There are still six months or so before Pep Guardiola officially checks into the Premier League but English football already seems so besotted with the departing Bayern Munich manager, his easy sophistication, the Hollywood-handsome looks and knack of elevating football to its highest level, it might not be universally popular to point out he has not done his prospective new employers many favours recently.
Perhaps it would have been noted more widely had Guardiola not always seemed like the reasonable one when he was in charge at Barcelona and there was so much needle between him and José Mourinho, then at Real Madrid, the two men seemed filled with revulsion that they occasionally had to share one another’s oxygen.
Guardiola always represented a style. He did it for the most part with great dignity and the Premier League will be a better place with him. “I forget for whom the description ‘women want to be with him, men want to be him’ was first coined,” Graham Hunter wrote in Barça, the Making of the Greatest Team in the World, “but it fits Guardiola as perfectly as those 30in-waist trousers which still, improbably, fit his snake hips.”
It is a shame, however, that Guardiola appears to have abandoned the managerial etiquette that would usually be expected of him or stopped to think, as Arsène Wenger recently suggested, that someone in his position should understand the consequences of announcing mid-season that he is to leave Bayern Munich for a new challenge in the Premier League.
Guardiola might not have mentioned Manchester City by name but his subsequent declaration that there had already been “several offers” was, in effect, confirmation that the club built on Abu Dhabi’s riches were actively trying to lever him in at Manuel Pellegrini’s expense. Unless, that is, you want to believe it was Swansea City, who have been trying to persuade Guardiola to repel Chelsea’s advances and ignore whatever is going on with Louis van Gaal at Manchester United.
No, it is pretty obvious what is going on and it has certainly put Pellegrini in an awkward position now it is absolutely clear the club’s chief executive, Ferran Soriano, and director of football, Txiki Begiristain, are preparing to ease him out the door. Every one of Pellegrini’s press conferences now has a Guardiola theme. Every flaw will be used as another piece of evidence why Abu Dhabi want an upgrade. The volume will only go up over the coming months and it wouldn’t be the strangest thing if there was a shift, even subconsciously, in how the players view the current manager. Sir Alex Ferguson, reflecting on the 2001-02 season, when he eventually aborted plans to retire, can testify from first‑hand experience that a manager’s voice is not so effective when the players suspect he is not going to be there much longer.
What goes around comes around, you might think, given the way Pellegrini was recruited in the first place and how the news broke on the morning of the 2013 FA Cup final, contributing to a 1-0 defeat against Wigan Athletic and the most traumatic day City have experienced since the Abu Dhabi takeover (featuring chants from the losers’ end of “You can stick your Pellegrini up your arse”).
Roberto Mancini later accused City of speaking to at least three managers while he was in charge, perhaps conveniently forgetting he was tapped up for Mark Hughes’s job several months in advance. On and on it goes. It is a cut-throat industry and City have a long history of awkward handovers if you remember that when Frank Clark was sacked – “The Job from Hell,” he calls the relevant chapter in his autobiography – he heard about it via the breakfast news on Radio GMR. Joe Royle, who had accepted the job the previous night, ended up taking City to court when he was asked to clear out his belongings a few years later. There were people in that old regime, he once told me, with “more faces than Tutankhamun”.
That goes back to the era of “Cityitis”, losing to York City, an Auto Windscreens Shield tie against Mansfield Town and one infamous AGM at Bridgewater Hall being interrupted by a supporter allowing all the pent-up frustration to get the better of him and telling the panel of directors he was sick of “20 years of shit”.
It’s very different now, of course. There is an expertise at City and scale of ambition that Guardiola must find attractive. Their training ground is the best in England and the size of a village. The stadium has been enlarged and, at every level, there is the sense they know exactly what they are doing. It is a brilliantly slick operation and if City want to be thought of as the best club around it makes perfect sense to go for the best manager.
Equally, at the risk of sounding overly cynical, it does feel like the lines are possibly starting to blur when City are now being strongly linked to Leroy Sané, of Schalke, and this is a player Guardiola has already acclaimed as the rising star of German football. “Sané is a huge talent and I can only congratulate Germany to have a talent like him,” Guardiola said in November. A coincidence? Or are things so far down the line that City are now putting in place deals for players to suit their manager-in-waiting?
