Friday 23 February 2018

Pep Guardiola has sparked panic at Manchester United by choosing noisy neighbours

Louis van Gaal has even more reason to feel nervous now that Pep Guardiola is moving to Manchester City
Louis van Gaal has even more reason to feel nervous now that Pep Guardiola is moving to Manchester City

Paul Hayward

If you thought Jurgen Klopp to Liverpool was big, observe the euphoria at Manchester City, the bead of sweat on Manchester United’s brow and the sense across football that Manchester City’s hiring of Pep Guardiola is their big play for superpower status.

Only by buying Lionel Messi could City have made a grander statement to the Champions League elite. But since the world’s best player is embedded at Barcelona, United’s rivals won the race to hire the game’s most coveted coach, who, despite the eulogies, still has a bit to prove.

Only by winning the Champions League with Bayern Munich before he departs could Guardiola be said to have carried his magic touch beyond the Catalonian cathedral where he turned tiki-taka into an unstoppable force.

For Guardiola the attraction of City over other Premier League clubs is autonomy. With part of the Barcelona brains trust already in place – the executives Ferran Soriano and Txiki Beguiristain – Guardiola can pursue his work without the kind of interference or off-stage chirping he encountered in Germany.

Thus City will be rebuilt in the new manager’s image, which could be bad news for some (Yaya Toure, for example) but a thrilling proposition for City’s supporters, who have watched Manuel Pellegrini add little of obvious value recently to the talent on City’s books.

By any measure this brings an escalation of threat to England’s other top clubs, especially United, whose sleep-aid football is now unflatteringly juxtaposed with the kind of ambitious, attacking style Guardiola will insist on in the sky blue half of Manchester.

Put it this way: Louis van Gaal, clinging to the comfort of an FA Cup win at Derby, will have felt the stakes rise when City confirmed the open secret of Guardiola’s appointment. United’s directors, too, will be gripped by corporate panic. Already alarmed by City’s lavish campus and academy (and the tendency even of United legends to send their sons to the Etihad complex rather than Carrington), the more famous Manchester club now face the possibility that City will attract more attention – and more commercial deals.

United have always drawn comfort from their tradition, global profile, winning record and commercial pulling power. City’s rise was viewed as a challenge and an inconvenience but not as a threat to United’s No.1 status in the metropolis.

Bought in 2008 by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi's ruling family, City have won two Premier League titles in four years, plus the FA and League Cups, but have so far failed to advance beyond the last 16 of the Champions League.

Adequate, but not spectacular. Under Roberto Mancini and Pellegrini there has been no lasting sense that a dynasty was forming. But Guardiola’s appointment adds a catalyst to that evolution; a spark, an upgrade. Mancini was a martinet who had to bully the players into being successful. Under Pellegrini, City pick and choose when to shine. Guardiola, though, promises a consistently high level of commitment and entertainment, even with the question mark over his grasp of defensive needs.

Culture shock is bound to strike him, as it has Klopp, in some areas – especially fixture congestion. But eight years into the mission to raise Abu Dhabi’s profile, Sheikh Mansour has found a manager from the charisma end of the business; a coach to close the gap between huge sovereign wealth investment and the impact City are making out there on the ground, in Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Sydney.

Outside of City’s traditional following, the club score poorly compared to United, Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern, because they started from such a low base, as the second biggest club in Manchester. The stadium improvements and campus development are mightily impressive; yet the playing side – the first team – has lacked the equipment to truly dominate the English landscape.

These tides of global money move so fast that Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich will be twitching; Arsenal, too, will feel that there can be no more postponements of their return to the summit. United have the problem of deciding whether Van Gaal can match Guardiola’s manifesto, and, if not, who should come in next to sift through £250m of purchases and start all over again.

For United to place Mourinho in opposition to Guardiola would delight the Premier League’s impresarios, and us in the media, who would all decamp to Manchester full-time. But would that be a reactive step on United’s part? Can they afford to have decisions dictated to them by what City do?

 The Premier League currently has a poor record of attracting the world’s top 20 or 30 players, most of whom are in Spain and Germany. But headhunting Europe’s best coaches is not a problem. To catch Klopp and Guardiola in the net inside six months is striking. In the same leading pack, Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino is working his way into the elite. This arms race of managerial talent forces United to find a leader who can compete with these big names and correct the recruitment and structural errors of the past two and a half years.

Until Guardiola’s appointment, City were largely a big idea that made jerky headway. Now they have laid out the new reality for English football. The energising effect will be considerable. This time last year City’s big move was to sign Wilfried Bony. Twelve months on they hired Guardiola. They call that escalation.

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