It’s perhaps a little bit ironic that an Arsenal supporter is writing this, but that only stands to show the level of admiration I have for the football on offer in the northwest of England.
As you no doubt have heard, Manchester City now hold the Premier League record for wins on the spin with eighteen. In any sport, eighteen wins in a row is an incredibly laudable achievement, but City’s is seemingly shrouded in criticism despite the level of appreciation that has been shown.
So often referred to – and not incorrectly – as a checkbook club, The Citizens, flagship club of Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s holding company City Football Group, has made spending to build its hallmark since Mansour took over in 2008. To date, The Sky Blues have bagged two league titles and two league cups under the Emirati’s leadership. But Mansour and the club wanted something bigger, something more. Enter Pep Guardiola.
Arguably the top football manager in the world, the Catalan native’s touchline pedigree speaks for itself. After an impressive playing career found him at the helm of Barcelona B, a brilliant first managerial tenure saw him promoted to headmaster of the Camp Nou. The rest is history. Pep then tried his hand in the Bundesliga with German giants Bayern Munich, proving again that there was no task too big for him. The blue half of Manchester provided him with his first real domestic stumbling block when he went on to finish third in the 2016-17 season, his first season bereft of silverware.
However, over £400m spent in the past two summers and City are now, on the back of their record-breaking winning streak, twelve points clear of their nearest challenger, running away with the league barring a miracle,.
It is all very impressive; the stuff of Football Manager saves that many spend hundreds of hours masterminding. But many football fans boil this season down to one opinion; that City are a checkbook club with a checkbook manager who has never had a challenging managerial experience. How wrong they are indeed.
Building a team that can truly challenge domestically and in Europe isn’t just about having the best players, it’s about having the right players. Big names are all well and good, but if they do not fit your brand of football, or if they are not adaptable enough to be coached to fit into it, full potential as a team will never be achieved. Given the current state of the game, spending to improve is the modus operandi of many clubs, especially in the Premier League. For the football purists that still cling to days gone by, the current standard will not revert to its roots.
In the case of Pep, it is undeniable that he has spent a substantial amount of money when at the helm of his charges. Further digging will reveal that in nine managerial seasons combined at Barca, Bayern, and City, the Spaniard has spent a total of £907.83m, which works out to be £100.87m annually. Not so bad once you do the math, considering most top clubs in the world, especially in England, spend far more than that on average every season to achieve far less than he has.
Granted, the total spent is still high, very high, but the reasoning behind it is sound. Pep’s style of football is meticulously planned, and requires specific types of players to make it work in it’s most effective form. It was easier to implement at Barca, a club that already preached possession football, though Guardiola himself detested “tiki-taka” or as he calls it, passing for the sake of it. Rather, he described possession and the quick passing game he instills in his teams as a means of overloading the opposition with the aim of space creation and scoring chances. To do this, certain players are required, and you only must look at his recent spending trends at City to realize why he has spent nearly half the total sum in just two summers.
For such a system technical proficiency is paramount, as is genuine understanding of space, movement with/without the ball, and the ability to survive in a system that preaches high-pressure pressing to regain possession when lost. When Guardiola first came to City, only certain players could fit into such a system, and those who couldn’t, particularly at the back and at keeper, were replaced via the market at a high cost. Last season’s third place finish signaled that period of adjustment for both the manager to adapt to a new league, but also to get his hands into the first-team and mold it to fit his exact specifications, both in terms of what is expected of his players, but making sure he has the right pieces to fit the puzzle. This season is the culmination of last year’s project.
Player Development with a Hands-On Approach
Your job as a manager is not finished once new players have signed on a dotted line. Bedding players into the first-team as quickly as possible both socially and in terms of their footballing requirements can make or break a signing. In that same light, developing those you’ve brought in, as well as those that were already at the club, is just as vital. Setting a record run of wins would not have been possible if Guardiola bypassed developing his players in the hopes that the existing level of talent was enough.
