Guardiola the GOAT? Beyond the billions he has changed world football

Istanbul Is The New Cool. Or at least it is according to the city’s latest tourism advert, a collage of chic, blase young people parkouring down Byzantine streets, goofing about next to Ottoman palaces and generally having a hyper-chilled time. Hmmm. Istanbul: meet Pep.

Famously Manchester City’s manager is too stressed, too wired, too unshakeably uncool to eat before kick-off on match days, restricting himself to a few grudging cubes of cheese late into the night. That man in the skinny black jeans with the maniacally whirling arms, out there on his touchline looking like the outlaw general of a mercenary private army signalling attack formations to his personal helicopter gunship? He’s not actually feeling that cool.

Related: Guardiola ready to learn from 2021 final as Manchester City focus on treble

Indeed, given the 10pm local time kick-off for Saturday’s Champions League final, followed by the endless round of ritual post-match duties, all drenched in a brain-mangling sense of personal destiny, Pep in Istanbul already looks like one of the more exhausting feats of managerial endurance. Frankly, we’re going to need more cheese cubes.

That pressure comes in many different ways. Manchester City will walk out at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium as overwhelming favourites to beat Internazionale and become champions of Europe for the first time. City are quite clearly the best football team on the planet right now; not to mention the richest, most tactically coherent and most supremely well run, the final expression of a brilliantly realised 15-year project.

So much so that for the neutral much of the drama may well end up focusing on Guardiola and the issue of ultimacy: the strangely divisive question – filtered via opposing armies of Pep Stans and bald fraud truthers – of his status among the greats of the game.

Pep Guardiola lifts the FA Cup after Manchester City’s defeat of Manchester United in the final on 3 June.

This is of course familiar territory. Every time City reach the late stages in Europe the occasion seems to gear itself as a referendum on Guardiola’s greatness or otherwise. But then it is hard to think of a manager who has dominated a champion club’s playing culture so completely, from playing style to the bolt-on Catalan executive to the club history highlights reel.

Guardiola has been present for almost half of the current ownership’s time in charge, not including four years spent building the club in his image. He has led the team to 11 of 16 major trophies won across the Abu Dhabi span. Zoom out and Guardiola has accounted for 45% of all major trophies won in Manchester City’s 143-year history. Little wonder many of those watching the biggest TV event of the European sporting year will see this as essentially a Pep story.

Not that City’s manager will countenance anything of the sort. For all the existential hero stylings, the main character energy, the very obvious egotism – a quality essential to all successful football managers – Guardiola is still at bottom about process and team, driven by a purist’s fasciation with the interplay of space and angles, the basic coding of the game.

“To be the best coach in the world means shit,” he said during his time at Bayern Munich. But how about being the best of an era, of a moment in time? How about being the best coach ever? And how do we even measure these things now?

It is a question worth asking, albeit without much hope of a sensible answer. Victory in Istanbul would make it three Champions League titles as manager for Guardiola, the first and last 14 years apart. It is still a surprisingly meagre figure, given the total conviction as Barcelona eviscerated Manchester United at Wembley in 2011 that Guardiola and José Mourinho would spend the next decade divvying up this competition between them.

Pep Guardiola watches his players during Manchester City’s training sessuib at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium.
Pep Guardiola watches his players during Manchester City’s training sessuib at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

There are other numbers too, numbers that conjure a similar kind of blankness. Guardiola is fifth on the all-time coaches trophy list with 34, two behind Valeriy Lobanovskyi, who won eight Soviet Top League titles and one Gulf Cup with Kuwait. (How many of those does Pep have?) Jock Stein and Mircea Lucescu have 38 trophies. Alex Ferguson has 50. How do we crunch these numbers? What is the algebra?

There are two points worth making here. First, the basic irony that the system in which Guardiola has thrived, in which his claims to greatness have been pressed, has also made any sense of lineage or robust historical comparison largely pointless; has in effect robbed elite managers of the ability to be truly great.

Football has never been so stratified. Success has never been so jealously hoarded among a select band of economically unassailable entities, backed either by a powerfully monetised cultural history or by boundless state funds. And for whom success and trophies are simply the default.

Guardiola has only ever worked from the inside of this imbalance of power. His mature Barcelona of the Messi-Xavi years was the greatest club team of the past 50 years but also one of the most economically powerful, and possessed of the greatest player of the age, plucked like a colony-building natural resource from South America aged 13.

