Michael Baddeley discusses whether or not Pep Guardiola is running into the same issues that he did towards the end of his Barcelona tenure.
It’s safe to say that Man City haven’t had the best of seasons so far. Before the COVID-19 pandemic set in, their competitive rivals Liverpool were 25 points ahead of them. A gap that is the biggest any of the top five European leagues has seen between the top two teams.
Throughout the season we’ve seen Pep Guardiola remain buoyant about his side. He has always backed his side publicly and has never hung them out to dry. But throughout the season we have seen the legendary manager make many uncharacteristic moves.
But is the ‘Guardiola fatigue’ starting to set in at Man City, just like it did at Barcelona? Or is he just having an off season?
We all know how good that Barcelona team was under Pep. It was arguably the best club team to ever grace football. It was just sheer dominance for three seasons, the brand of football was just something that we’ve never seen before.
Barcelona saw Guardiola as the next phase of what footballing legend Johan Cruyff implemented at the club. How the great Dutchman saw the game moulded Pep as both a player and a coach. In-fact, it was Cruyff himself who said that he was the man to take the reigns at Barca and lead them back to greatness.
And just like that, with the approval from the most important person in the history of Barcelona, president Joan Laporta promoted him and he made the jump from the B team to the main team.
There was great expectation on his shoulders, but he came into his stride, it was like he was he’d been managing at that high level before. He had a vision and wasn’t scared of making big changes if he needed to.
He purchased multiple players including Dani Alves and Gerard Pique, he promoted Sergio Busquets and Pedro straight away and huge names like Ronaldinho, Deco, Zambrotta and, after some time, Eto’o were all axed so he could instil his way upon Blaugrana.
Throughout his time there Pep was set on achieving nothing but the best. He was a perfectionist, and made the players believe everything he said. Not only was the football great, but the harmony and the belief amongst the dressing room matched it.
Everyone loved it and everyone loved Pep. Dani Alves even said, ‘if Pep had told me to jump off the third tier of the Camp Nou, then I’d jump because I’d think there must be a reason for it.’
In his first season in charge of the Catalonian giants, the 2008/09 season, he won the treble, an incredible feat no matter how long you’ve been in management, but to do this in his first season of his first major job was unbelievable.
His second season he carried on his dominance. By the end of the 2009 calendar year he had won six major honours, becoming the first manager to ever do so, he finished the second season by winning La Liga but was knocked out of the Champions League by Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan, arguably starting the war between the two great coaches.
In the 2010/11 season Pep’s Barcelona peaked. You could give any positive compliment and it wouldn’t be enough to describe how good that team was and the best thing of it all, the majority of the players in the starting XI had come through the famous La Masia youth system.
But this season was the beginning of the end. It was Mourinho’s first season in charge at Madrid and the rivalry between the sides reached boiling point, the matches became vicious and the two managers were engaged in an battle outside the white lines.
In April there was four season defining matches between the sides. Two Champions League semi-finals, a Copa Del Rey Final and a title decider.
Madrid won the final just days before the first leg of the semi final. The Portuguese manager started to make jibes at Pep by claiming he had started to criticise referees when they make the correct decision after a Pedro goal was correctly ruled out, a decision which Pep actually agreed with.
Jose was trying to provoke Pep and Barcelona and it worked. Manuel Estiarte, Pep’s right hand man, acknowledged that something changed in Pep that day. Mourinho’s tactics worked, he had gotten under his skin and this jibe led to the Spanish international to reply with a foul mouthed rant in the press conference prior to the Champions League semi-final between the sides.
Barca went on to eliminate Los Blancos with Mourinho claiming Pep had never won the Champions League properly. He suggested that they’d only got where they were and had to win the Champions League because they were sponsored by Unicef or because they were nice guys.
He brought up the ‘scandal of Stamford Bridge’ in 2009 and sad that the semi this year was the ‘scandal of the Bernabeu’ and they would tar the two competition wins.
Then came THAT Champions League final vs Man United, an absolute masterclass in football. But before the game Johan Cruyff had actually suggested that after the game Pep could step down after three gruelling years in charge.
That it had all come with a cost and the significant cost was that he no longer got on well with his employers after the president who employed him, Joan Laporta, had stepped down and was replaced with Sandro Rosell, someone Pep didn’t really get on with.