It was a habit that first began at Barca, especially when Pep brought up Sergio Busquets and Pedro, both of whom he worked with at Barca B. He was also responsible for bringing Gerard Piqué back to the club after a torrid time at Manchester United. The trio of Spanish internationals would go on to become key components for club and country, with Busquets and Piqué cementing themselves as arguably the best at their position in all of Europe, and that comes down to their time working with Pep directly.
That trend continued when Santpedor’s favorite son moved to Munich. After getting his hands into the likes of David Alaba, Thiago Alcantara, Joshua Kimmich, and Robert Lewandowski during his tenure with the Bavarian juggernaut, all four players have since gone on to be regularly mentioned as the best players in their respective positions.
Alaba has consistently been one of the best left-backs in Europe, Thiago was molded into a premier deep-lying playmaker, Kimmich burst onto the scene as a versatile defender who’s now vital to the German national team as the heir apparent to Philipp Lahm, and Lewandowski went from gifted center forward to arguably the most well-rounded of a talented list residing in Europe. Pep also extended the careers of Xabi Alonso, revitalized Javi Martinez, and presided over Kingsley Coman’s rapid development. It was the continuation of a strong track record of making players better versions of their previous selves, and we are now seeing that same trend on the training pitches at Sportcity.
Upon arrival in Manchester, Guardiola certainly had his work cut out for him. While he did inherit a squad that had talent, major surgery was needed if he was to get his team playing the right tune. Plenty of fat was trimmed away from what is now his core group of players, and additional assets were brought in. But like at both Barca and Bayern before, the real work began at the training ground.
One year after his arrival, Kevin De Bruyne is one of the best creative minds on the continent, David Silva looks better than he ever has in a City shirt, youngsters Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané have both gone from raw talents to key players with wonderful end-product, and John Stones finally looks the player he was hyped to be at Everton.
Kyle Walker has also progressed after leaving Tottenham, Ederson has settled as one of the best keepers in the Premier League, Nicolás Otamendi now looks the part, Fabian Delph has value once again in his new role, and Sergio Agüero is still firing himself into City’s history books. Not only has Guardiola revitalized existing player personnel and helped them reach a higher level, but he’s yet again proven that his knack for progressing young players is not farcical. Results speak for themselves.
The key to his success in player development has been his personal approach to management, something which he championed early on in his tenure at Barcelona. Citing a hands-on approach on the training ground and the importance of building strong relationships with his players both on an individual level and as a collective, players love working with him, and constantly reference an increased positive attitude amongst the team in training.
He will have his detractors, but overall, he’s been quoted as being a joy to work with and is credited with changing the environment at Bayern – and now at City – for the better by the players, something that would contribute to Carlo Ancelotti’s torrid time as his successor.
Truly, Pep Guardiola certainly has the footballing equivalent of a Midas touch; wherever he goes players improve, and trophies are won. It is the perfect return for Mansour and the CFG, who are looking to establish themselves as the premier footballing conglomerate on the back of their flagship club.
The loss to Liverpool earlier in the week signaled the end of City’s bid to match the Invincibles’ season from Arsenal. This might arguably do Guardiola’s men a world of good as there won’t be any talk of it anymore this season, as to whether they can go on to emulate the record. It can also be cited as a good cause for the City players to not lose focus in their bid to win the league and also harbor notions of a bid to challenge for the Champions League, while helping curb any sense of misplaced complacency or a sense of superiority.
Pep is likely to not be in Manchester forever, and the City hierarchy will have to think long and hard on who should replace him if they’re to continue their growth both on and off the pitch, but their record-breaking achievement this season stands as a testament to the abilities of one of the greatest managers of the modern game; an achievement that was born and bread in Spain and Germany, and now has graced English shores. Sure, we can all be envious, even hateful at times. But while we’re jealous and spiteful, let us all sit back and appreciate the wonderful football being played at the Etihad…let us appreciate a manager who is so much more than the writer of checks.