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Final feats mark Pep Guardiola out as a modern marvel of football management

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola reacts after winning the Carabao Cup final. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola reacts after winning the Carabao Cup final. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters

Oliver BrownTelegraph Media Group Limited

Looking as euphoric as at any time in his all-conquering career, Pep Guardiola held up four fingers to signify Manchester City’s record-equalling fourth straight League Cup triumph, a momentous feat in itself.

And yet, as Blue Moon engulfed Wembley anew, the most enduring achievements belonged, by far, to the sorcerer in the slate-grey top. In his 15th major final, this was Guardiola’s 14th victory.

It was the ninth time in 10 that a team under his care had prevailed without even conceding a goal. While it is tempting to frame City’s rise as a parable of acquisitive wealth, it pays not to forget that they are guided to these glories by a manager for the ages.

As if Tottenham fans needed any extra cause to lament 12 years without silverware, they could reflect that the man who had outwitted them manages it, on average, once every 195 days. At only 50 years old, Guardiola has amassed a barely believable 30 trophies as manager, a tribute not just to the financial behemoths that have supported him but to his own extraordinary gift for navigating the games that count.

It is over a decade since his solitary defeat in a final, when Cristiano Ronaldo scored the winner for Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey. Wembley, it seems, is the stage where his tactical mastery finds the fullest expression. In eight finals on this turf, dating back to Barcelona’s dismantling of Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League, he has won them all.

This time, perhaps the finest tribute to Guardiola’s craftsmanship was that he set up City to fillet Tottenham without a designated centre-forward. It was striker-free football at its most stiflingly effective, as his plans reduced Harry Kane to a bewildered bystander. Perhaps the one criticism of City is that they could sometimes be too cute, too intricate, fashioning moves that cried out for a finisher of Sergio Aguero’s ruthlessness. For long periods of this game, until Aymeric Laporte’s late breakthrough, they floated like a butterfly but stung like a flea.

Raheem Sterling, in particular, struggled to find the accuracy to match his enterprise. But the defining quality of all the great Guardiola teams is their ability almost to hypnotise opponents into submission. It is a seductive theory in football that teams who spurn a plethora of chances will pay for it in the end, but City give the lie to that wisdom. Their profligacy should have set up Tottenham for the classic smash-and-grab, and yet they rendered them incapable of either smashing or grabbing. Seldom has a 1-0 scoreline felt so much like a trouncing.

One day, Ryan Mason might have cause to look back at this occasion with affection. It was quite the coup, after all, for a 29-year-old to lead out a Premier League team for a final in just his first week in the job. But against an adversary of Guardiola’s stature, he simply looked overwhelmed. At one stage, the TV producers had the lack of sympathy to flash up a touchline tale-of-the-tape, comparing Guardiola’s 694 games as a top-flight manager to Mason’s two.

It was reminiscent of those rather unkind captions that the BBC enjoy giving to their Wimbledon pundits, when they sit John McEnroe (“three-time champion”) alongside Andrew Castle (“twice reached the second round”). Sometimes, it can be impolite even to mention the vast gap between the bodies of work.

Then again, there was little shame for Mason in being outshone by a colossus. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, the most garlanded figure in the game, was twice put to the sword by Guardiola in Champions League finals. Yes, Guardiola might earn £20 million a year, but Ferran Soriano, City’s chief executive, would hardly have any hesitancy about signing the cheque.

He is a modern marvel, that rare breed can execute his most sophisticated battleplans when it matters most. We might talk about the recently-deposed Jose Mourinho as the most important manager of his generation, with his 13 trophies. But Guardiola has, in just 12 years, accumulated more than twice that number.

You could tell, as Guardiola rushed to embrace his players in the aftermath, how much this meant to him. The Carabao Cup might be dismissed by certain rivals as an insignificance, but he wanted to win it again with a palpable intensity. While he had a looming Champions League semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain to factor into his thinking, Guardiola kept his eyes solely on this particular prize. Trophy myopia is his talent.

The 2,000 City fans could barely contain themselves as they were finally ushered towards the exits. “Write something good about us,” one yelled at the press box. Even after all the vast money spent, even after the absurd dalliance with a European Super League, Guardiola is somebody who makes that task a joy.

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