In his fourth and final season things had changed. They came second in the league to Mourinho’s Real Madrid and were beaten by Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final, he was failing to motivate his players.
He became tired and frustrated, he over thought things and he had become uptight with the players. He had changed and numerous players had picked up on this. In the documentary, ‘Take the ball, pass the ball’, Dani Alves claims that ‘it felt like we didn’t matter to him anymore’, Pep had lost the dressing room and couldn’t control the rot.
In Guillem Balague’s biography of Guardiola, he claims that towards the end of his time in charge he was taking sleeping tablets to help him sleep.
He needed a break and at the end of the season he announced that he would be taking a sabbatical from football. That toxic relationship with the board finally got the better of him, he’d begun to feel under appreciated and was eventually pushed out. His right hand man backed this claim in the documentary, he says that there was attempts to demolish and destroy everything they had achieved. Despite how much they won the board still focused on the negatives and as a result of that, the Guardiola era of dominance was brought to an end.
He took his sabbatical and then returned a year later, this time taking charge of Bayern Munich. He stayed with the German outfit for three years winning the league every season, the DFB Pokal twice, the UEFA Super Cup once and the Club World Cup once.
Despite reaching the Champions League semi-final every year, he couldn’t take the Bavarian club any further and failed to capture old big ears.
And then comes his time at Man City. The board of the English club brought him in to fulfil the clubs long-term ambition to win the Champions League, the one trophy he hadn’t won in charge of Bayern and the trophy City had failed to capture in their history.
The board at the North-West club was set up for him to come in and do what he wanted, he’d brought his full coaching team with him and he’d got his friends Txiki Bergiristain and Ferran Soriano already there waiting for him. He was the man they had so longed for and they’d finally got him. They made everything as comfortable as possible for him and were willing to give him as much time as he needed.
At the start he learnt very quickly that he would need to adapt his tactics if he was to be a success in England. At the end of the 16/17 season he finished with 0 trophies, the first time this had happened in his career. He identified the issues and spent the money to rectify that.
But from then on he just knocked it up a gear and broke numerous records. After spending big on his defence and tweaking his tactics, he dominated the Premier League playing breath-taking football and broke the 100 point barrier for the first time in the history of the league.
But he failed to capture the Champions League after being knocked out in the quarter-finals by Liverpool, a tie which would prove to be the start of a competitive rivalry between the two sides.
Third season in and he became the first manager to complete the domestic treble in England after being involved in the most intense title race with Liverpool, a side Pep has on numerous occasions called his toughest opponents ever. He managed to pip the Reds to the title by one point finishing on 98 points.
But again, he failed to achieve that target of capturing the Champions League, this time he was beaten by Tottenham Hotspur in the quarter final and Liverpool went on to lift the trophy. Like in Spain, was the competitive rivalry about to start taking it’s toll on the great Pep Guardiola?
And then we come to this season, his fourth season in charge of the Citizens, the same season which turned out to be his downfall at Barcelona.
Like I said, in terms of the board there is 0 issue, I don’t think it’d be too far-fetched to claim that he is more at ease in England than he was in Barcelona. The fact that he has signed two three year deals at the club whereas he only ever signed 12 month rolling contracts elsewhere fully supports that idea.
But this season has been different for Pep. He has never faced a team with such relentlessness as this Liverpool side. He’s never found himself so far behind a team in terms of points.
What the Reds are doing is unprecedented and deserve all the plaudits they’re getting, but just because they’re 25 points ahead of this City team doesn’t mean that City are a bad team, in-fact you’d be stupid to say they were bad. This is the same team that won back-to-back league titles and the domestic treble, they’re far from bad.
So where are City falling down?
Many people would suggest that City haven’t been the same this season because they have lost someone as influential as Laporte in defence to injury, losing the fantastic Leroy Sane to a long term and potential career changing injury, but this side has Pep Guardiola in charge, a ridiculously expensive squad that possesses so much depth in quality that they should be able to cope with a few injuries. They simply haven’t been good enough.
Both Wolves and United have done the double over them, they’ve only managed a point against Spurs in the two games they have played them, they’ve lost to Norwich and only taken a point from Newcastle and drawn to Crystal Palace at home. They’ve been far from the City that we’ve seen in the previous two seasons.
