“I believe the midfield players are intelligent and understand the game. They understand back and they understand forward.”
Guardiola’s vision for ‘a team of midfielders’ was a step closer to being realised as City outclassed Paris Saint-Germain over two legs of the Champions League semi-final.
Play-making goalkeeper Ederson created a goal with a pinpoint 70-yard pass; John Stones was at ease stepping into midfield from defence; full-backs were consistently moving into central areas, and two false nines kept dropping deep.
Every City player was comfortable in possession, flexible in their movement, and willing and able to receive and quickly manoeuvre the ball. Only centre-back Ruben Dias and out-and-out winger Riyad Mahrez would have looked out of their comfort zone in central midfield.
Here was the most vivid expression of football’s evolution, the next generation of coaches sure to study and try to imitate Guardiola’s template.
If Guardiola’s Barcelona reign is celebrated for the innovation of creating a permanent ‘false nine’ and wide strikers, his City revolution may be remembered for this pure idea of ‘total football’, redefining the technical and tactical expectations upon players in each position.
I will always rate Guardiola’s Barcelona side of 2011 as the greatest club team ever. Should he lead this Manchester City side to Champions League victory in 2021, it will rank as his greatest coaching achievement so far.
That is because of the timing and context of the latest success. Over the last two years City have lost Vincent Kompany, David Silva and, for most of this season prior to his summer departure, Sergio Aguero. They are not ordinary players. They are Premier League legends. Guardiola has impressively overcome a different type of challenge to fill their void and produce the results of the last 12 months.
At Barcelona, Guardiola altered how we see and think about football with an amazing group of world-class players he inherited, most of them nurtured at the club’s academy, La Masia. He was the first to admit that without Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta he could never have achieved so much so soon.
That does not alter the fact that it was Guardiola who moulded them into the perfect football unit.
The debate continues in Spain as to whether the glorious Camp Nou period between 2008-’12 was the era of Guardiola, or part of the era of Messi. Barca have won the Champions League once, in 2015, since their 2011 Wembley win over Manchester United. Guardiola is hoping to win it for the first time in 10 years later this month.
I’m inclined to believe this shows that Messi needed Guardiola as much as Guardiola needed Messi at that point in their careers.
I have always been reluctant to address some of the other criticisms of the Manchester City manager since he left Camp Nou, because they are so ridiculous they do not deserve publicity.
Nevertheless, with City on the verge of another Premier League title this weekend and a possible Champions League victory, now seems the perfect time to dismantle the arguments trying to downplay Guardiola’s achievements, many of which may be repeated in the coming days and weeks.
The most frequent accusation is he could not have achieved what he has in England without City’s money.
There is no doubt Guardiola has been blessed with funds most coaches can only dream about, and the strength in depth sets City apart given the quality of players the manager can summon from the bench.
But take a close look at Manchester City’s starting line-up in midweek. For all the high-priced recruits, how many of those players were beyond the financial reach of rivals?
Are we to believe PSG, Manchester United, Chelsea or the leading Spanish clubs could not have identified and afforded players such as Oleksandr Zinchenko,
Mahrez, Bernardo Silva, and Ilkay Gundogan?
Kevin De Bruyne could not get into the Chelsea team before he was considered surplus to requirements. Kyle Walker was a very good player at Tottenham Hotspur, but I remember how many thought him overpriced when he joined City for just under £50 million in 2017.
The outstanding Dias was my pick as Player of the Year as early as February. Last summer I was one of many who saw him as a high-stakes purchase. Did every scout in Europe know he was this good? If so, his £60m fee might make him the bargain of the season.
And beyond the big signings it was an academy product, Phil Foden, who outshone every expensive PSG player over both legs.
All have improved because of Guardiola. Under a different manager, they would be good. Under Guardiola, they are consistently delivering world-class performances.
You could give other managers all the money in the world to create their own team, but they would not have done it exactly like Pep. The comparable sums spent at Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United over the last five years are the most graphic proof of that. In fact, Manchester City’s own history underlines it.
Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini demonstrated that every good manager has a chance of winning titles under these City owners. With respect to their notable successes, they did not win playing as City are now.
I have stated before that if Guardiola had taken over Manchester United in 2016, or any other club with similar resources, they – not Manchester City
would be celebrating multiple Premier League title wins in the years since. That is down to the coaching, not just massive spending, with Guardiola and his recruitment staff identifying the right characteristics rather than joining auctions for the most coveted, superstar players.
That’s one of the reasons why I am sceptical as to whether Guardiola will sign Erling Haaland for a record fee. It could be that Haaland is too good to ignore, but having started to perfect his formula of a ‘team of midfielders’, that would demand a tactical compromise.
Since he joined City, we have seen how ambivalent Guardiola is about what we consider a typical No 9. He demanded more outside the penalty area from Aguero, often prepared to leave him out of the biggest fixtures. Would Guardiola seek to replace him with an out-and-out goalscorer whose status and fee demands selection every week?
People always ask where I see the future of football tactics as coaches tweak systems and traditional ideas.
No one has been more radical than Guardiola, who has relished having more independence and freedom at City than seemed to be the case at Bayern Munich, where despite his Bundesliga success there was scepticism about whether his way was the best way.
Even when he arrived in England, there were questions as to whether his methods would be so effective in the Premier League.
At the Etihad, Guardiola has been like an artist granted a blank canvas and all the resources he needs to produce his masterpiece.
Whether City defeat Chelsea in the Champions League final in Istanbul or not, while Guardiola continues to operate at the highest level we must appreciate a genius at work.
There are some managers who are extraordinarily successful and there are those who change football. Guardiola is in that rarest of categories. First at Barcelona and now at Manchester City, he has done both.