Under-fire Woodward cannot afford to let Guardiola slip through the net
Published 27/12/2015 | 09:00
The most enduring memory of my football year? Not a game, not an interview but a soaking wet September morning on the outskirts of Munich and the chance to watch Pep Guardiola at work. .
We usually see and judge managers only through the prism of a press conference or a dugout and so it is always instructive to see them in the habitat that actually most shapes their career.
I had arrived with some scepticism about the view that Guardiola has been the outstanding manager of his generation. Jose Mourinho, it seemed to me, had achieved more given the highly privileged context of the squads Guardiola inherited at Barcelona and then Bayern. Yet 90 minutes spent observing the Spaniard from just a few feet was sufficient to challenge that view. It was beguiling, not simply for the hands-on speed and intensity of the session but how it was possible to clearly recognise a Guardiola team from the training he so very personally conducted.
As ever, his favoured drill was the 'Rondo'; a training exercise that became synonymous with Barcelona and involves quick, accurate passing patterns within the confines of a small circle of players. It relentlessly ingrains the importance of pressing, finding space and retaining possession. At least 20 minutes is devoted to variations of this exercise on a daily basis and, as Guardiola fired balls into the middle of the circle while constantly offering instruction in a variety of languages, you could sense the lasting imprint that he was leaving on these players.
That impression was only reinforced by speaking to Arjen Robben shortly after as he described not just the ferocious training pace but also the concentration that Guardiola demands. "The manager loves the possession game," he explained. "In the warm-up we do the little circle. Every day. He wants us to play it serious. If you know you always have to make the game, dominate, surprise your opponent by playing the ball very fast, this is the kind of training you need.
"If you want to play dominant football you need to get the ball and play quick combinations in small spaces. It makes you think fast and be extremely concentrated. This kind of training I love. It makes you better."
It is the kind of training that Guardiola will soon bring to the Premier League and, with Manchester City his most likely destination, you also have to suspect that it might well be the catalyst to leave their domestic competitors behind. Yes, Guardiola took over already wonderful squads at Barcelona and Bayern but then to guide each team to a domestic treble of league titles (assuming Bayern Munich win this season's Bundesliga), as well as at least the semi-final of the Champions League in six straight seasons, underlines the value he adds.
He would represent a sharp improvement at Manchester City on Manuel Pellegrini, who appeared almost in denial after Monday's 2-1 defeat against Arsenal at the suggestion that his team had lacked character in failing to threaten Petr Cech's goal during a first half they dominated.
Pellegrini's new one-year contract has always looked more like a mechanism to quell speculation rather than a statement of faith and he hardly sounds like a man with much certainty about his future. "I don't think players work for the manager," he said. "At the right moment I will know what is happening. It does not depend on me. It is for the owners."
If a deal for Guardiola is finalised, it must also prompt further questions of Manchester United under the stewardship of executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
With a manager in Louis van Gaal who has largely floundered and does not even want the job beyond 2017, the sudden availability of Guardiola should be viewed as an irresistible opportunity.
Yet with the train about to pass, United have the look of a club stalled outside the station. Perhaps Woodward will shock us but the strong suspicion is that United are reluctant to commit themselves to a battle for Guardiola that they feel destined to lose. If so, it shows a remarkable lack of self-confidence given United's history and global kudos. It would also reinforce the impression that, for all the focus that has been placed on the faltering performances of David Moyes and now Van Gaal, United's biggest problem has been at executive level since David Gill followed Ferguson out of the door in 2013.
Woodward was highly successful in his previous commercial role but since his responsibilities have spread to player trading and the hiring of managers, it is hard to describe his record more generously than spectacularly extravagant failure. It is only three years since Ferguson and Gill were leading United to their fifth Premier League title in seven seasons and a future whereby Guardiola only extends the gap between City and United has become easy to envision. If so, it is not Van Gaal or the next United manager who should be looking over his shoulder. It is Woodward.