to success is all about spending money.
Yes Guardiola has spent, but his greatest achievement has been that he has maximised the potential of those he already had at the club before he started shopping at the end of last season.
The decision to sideline Joe Hart in favour of Claudio Bravo was about as controversial as you could get, not least because the England goalkeeper was something of a cult hero at the club. To add fuel to the fire, his chosen replacement, the poor Claudio Bravo for reasons that no one ever really understood proceeded to play just about every single game with a kitten-like nervousness that suggested this was the first time he had ever played between the sticks.
Lesser men would have been swayed. Not Pep. He always knew what he wanted from a goalkeeper and similarly he knew that Joe Hart was too long in the tooth, to set in his ways, to be able to give it to him. The purchase and current form of Ederson has completely vindicated the coach’s stance, and now the silence from those critics that lambasted him, is defeaning.
The purchase of John Stones from Everton for an initial £47.5m from Everton was deemed by many to be insane and, certainly, early on he showed that despite the massive price tag which made him the second most expensive defender behind David Luiz he still had much to learn.
Then England manager, Roy Hodgson despite a paucity of top central defenders considered him good enough to take to the Euros but not good enough to play. Pep never had any doubts and now in defence as well as in launching attacks from the back Stones is looking like he will very soon become one of the greatest defenders in the world. Think Piqué, Ramos and a bit of Puyol and you get the idea.
The defence that haemorrhaged goals last season has conceded just six in the league to date.
Improving Man City’s players
At Euro 2016 a vilified and ridiculed, Raheem Sterling was regarded by many of the so-called experts as someone who was not fit for purpose. Pep, with the rest of his coaching staff has contrived to turn the youngster into currently one of the Premier League’s hottest properties.
And where to begin with Kevin de Bruyne a man who under Guardiola’s tutelage now seems capable of providing more assists per game that allegedly similar players do in a month? Just ten games in and he is already being talked about as a potential player of the year.
City’s defensive frailties last year, particularly on the flank were the stick constantly used to beat Guardiiola over the head with.
The purchase of Benjamin Mendy from Monaco and Kyle Walker from Tottenham Hotspur for huge money seemed to address that particular problem until a cruciate knee ligament injury suffered by Mendy has guaranteed that the Frenchman will not be back in contention for a place until April at the earliest.
To the rescue has come Fabian Delph, already at the club when Guardiola joined and someone who with the assistance of Pep and his coaching staff has performed heroics coming in as his replacement in the left back berth.
Today Pep is merely reaping what he sowed last year. It hasn’t been all plain sailing and he was genuinely sorry to lose the likes of the 17-year-old Jadon Sancho who went to Borussia Dortmund because Pep was unable to guarantee the English youngster first team football at this stage although with a buy back clause in place there is every chance he will be back at some stage in his career.
But be assured of one thing. When Pep finally does leave Manchester as one day he surely will, he will leave it better and stronger than when he arrived.