But it hasn’t just been because the team hasn’t been good enough. Some of the decisions Pep has made have actually been quite odd. A lot of the time it feels like he’s not known his best defence and has been trying to fill round holes with square pegs.
Against Norwich, he didn’t bring Kevin De Bruyne on till they were two goals down for the second time in the game and by then the damage was done, it was sloppy and very unlike the Spanish manager.
For me, this all started to show at the end of last season. On numerous occasions we saw Pep ‘lecture’ his players on the field, the most surprising one after the FA Cup final when Raheem Sterling was on the end of one of the passionate speeches, despite scoring a hat trick in a 6-0 win over Watford.
Many laud this as something special, something that makes him so great. BT actually shared a clip of the incident with Raheem on their twitter page the other day and said it was a ‘relentless pursuit of excellence.’ But what if it is a sign that he is facing the same downfall he faced at Barcelona?
What if the was the first sign he was starting to be pushed so far by this Liverpool side that he was tiring from the amount of work he was putting in and as a result he was becoming more uptight with the squad he currently has?
It would be completely understandable for someone to suggest that Pep giving these on-field lectures, in front of the cameras for the world to see, could be very off putting for the players. Especially when City have lost more games this season (7), than they have in the last two combined (6).
It’s all well and good trying to better your rivals and pushing your players to their limits to try and beat them. But after so long things are going to change, they’re going to reach their limit and won’t be able to give you anymore. Relationships between staff and players will change and they’ll stop reacting to what they’re told.
Then you come to how he has been in his press conferences and with match officials after games. The only time you have seen Pep kick off in the press is when he was at Barcelona and involved in silly spats with Mourinho.
This season we have seen a different side to him, we have seen him complain about refereeing decisions and take a very sarcastic tone when he answers the press about these decisions.
For example, against Liverpool we saw him screaming ‘twice’ at the assistant referee Mike Dean with a crazed look on his face, an incident that triggered mass amounts of memes. After the game we saw him approach referee Michael Oliver and very sarcastically thank the referee for his performance.
It was anything but polite. During and after the game, he just came across as a sore loser and a man who was slowly but surely losing the plot.
In the build up of the same game, he’d tried to start some psychological warfare and put the pressure on the officials, as well as Liverpool’s inform player Sadio Mane, by making remarks about the Senegalese winger’s alleged diving antics.
But then when Klopp engaged himself in the mind games by backing his player, Pep backed down very quickly and didn’t carry on the little war he started ahead of what was at the time the biggest game in the season for the two sides. It just didn’t make any sense, why start mind games if you’re going to surrender at the first battle? It just came across like he was weak and didn’t know what he was on about.
All this leads me back to my original question, is Pep Guardiola facing the same burnout at Man City that he faced at Barcelona?
When you look at the evidence I think you could be right in questioning whether Pep is going through the fourth season burnout that he faced at Barca. There are so many comparisons to be drawn, he is an intense manager who strives for perfection and demands nothing but the maximum from his players all the time.
After a few years, it’s only natural for the players and Pep himself to become fatigued and reach the limit of what they can produce.
Personally, I think the burnout is well underway and Pep is in need of another sabbatical.
The incident where he was lecturing Sterling on the pitch after he scored a hat-trick in a 6-0 win in the FA Cup final seemed a bit desperate and was the first sign of him tiring and acting different with his players, ultimately because he knew he was facing a challenge from Liverpool like the one he faced from Real Madrid.
I look at things like his team selections, his treatment of players like Mendy, his dealings with the press and confrontations with referees and you can tell he is changing and isn’t acting like the Pep Guardiola we’re used to. It feels like he’s become a sore loser and isn’t anywhere near gracious as he was.
Even players from that great Barcelona side have come out and said that after three years of working with the same staff the relationships changed and things weren’t the same, how they couldn’t give Pep anymore and vice versa.
I firmly believe that he has replicated his reign at Barca, after a few great years he has reached his limit with this squad, he has gotten all he can out of this group of players and both parties have exhausted themselves.
Where does he go now? What does he do? With him having one season left on his contract I think it’ll be interesting to see what he does at the end of the season, when it is finally completed that is.
If the Champions League is completed and he wins it he could possibly stay for the remainder of his contract, but if he is to fall short on that target again whilst missing out on the Premier League with the big gap that is currently in place, I think we could see him leave early.