Pellegrini will bank a decent payoff, inevitably, and one imagines he might be a good fit ultimately for the Chile national job at some point, with doubts currently surrounding Jorge Sampaoli’s position. Equally, would it be outlandish to suggest that he might be a reasonable candidate for Chelsea if Roman Abramovich cannot ambush the Guardiola deal? Diego Simeone’s work at Atlético Madrid makes him an outstanding alternative but Pellegrini, despite his deliberately low profile, promotes the attacking football that Abramovich craves and has the advantage of speaking English.
For now, all that can really be said for certain is that Guardiola has consistently shown the most beautiful way to win football matches and it is true that City, often doing the bare minimum, look like a team in need of a change in direction.
Thierry Henry was asked recently to explain how it worked under Guardiola and recalled how his former manager had a system at the Camp Nou based around the “three Ps” – play, possession and position. “The most important one was position,” Henry explained. “You have to stay in your position, trust your team-mates and allow the ball to come to you.”
Guardiola wanted wide players who would not succumb to insecurity if the ball was not coming their way. He even put down cones on the training field so it was drilled into them to stay wide, stretch the play and not cross over. It was the final part of the pitch, close to the penalty area, when they were given the freedom to explode into life and drive infield. “My job is to take you up to the last third,” Guardiola would tell them. “Your job is to finish it.”
As for what happens when a player goes against the Guardiola credo, Henry found out one night in the Champions League. “Me being me, I went there [to the right wing] to play with Leo [Messi]. I didn’t really care, you know. I scored a goal, 1-0 up against Sporting Lisbon, all nice and everything. I could hear him [Guardiola] being upset. And, at half-time, he took me off. I was like: ‘What did I do wrong?’ Very similar to Van Gaal, when Pep had a plan – respect his plan.”
Guardiola is, in short, football royalty. His players were so in thrall of him at Barcelona they lined the front rows of the press conference when he announced he was leaving. Guardiola, as Jorge Valdano one said, believes in football where “greatness is possible … He never cheats, he is always brave, he takes away all the miseries of the game.”
Nobody could argue City would be better off as they are and Pellegrini, at 62, is streetwise enough to know what is going on. It is just a pity, perhaps, Guardiola has not shown him a little more consideration and it probably says a lot for the current manager that he has not, and will not, make a fuss.
Players have eyes on TV deal too
It didn’t really come as a huge surprise to discover Marko Arnautovic had turned down Stoke City’s opening contract offer, incorporating a pay rise to reflect his position as the club’s leading scorer this season. Stoke’s pay ceiling is £70,000 a week. Arnautovic wants more – in excess of £100,000 – and while that may seem way over the top for a club of Stoke’s size it is merely a reflection of how the Premier League’s new television deal is threatening to shape the sport at thatlevel.
The impact of a £5.136bn package means the mid-sized clubs will be so wealthy they can resist bids for their better players. Yet the players and agents know that, too, and will want to be paid more than ever when there will be so much money swilling around from next season.
Leicester City may discover something similar when it comes to increasing Jamie Vardy’s £40,000-a-week salary, although they do have an advantage over Stoke bearing in mind he is contracted until 2018. Arnautovic’s deal expires at the end of next season and he is approaching the stage where his transfer value starts to depreciate. Financially, he couldn’t have timed it much better.
Ferrell helps LAFC reach mediocrity
Until now, Will Ferrell’s involvement in football has mostly been limited to an appearance in the Soccer Aid match at Old Trafford in 2012, sharing a pitch with the likes of Gordon Ramsay, John Bishop and Robbie Williams. “A lot of jerky people,” Ferrell summarised, ahead of a match most notable for the tall bloke from Kasabian chipping David Seaman.
It was a surprise therefore to hear that the star of the Mediocre American Man Trilogy, featuring the Anchorman films and Talladega Nights, is now one of the co-owners of Los Angeles FC, wannabe entrants into MLS for the 2018 season. Indeed, Ferrell seemed pretty surprised himself. “I’ve never been a part-owner of anything,” he said, before correcting himself. “Actually, I’m still part‑owner of an ‘84 Toyota Camry with my brother.”
In total, LA now have 26 co-owners, including Magic Johnson, Mia Hamm, the author Tony Robbins, various figures from the baseball world and not forgetting Vincent Tan, Cardiff City’s owner, and Ruben Gnanalingam, joint chairman of QPR, two clubs rightly held up as role models for the way they handle themselves. LA might not have any players yet, or a stadium, but board meetings should be a lot of fun. “I immediately regret this decision,” as Ron Burgundy once said.
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