Monday 20 November 2017

Miguel Delaney: Pep Guardiola arrives with plenty left to prove

Guardiola and City share a burning ambition - to take the final leap in the Champions League

Bayern's head coach Pep Guardiola watches the flow of the game during last Tuesday's Champions League second leg semifinal soccer match against Atletico de Madrid. Photo: Matthias Schrader/AP
Bayern's head coach Pep Guardiola watches the flow of the game during last Tuesday's Champions League second leg semifinal soccer match against Atletico de Madrid. Photo: Matthias Schrader/AP

Miguel Delaney

It now seems a specific warning, rather than just a general explanation. On the day Pep Guardiola was presented as Bayern Munich manager in the summer of 2013, chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was talking about the club's targets in this exciting new regime: "The highest prize as always is the Champions League, but it is a competition where there are no guarantees and the things you take for granted in domestic football don't always work."

In other words, the sudden-death nature of knock-out football means thin margins can have maximum consequence. That was made so clear in the last week as Thomas Muller missed a penalty at the Allianz Arena, and Atletico Madrid's Antoine Griezmann scored a decisive goal that another linesman might have judged offside. Those mere inches meant that, after months in which it had almost been taken for granted that Guardiola would face Manchester City, there was no difficult Champions League meeting. There was no dilemma, no awkward questions about potentially denying his next club - and own next season - a place in the elite competition in order to finally win it at Bayern.

Those inches did lead to a host of other, equally awkward questions for both Guardiola and City, though.

The first, and one that lasted the week, was whether the Catalan coach has failed at Bayern because he did not win the Champions League, and whether some of the aura has evaporated.

"I've done the best I can do, I don't have any regrets," Guardiola said,albeit somewhat hesitantly, repeating himself in the manner of a man trying to convince himself he doesn't have any regrets. "I've done my best and, I don't know - that's what I would like to say."

It was hard not to think that, in his own mind, he does know. He knows it will be a regret. In answer to the same question, those at the top level at Bayern still maintain he has been a success. They point to how he's ensured the club have reached five consecutive Champions League semi-finals for the first time, thereby ensuring they're properly among the European elite. They also talk about how he's transformed the culture of the club underneath that, too, setting the most sophisticated coaching environment for the future.

There's disappointment they couldn't make a final, but they point to the same argument Rummenigge made three years ago, that the nuances of knock-out football mean there are no guarantees like in a league. Guardiola got the process of playing right, but the final result in a cup is too open to fortune.

But there are still a few issues. The first is that, for all the talk about the long-term culture and results naturally following the "process", there is then a danger in not being decisive enough in the short term. You still have to act. It feeds into a wider debate ongoing in sporting circles between 'process' coaching and 'constraint-led' coaching. Some now point to how athletes having a distinctive goal in mind, and figuring out how to get there, tends to stay with them more than only perfecting a technical process. There's also the fact that nothing truly transforms a culture like winning the biggest trophy, as Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson regularly preached.

The second issue is that, for all Guardiola's own regular talk about how "our only target is play every week better than the last week", he is still someone obsessed with results himself. He still dwells on defeats. This is why he locks himself away for hours on the eve of big games, trying to come up with the minor tactical trick that can turn everything. This is why he gets so animated during games.

The final issue is that, when you pick a job like Bayern - one of the three wealthiest clubs in Europe - it does come down to a few games and thereby a few moments. Since the lopsided nature of German football virtually guarantees they will easily win the league, the true tests are the Champions League semi-finals. Everything builds to them, whether it's explicitly stated or not. A low-pressure season suddenly brings extremely high-pressure games. It is effectively Guardiola knowing what a manager's summer in the All-Ireland championship is like. There's a do-or-die element on the days and the reality is that, in those Champions League semi-finals, Guardiola made wrong moves too often. Against Atletico, too, it didn't really come down to luck. It came down more to leaving his team hostage to luck.

Two long-term Guardiola problems cost him more than a bad penalty or bad offside call. The 45-year-old has a poor away record in Champions League knock-outs going back to Barcelona, and the 1-0 defeat in Madrid put them in a difficult position before they were knocked out by the simplest of attacks: a punt upfield to release Griezmann. It is remarkable how often Guardiola's sophisticated attacking is suddenly undone by the crudest response.

None of this is to dismiss the Catalan, or indulge the odd criticism that he's a "fraud". He's still one of the best managers in the world. It's just that, for the first time, his career isn't completely soaring. His CV isn't bullet-proof. There is a gap that would have been filled by the Champions League.

He failed to win that, even if it would be wrong to say his entire time at Bayern has been a failure. He now has something to prove, for the first time since his first season at Barcelona.

The flipside is that City have something to prove too.

It is also the grand difference between the clubs, and his next job and the one he's leaving. Guardiola was appointed at Bayern in January 2013 to take the club to the next level, only for Jupp Heynckes' side to already get there by winning the treble. It effectively under-cut him, meaning he didn't have the same over-arching goal.

That goal remains at City - they didn't even get close to winning the Champions League. They may as well have been knocked out in the quarter-finals given the non-event that was their performance in the second leg away to Real Madrid. It also emphasised how much work needs to be done, and how they really do need Guardiola to raise them to the next level.

For all the debate in the past week, at least Bayern went out fighting. The siege they subjected Atletico to was a world away from City's whimpering exit in Madrid. Manuel Pellegrini's side could have done with Guardiola's famous intensity there. They will have it next season, and he will have the benefit of a more competitively intense league.

It's just that they could also do with it against Arsenal today, since there are now no guarantees Guardiola will even be in the Champions League next season.

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