Heart Of Football

Guardiola must infuse shaky City with Barca's DNA

Pep Guardiola, and for that matter Jurgen Klopp, can have no illusions now - if ever there were any - that English football is called the English Premier League (EPL) for a reason.

Its teams are not the equal on the field of Barcelona nor Real Madrid, of Bayern Munich, nor even after last week, of AS Monaco.

But the expectations are bigger. The competitive element is more unforgiving. And in the EPL every side can beat any other on a given day.

It was excruciating to see Guardiola, the ultimate master of style at Barca and at Bayern, dissolve on the touchline in Monaco.

Guardiola scratched his balding pate. He hunched. He seemed to go grey around the gills as a thrillingly youthful Monaco tore Manchester City's defences to shreds in the Stade Louis ll.

"I couldn't convince them to attack," lamented Guardiola afterwards.

Klopp's reputation of beating, or at least resisting, every team in the top six with Liverpool, is on the line against a City that (up until Monaco) appeared to be hitting their stride and chasing games the way that Guardiola wants.

He couldn't convince City's millionaires. But the Monegasque attacked. How they attacked.

We are going to hear much more of Kylian Mbappe, a French Under-19 striker drawing premature comparisons to Thierry Henry.

And in that first half, when Monaco turned City to jelly, we also admired the striding Tiemoue Bakayoko in midfield and the galvanic full back Benjamin Mendy bursting up the wing.

The French, once again, seem to find, and to liberate, their talents early. Soon they will fly the nest because EPL giants will pay what it takes to get them - quite possibly at the Etihad where the sheikh's fortune is at Guardiola's disposal.

Today's Man City v Liverpool match is the biggest game in the EPL this weekend.

Klopp's reputation of beating, or at least resisting, every team in the top six with Liverpool, is on the line against a City that (up until Monaco) appeared to be hitting their stride and chasing games the way that Guardiola wants.

In other circumstances, we might applaud both City and Monaco for a contest that finished 6-6 over the two legs. Maybe we should accept that two opponents throwing defensive caution to the wind and going all-out in attack makes for compelling sport.

And if you get unlucky on the away goals rule, or if you miss the kind of chances that the once undoubted Sergio Aguero squandered in the second half last Wednesday, well, that's sport.

If we can't accept that, it's encouraging (for Guardiola) to know that the desert paymaster and his appointed chairman took the trouble to reassure Pep that the club's future is very much still his to mould.

"I have more power than ever to shape the squad," Guardiola claimed back in Manchester. He shrugged off suggestions that he has carte blanche to tear up the squad and buy new parts at his whim over the next summer.

The coach inside Guardiola insists that "in the next month and a half I expect a huge step forward. Next season will be better. I saw the boss (Sheikh Mansour) in Abu Dhabi and he's very supportive."

He should be. City's ambition is to play like Barcelona, to win like Barca, and to that end who is more qualified than Pep Guardiola, whose pedigree as a key player at the Nou Camp under Johan Cruyff matured into his fantastic FC Barca that won everything in a fashion that is as close to the ultimate as anyone has achieved, anywhere.

That is why the Sheikh authorised the order to get Guardiola, whatever the cost. It is why, no matter what Guardiola says between now and the end of this season, there will be changes, and big money spent on defenders, just as soon as this season is wrapped up.

There are - and there should be - reasons to question Guardiola. He has won all before him with Barcelona, and won all bar the Champions League with Bayern.

Yet he inherited teams in both places that were leagues above their opponents in domestic play. Real Madrid fans are not likely to take that statement lying down. Klopp, whose Borussia Dortmund team did punch Bayern Munich's aristocratic nose a few times, had to accept that in the end, if Munich couldn't beat the Dortmunders, all they had to do (and did) was buy the best of Borussia's players by paying them over the odds.

Robert Lewandowski, a Dortmund diamond before he switched to Munich, is the obvious prime example.

Guardiola, certainly, had the knowledge and the charm to take on and make more adventurous the team Jupp Heynckes coached to the German league, Cup and Champions League treble.

But while he was still in Munich, a couple of informed voices were heard to question his credentials.

Lothar Matthaus, a legend among German defenders, opined that the Catalan "can't coach a defence". Guardiola doesn't need to respond. Barcelona won in spite of defensive instability, City are capable, in England at least, of the same.

A more qualified man when it comes to coaching is Frank Wormuth. He has been the chief instructor of the mandatory German Football Association coaching licence system for a decade.

Wormuth last year described Guardiola as: "An outstanding coach but, all due respect, so far only coached outstanding teams. I would love to see him at an average fifth-division side.

"Should we call someone who is highlighted by the media the world's best coach?" Wormuth asked. "There are tactical wizards in the third league. There are many good coaches who put in great performances with players of lesser quality."

The implication is that Germany's training guru, who also personally coaches the national youth teams of the world champion nation, regards Guardiola as a privileged man rather than someone likely to adapt and improve players.

He is that, all right. Guardiola has an aristocratic La Masia background, and thankfully for those of us who adore cavalier football, he has no idea of how to downscale.

We are unlikely ever to find out if he could be adaptable. By his own forecast, he will make City his third attempt at Utopia, or burn out in the attempt.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'Guardiola must infuse shaky City with Barca's DNA'. Print Edition | Subscribe