Sunday 26 May 2019

Jim White: 'Even the genius of Guardiola proves unable to control the uncontrollables'

Guardiola: Quadruple hopes dashed. Photo: PA
Guardiola: Quadruple hopes dashed. Photo: PA

Jim White

Among the extraordinary images from the Etihad Stadium during Wednesday's Champions League quarter-final, perhaps the most revealing was the footage of Pep Guardiola filmed in the dying moments. As Raheem Sterling's shot hits the back of the Spurs net in added time, the Manchester City manager loses all self-control. He shrieks, punches the air, leaps into the arms of a coach. His grin lights up the stadium. And no wonder, here is the very second that everything he has worked for appears to have reached fruition - confirmation of his philosophy, a moment of genuine ecstasy.

Then, as it dawns on him that the video assistant referee has ruled the goal out, he sinks to his knees, his mouth hanging agape before he puts his head into his hands.

Eventually, he struggles back to his feet and - with his ambition crumbling to dust in front of his eyes - the next thing he does is to remove his cardigan. But though he looks as if he is about to engage in a street fight with anyone who wants it, he is not seeking a scrap. Rather, as chaos reigns, at the very moment everything he has strived to achieve collapses, he is seeking to control the one thing he can: his wardrobe.

Every football manager is a control freak. It is a requirement of the job to believe you can shape the narrative. But Guardiola is more so than most. He talks of his team being like a machine, he works relentlessly on the training field to instil patterns, his aim is to eradicate chance.

But this is the central irony of his calling: football is an entirely uncontrollable working environment. More than any other business, unplanned interventions determine outcomes.

And on Wednesday, during the most magnificently unpredictable sporting occasion imaginable, he appeared unable to compute what was going on. There was nothing this apex control freak could do to control what was going on.

Except take off his cardigan.

This is the central problem Guardiola now faces: as his season's journey reaches its conclusion, so the possibility of establishing order diminishes. Now, when every game is critical, when every opponent has something to fight for, the entire enterprise rests on moments of chance.

Indeed, it is possible to suggest that, when the history of it is written up, it might be reckoned his whole season hinged on two missed penalties.

The one fluffed by Riyad Mahrez in the Premier League game against Liverpool and the one put into Hugo Lloris's arms by Sergio Aguero in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final could ultimately prove the most significant strikes of his season.

Had they both gone in, City would be leading a procession to the Premier League title and preparing to face Ajax in the semi-finals of the Champions League. The quadruple would still be on. On such fine margins does history rest.

But everything is now in jeopardy. If happenstance continues to go against him, it is possible the only trophy Guardiola will end up holding is the League Cup.

This is one of the perils of aspiration: it increases the significance of failure. If your aim is to come sixth in the Premier League and you finish eighth, no one will deem you a disappointment. Try to win everything and each miss serves as an indictment.

A week ago, as he sat in the press room at Selhurst Park savouring yet another victory en route to winning everything, talking of pattern and structure and his team being like an engine, Guardiola seemed in total charge.

Now the only question being asked of him is: where does he go from here? Does he stay with City or does he walk away, exhausted by the inability to control the uncontrollable?

The one thing we know for certain is that, as the season reaches its least controllable juncture, Guardiola will do the only thing he can in the circumstances: keep trying to impose order on the anarchy.

As he plans for tomorrow's home game against Spurs, he will maintain the belief that he can deliver some sort of method in the madness.

Even as he knows there is really nothing he now can do.

Telegraph.co.uk

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