Wednesday 26 July 2017

James Lawton: Premier League will be a whole new ball game for Pep Guardiola

Spanish supercoach faces huge challenge to set up Barcelona-style dynasty in England - at whichever club he chooses

Guardiola (p) has a tough job ahead of him Photo:Getty
Guardiola (p) has a tough job ahead of him Photo:Getty
Aguero Photo:Reuters
James Lawton

James Lawton

Roman Abromovich, it appears, is the kind of suitor for whom outright rejection is just a lull in the conversation. Thus he is apparently still intent on stealing Pep Guardiola away from the embrace of Manchester City and the high command of his former Barcelona executives and friends Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain.

But, then, when did the Chelsea oligarch ever properly understand the difference between a football marriage made in heaven and one rushed into in hell?

Whether the prospective union between Guardiola and City fits easily into the former category demands the test of time.

However, anyone who cares anything for the image and the prestige of the Premier League must be praying that one of the world's richest clubs will indeed walk the current coach of coaches down the aisle this spring.

The potential prize is much-needed evidence that the league which boasts more financial underpinning than any of its rivals can, in the post-Ferguson age, produce something resembling a coherent partnership of huge resources and a strong, independent and strikingly brilliant football man.

You could, of course, put it rather more harshly. You could say that City with Guardiola might just put an end to the travesty of huge investment failing to pay dividends that in recent years has become so endemic in the upper echelons of the English game.

You could also hope that the Premier League, under Guardiola's superbly credentialed influence, would sooner or later have a flagship of a team to be proud of in the trenches of the Champions League. At the moment, the opposite is dismally true.

The putative champions Arsenal have already been the object of unrestrained scoffing by their next European opponents, title-holders Barcelona.

Trouble-shooter

The veteran Dutch trouble-shooter Guus Hiddink is working overtime in the ruins of Chelsea left by the now quite seriously shop-soiled former genius Jose Mourinho.

At Manchester United, Louis van Gaal clutches his document case and wears ever more plainly the expression of a professor who has arrived in the lecture hall with the wrong notes.

It is a maelstrom from which Liverpool hope to emerge with the appointment of Jurgen Klopp, a coach who has proved spectacularly at times his ability to get the best from a generation of professionals who so often seem more attuned to the prompting of their agents than those of potentially messianic managers.

Claudio Ranieri, the erstwhile Tinkerman of Stamford Bridge, is also carrying unexpectedly high hopes at, of all places, Leicester City.

But, of course, it is the impending arrival of Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium which is seen to carry the imprimatur of sure-fire success.

Is such a confident vision of the future really justified? For all his engendering of sublime performance at Barcelona - most impressively, the re-plotting of Lionel Messi's progress to individual world supremacy - and a likely three straight Bundesliga titles with Bayern, Guardiola's reputation has maybe been most burnished by his ability to refine already established strength.

At City, his task may well be more about the force of his intestinal resolve than the sharpness of his football intellect.

Ferguson, after suffering his second Champions League final defeat to Guardiola in three seasons at Wembley in 2011, certainly had an interesting reaction to the hard speculation that his young rival was about to walk away from the Nou Camp.

The former United manager said that Guardiola should weigh very carefully his decision because it could be that he would never again find himself operating with such riches of talent at his disposal.

"Such a group of players," said Ferguson, "may come along only once in a lifetime. That is something, from my experience, that every young manager needs to remember."

Maybe the old warrior, just two years away from his own abdication and wearied somewhat by his efforts to draw the best from a frequently stalling Wayne Rooney, was measuring the odds piling up against any repeat of his own dynastic achievement at Old Trafford.

But, then, perhaps Guardiola saw it too before going off to New York to savour his success - and consider in a mood of early reflection what he would do with the rest of his life.

Certainly it seems few leading football men have been less in need of the advice of the great golfer Ben Hogan when he declared: "As you walk down the fairway of life you must smell the roses because you only get to play one round."

The Catalan's enjoyment of the good, sophisticated things that reside beyond a football stadium, has apparently kept the Abramovich interest alive, the theory being that Guardiola and his wife might in the end be more drawn to cosmopolitan London than the substantial but more provincial charms of Manchester.

Certainly Guardiola has couched his desire to move to the Premier League in terms of a personal adventure, saying: "The reason I have not extended my contract with Bayern is simple - I want to manage in the Premier League. I want to experience the atmosphere in England. I'm 44 and it is time to go there."

City may wonder if this is indeed the approach of a man set on the idea of making a new dynasty, perhaps indeed the one to carry them towards their fabled ambition of being the most powerful and successful club in the world.

Barcelona, after all, entrusted him with the same destiny after his team had twice mastered Manchester United at the peak of European football.

At Barca, his most vital challenge was to maintain the fine working of Messi's genius.

At City the demands are much more basic. Essentially, Guardiola has to re-make a team which, despite the sporadic gleaning of trophies, is embedded in under-achievement.

He has to replace the fading, if occasionally still luminous, Yaya Toure, bring added security to defence and augment the creative impulses of David Silva and, when fit, the superb finishing of Sergio Aguero.

Formidable

His budget will be formidable, no doubt, but it is still maybe not the kind of job to be undertaken by someone suffused by a recurring need for a new environment.

Ferguson, the donor of that passing advice, and his predecessor Matt Busby made a great football club the most important terrain of their lives. Of course, they came from another football age, another set of values.

Guardiola, as both a player and a coach, has a superb record - and the most superior vision of how the game should be played. But then will he have the patience to go quite the distance required?

Wherever he settles, in East Manchester or West London, he will surely find the question as relentless as the Premier League's divorce rate.

Irish Independent

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