Heart Of Football

Pep starts his final adventure right at home with City

Pep Guardiola is not moving anywhere any time soon. Slaven Bilic might have to.

For all the speculation, born out of an interview on American television in which the Spaniard said that he will not grow old in football management, he looked and sounded like a man at the start of something grand after his Manchester City team whipped West Ham 5-0 in the FA Cup on Friday night.

The Croat wore the look of an elder, beaten by five goals at home on Friday, and by five on the same pitch against Arsenal last month.

The difference between Guardiola, 45, and Bilic, 48, is just three years. The difference between their clubs is that City are owned by Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi while West Ham are co-owned by a couple of self-made English businessmen, David Sullivan and David Gold.

And whereas the sheikh is spending what it takes to make City the best, and quite possibly the richest, club on earth, the Davids pulled a fast one by selling the Hammers traditional home in East London to rent the field and stadium built for the 2012 Olympics.

There's some similarity because City's ground, now called the Etihad, was built to host the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The stadium, like the team, has been transformed with no expense spared by the current owner.

But for West Ham, the move a handful of kilometres out of the "home" that sustained it for 111 years to make way for housing and commercial real estate, is fresher and rawer - and so far anything but home advantage.

What is clear is that he is now in a league where, most weeks, the competition is more intense than anything he has known before... The Premier League, where you are likely to be sandbagged by Leicester or West Brom, is a huge learning curve. 

Guardiola has been heavily, some might think mischievously, misinterpreted of late. His English is not yet up to scratch, and he insists that what he was trying to say on NBC television last week is that he hopes City will be his last club, and he doesn't see himself still in management at age 60.

He said other things, like City needing 10 years to catch up with Manchester United and Europe's top clubs. He now says that he wasn't meaning to compare the team or the power that City have, but rather the fact that it will indeed take a decade at least for his clubs to accrue the titles that United and Liverpool, Barcelona and Real Madrid have won.

"If people don't understand that," he said on Friday, "okay, I'm sorry. But I never said Manchester City were less than the other ones."

What is clear is that he is now in a league where, most weeks, the competition is more intense than anything he has known before. Guiding Barcelona and Lionel Messi in La Liga in the way that Johan Cruyff taught him, and then dominating the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich with Philipp Lahm and Co was a continuation of their traditions.

The Premier League, where you are likely to be sandbagged by Leicester or West Brom, is a huge learning curve.

Bilic last season was in the happy position of being an underdog. His stimulating man management had the effect of turning West Ham from a struggling side into one which, through Dimitri Payet, seemed primed to take on any big wig on their own turf, and shock them.

Payet, along with Leicester's Riyad Mahrez, were revelations last season. Responding to the coaching of Bilic and Claudio Ranieri respectively, they expressed themselves beautifully.

The tough task in England is to do that again the following year, when opponents have worked out how to track you and how to trap you.

We haven't seen much of either so far this season. Payet wasn't even on the pitch on Friday until, with the Hammers being hammered 4-0, he came on to replace the hapless Andy Carroll.

Bilic had figured that Payet was tired. This was West Ham's third game in a week, and maybe the manager reckoned that, with City's defence, Carroll's good old-fashioned aerial menace might flatten them.

The problem with that theory is you need to get the ball to the big man first. And City, with Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva conducting the show, were too slick, too quick, too clever at keeping the ball and finding the spaces for their colleagues.

That said, City put out a full Premier League line-up, changing only the goalkeeper. Guardiola is new to England, and nurtured as many have been on the romance of the FA Cup.

While Friday was light years away from the big versus minnow on which that romance is founded, it looked that way, such was City's omnipotence and West Ham's capitulation.

Both clubs are chasing January transfers: City are linked with Bayern's central defender Holger Badstuber, West Ham have been chasing (with little to spend and little encouragement) Sunderland's 33-year-old striker Jermain Defoe.

The spending disparity is writ large in those targets.

Something else that Guardiola alluded to also spoke volumes. "We controlled the game through passes," he said. "The pitch looks like it's bigger, that's the impression.

"Here in England the stadiums are close and it looks like the space is smaller. I don't know if its only an impression, and in the rain the grass was good too."

It is more than an impression. West Ham's old Boleyn field at Upton Park, measured 100m by 64m. Players could almost feel the hot breath of the fans.

The new stadium has a wide separation between the audience (the former running track) and the players run on 105m by 68m.

It is no coincidence that City's home field is the biggest in the league at 106m x 70m. Arsenal (another pass and move side) and United (who aspire to be) have similar-sized grounds as the new West Ham pitch. Evidently, the better the movement and passing a team possess, the harder it is to close them down on bigger fields.

Bilic was wet and bedraggled in his suit during Friday's downpour. At least he didn't shelter beneath an umbrella like Steve McClaren (the "Wally with a Brolly") did at Wembley when England were outclassed by Croatia there in 2008.

Croatia had a marvellous playmaker then, Luka Modric. And a bold manager - Bilic.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 08, 2017, with the headline 'Pep starts his final adventure right at home with City'. Print Edition | Subscribe