His Bayern Munich ransacked the Bundesliga and produced football of transcendent beauty at times. But he also did slightly worse than Jupp Heynckes, winning only the things that Bayern always win.

And now Guardiola’s City have five league titles in six years, and have produced sustained passages of something close to perfection, those moments where all the parts seem to be networked, powered by an embedded pass-and-move intelligence. At the same time City are also the richest club in the world, on the back of some truly far-sighted local sponsorships. Plus they are currently resisting – and these are flatly denied – 115 charges of financial misconduct under rules intended to restrict boundless spending, and are essentially a very well-run propaganda glove puppet for a repressive nation state

From the moment Abu Dhabi took over it was inevitable City would at some point win the Champions League. Under Guardiola they will at least win it prettily. Should it arrive on Saturday that triumph will come against a fellow European giant whose wage bill is 30% lower, who have spent €47m (£40m) net on transfer fees in the past five years (a result of their own FFP breaches), and whose entire business model is a shemozzle of chaos and hopeful deals, where City are essentially underwritten by government bonds. How much of this ascent to the peak really feels like the work of a coach?

So Guardiola’s naysayers will portray him as a fraud, and not just a fraud but a bald fraud, the worst kind of fraud there is. Here we have a simulacrum of genius, a handsome egg-headed swindler. Those baubles are the baubles of a nepo baby and kept man.

If this is no more than the usual moronic polarity, there is also a sense of Guardiola and other elite managers as butterflies within a gilded cage, a place where the bar of inspiration is lower, where there are simply things that cannot be done any more.

Pep Guardiola gives instructions to Lionel Messi during Barcelona’s La Liga fixture against Xerez in April 2010.
Pep Guardiola gives instructions to Lionel Messi during Barcelona’s La Liga fixture against Xerez in April 2010. Guardiola’s deployment of Messi as a false nine was hugely successful. Photograph: Lluís Gené/AFP/Getty Images

How to compare becoming champions of Europe on the back of boundless nation-state indulgence with doing so using a team drawn solely from the Glasgow districts? Or taking Aberdeen to a Cup Winners’ Cup final defeat of Real Madrid? Or even winning a slightly fluky treble with five academy players at a time when all of the European leagues, not just the English one, were capable of churning out great teams?

In this sense modern football, with its billionaire-backed certainties, has stolen something from its protagonists, the chance to be great on the same epic scale, to go from outside to the very peak. For the biggest clubs the modern version of greatness is a narrower universe, a place of less vivid colours, less pronounced contrasts, like viewing the world’s loveliest sunset through a haze of lithium. This is managed greatness, elite-grade product. Can product really be that great?

Related: Strength and power of Manchester City can reinforce Premier League dominance | Karen Carney

None of this is Pep’s fault. But it does mean the metrics of greatness should shift. This is the final irony of assessing Guardiola’s legacy on the eveof a Champions League final. Because in the end it really isn’t about the trophies. The key achievements of Guardiola’s career have been textural and cultural. His great teams have still, for all the resources available, been feats of coaching, chemistry and abstract planning, the transformation of already high-grade footballers into avatars of team brilliance.

At Barcelona he geared up for his best period by getting shot of Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto’o and promoting players he had helped polish in the B team. This is hardly success on a platter. By the same token City’s squad may be neck-deep in talent but it is also stuffed with players such as Bernardo Silva, a brilliant waif transformed by coaching and detail into the greatest pressing midfielder in the world.

Zoom out further and Guardiola’s finest achievement is his redeployment of Lionel Messi, already destined to be great but accelerated along that path by his manager’s rediscovery of the false 9 role. Frankly, he could have stopped right there and his job would have been done.

In England Guardiola has also altered the basic playing culture, becoming part of a tiny group – Herbert Chapman, Matt Busby and Arsène Wenger spring to mind – whose success has also changed the way football is played, coached and understood. Here is a manager some parts of English football were desperate to see fail, dismissed initially as an emblem of dossier-fondling privilege, who has changed football at every level from park teams, to elite competition, to transforming the 29-year-old John Stones into the best English midfielder in the league.

Saturday night can still end in failure. Inter are a resourceful team on a run of 11 wins in their last 12. There is still jeopardy here. Little wonder Guardiola, as he approaches another final, 52 years old and way past the standard 10-year span of the elite football manager, may feel a little added tension, that sense of legacy once more on the line. “Never relax,” is one of Guardiola’s favourite managerial mottoes. It seems, all things considered, unnecessary advice.