HeartOfFootball

Heart of Football: Guardiola's City spell proving life isn't a bed of English roses

If Manchester City's manager Pep Guardiola had written his own end-of-term report on his first year in England, it may translate to: "Must try harder."

The Catalan will use his summer spending more of the Sheikh Mansour's fortune to try and turn City into a credible European power next season.

Third place, which the Etihad team should nail down against a weakened Watford today, is not what the owners are paying for.

By his own standards, Guardiola is someway off creating not just a winning team, but one that plays pass-and-move football with aesthetic appeal.

It is the players who fall short. Guardiola said as much last week.

"The managers don't play," he stressed. "It's the quality of our players, and I think the quality we have is quite enough to have done better."

Going into the final day 15 points behind champions Chelsea is the unacceptable part of City's first season under a manager who set his own bar impossibly high with 21 trophies in seven seasons before coming to England.

England is a different kettle of fish. Pep Guardiola knew what he was coming to. He wanted to test himself in the league that, many said, would reveal any flaws in his management. Has he failed? So far, the answer is yes.

The first four of those seven years were, of course, at Barcelona. The next three, after a New York sabbatical for the coach who declared himself worn out at the Nou Camp, were at Bayern Munich.

"At the clubs I worked at before, I'm sacked after a season like now," Guardiola said. "If you want to put pressure on me and say next season we have to win titles or they are going to change the manager, I knew that before I arrived here. I will be sacked and you will come again and ask the same questions to the next manager."

True. But there are differences between where Guardiola won his reputation, and where he operates now. The Premier League is, without a doubt, the world's most competitive league. Watford showed that last Monday when, with the injuries they have now, and their manager Walter Mazzarri knowing his time was up, they ran Chelsea to a last-gasp 4-3 win at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea were gung-ho because the title was in the bag. Watford displayed English character (although under Italian ownership, Vicarage Road is almost like a clearing house for incoming and outgoing foreign talents).

Yet there is something in the character, almost in the water, of English clubs that will not allow a beaten team or an outclassed one to lie down and take it.

That should be the same anywhere?

Hardly so. Most seasons, Spain's La Liga is a two-horse race between Barcelona and Real Madrid. And Bayern Munich is so far ahead of their Bundesliga competition that whether your coach is Pep or Carlo or Joe Soap, the Muncheners will win the domestic league.

Don't get me wrong, Pep Guardiola is a terrific coach. He learnt as a player under Johan Cruyff that great players must be liberated to elevate the game above simply winning, to entertainment with a touch of artistry.

But let's be honest. Giving license to Xavi Hernandez, Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta to thrill the crowd isn't rocket science.

And working with Philipp Lahm (Germany's World Cup-winning captain), Arjen Robben and Robert Lewandowski at Munich is a winning formula from the start.

England is a different kettle of fish. Pep Guardiola knew what he was coming to. He wanted to test himself in the league that, many said, would reveal any flaws in his management. Has he failed? So far, the answer is yes.

Both Guardiola and Jose Mourinho took over the Manchester clubs with a distinct advantage to most managerial appointments. They knew six months in advance that they were being hired - and from that time the two Mancunian behemoths spent millions recruiting players requested by the incoming managers.

Mourinho has Paul Pogba and had Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But United are out of the picture, and by whatever measure you apply, Mourinho's team has fallen short of the swashbuckling approach United's history demands.

Guardiola did try, from the get-go, to put his attacking ideals into City.

He inherited, anyway, a team that under Manuel Pellegrini had won a title. The Chilean's approach was, if you like, Pep-lite in that Pellegrini cherished flowing football.

At the start of this season, the Guardiola transition appeared seamless. City won 10 games on the spin, six of them in the league. That was a time when Chelsea were still struggling to adjust to Antonio Conte, also in his first year in England.

It took defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal for the Italian to really grab hold of Chelsea and put his 3-4-3 imprint on them.

He did that by persuasion. Words that stand out from the Chelsea dressing room are passion and honesty. The clever thing from Conte's point of view was that he let the Chelsea players fail before making his own demands.

Guardiola, in my opinion, did things the other way around. He imposed a style that the players have struggled to maintain.

His judgment on the goalkeepers is open to criticism. He dispatched England No. 1 Joe Hart to Torino on loan without giving him a chance to adapt to Guardiola's belief that the goalie must be the first player to distribute the ball, with feet as well as hands.

The philosophy is laudable. But Guardiola's purchase Claudio Bravo proved fallible to England's combative, pressured football. And his £50 million (S$90.3 million) acquisition of John Stones, a ball-playing central defender, hasn't yet proved convincing - although the England defender, like everyone else, looks more assured when the skipper Vincent Kompany is fit.

Then the full-backs, be they Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta,or even the converted winger Jesus Navas. All struggled with Pep's high- powered wing-back demands.

All of them will probably be offloaded in this holiday-less summer for the manager. There are even questions about whether Sergio Aguero - an idol until Gabriel Jesus arrived in January - will stay.

Guardiola is adjusting. His team, third best for the moment, will be overhauled at massive expense. Then opinions will be clearer.

The fans, the media, and the paymasters in Abu Dhabi, will be his judges. City must rise again, or, Guardiola admits, he will be replaced.

The greatest coach in the world needs time. And he needs players, among whom Leonardo Bonucci, Alexis Sanchez and Kyle Walker are said to be on City's shopping list.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 21, 2017, with the headline 'Guardiola's City spell proving life isn't a bed of English roses'. Print Edition | Subscribe