How do we quantify Pep Guardiola’s Man City legacy?
For all the edge that a guard of honour supposedly adds to Thursday’s match with Liverpool, most of the Manchester City squad aren’t that bothered. There’s a professional’s irritation at losing the title, sure, but the points gap tells a story of its own. The City players know they’ve been well beaten.
That fact alone, however, provokes a bigger question about this whole project.
Is it good enough to get beaten that badly? Is two league titles in four seasons a good enough return from Pep Guardiola?
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The question is related to the resounding praise for Liverpool, and how they’ve finished so far ahead of City. A common opinion within the game is that the new champions shouldn’t have been able to finish so far ahead of this Guardiola side. It is why Liverpool’s achievement has seemed so incredible.
The blunt reality is that it’s difficult to think of a role in the entire history of football that has been so specifically curated for one man as City for Guardiola. Many say “it was a club waiting for him”, a “bespoke setting”.
City had put everything in place for the Catalan, from the structure of the club to the style of play, with almost limitless state investment to match.
The very fact they are currently waiting on an appeal related to the exact extent of that investment further testifies to that.
Whatever the outcome of the CAS case, it has still been the best manager in the best possible environment for the time Guardiola was in charge.
He might quibble, as he has done in the past, that City lacked that “big club” attitude that he had to help introduce. That is a little generous to himself, given they’d broken a long drought and a huge psychological barrier in 2011-12, before winning the title again in 2013-14.
Guardiola did then twice win the title in a way no one had ever seen before. Once was through a level no one could keep up with, the next through the most intense and high-quality race anyone ever witnessed.
It could be argued that the manner of those wins was more than sufficient. A first ever centurion season and first ever domestic treble are quite the legacy.
This was Guardiola maximising those resources, in a way that no one else could have. It just happened over a shorter period of time, but to the highest possible level.
That does prompt grander discussions over the way Guardiola works. He is famously intense, and this can never be indefinite. It has a price, which is mental fatigue, and maybe that it burns squads out quicker. You’ll go to levels you’ve never seen, but maybe for not as long as you’d expect. Almost everyone would accept that, and celebrate it. Barcelona certainly did.
That history in Spain is also instructive. Guardiola left Camp Nou in 2012 without the league, that trophy in the hands of Jose Mourinho and a Real Madrid squad that had risen to the challenge. This is some of Guardiola’s legacy. He lifts standards to such a level – that are visibly seen in unprecedented points returns as much as the spectacular football – that it forces everyone else with the means to react, to escalate.
There was no club in Germany with those means. There was in Spain, and in England. It could even be said this Liverpool would not exist, to this exceptional level, without this City. Guardiola has changed the Premier League as much as he’s changed the game.
This is something that should be remembered in such assessments. A manager’s influence and his achievements are two very different things.
Just like Guardiola, Arrigo Sacchi has had a profound influence on football. Unlike Guardiola, the Italian didn’t actually win as much as his deserved status would imply. The 1990 European Cup was his last trophy, and he only won one league title.
Guardiola has eight league titles from 11 seasons – a spectacular return. It’s just that two of those barren seasons have now come in England, at a club almost built to be a better Barcelona, specifically for him. Similarly, Liverpool really shouldn’t have had those means. They are nowhere near as wealthy as City.
If we are talking historic legacy, though, it is why it is worth viewing this from a wider perspective. Two in four is a return that one source who works with the club describes as “acceptable”. Three in five would obviously be much better.
This question now revolves around how Guardiola responds. That doesn’t just apply to next season, or Liverpool’s league win.
Hanging over all of this, as ever, is the Champions League. This is what Guardiola was really brought to City for. This is what he most wants himself.
It could be argued – as Bayern Munich often did – that the Champions League is a knock-out more susceptible to huge swings of fortune, so you can’t put the same stock in it.
That is true, but the great advantage of the Abu Dhabi project at City is how it is so lavish it reduces the odds, and should eliminate more of the effects of luck.
Guardiola certainly should have a better return than two quarter-finals and one last-16 exit.
A return of one Champions League and two Premier League titles, however, would change the complexion of this entire tenure for the better.
So much comes down to these knock-out ties again. That is the response Guardiola requires. That will be the message he gives his players as they go out for that guard of honour.
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