Is Pep Guardiola over-rated? When he’s operating from a position of overwhelming financial and player superiority, as has been the case for most of his career, no-one is better. His dominant Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City sides didn’t just win, they did so with a unique stylishness and élan.
Yet when Guardiola’s teams meet sides of the same calibre as themselves the story can be different. Witness his failure to win the Champions League with Bayern and with Manchester City so far. In the biggest competition of all he’s drawn a blank eight years in a row.
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Guardiola was undoubtedly the best manager in the world when Barca won the Champions League in 2009 and 2011 but it may be the case that, like Jose Mourinho, his powers are not what they were.
Anfield has been a bugbear for Guardiola in the past and was again yesterday as Liverpool moved nine points clear of City and eight clear of second-placed Leicester.
Perhaps that’s significant because it’s the one ground where visiting teams are never allowed to get into their comfort zone and must battle their way to a result. City have failed to do this in the past and failed again yesterday.
This particular defeat raised questions about the use Guardiola has made of City’s financial resources. Because, after all the money they’ve spent, the visitors ended up with a back five which seemed vulnerable every time Liverpool exerted pressure.
It contained a goalie, Claudio Bravo, who plays like an outfield player pressed into service, John Stones who’s a kind of poor man’s Harry Maguire, a converted midfielder in Fernandinho and a left-back Angelino whose defensive frailty was exploited time and again by Liverpool.
Much has been made of the absence through injury of Aymeric Laporte and Ederson. Yet sitting on City’s bench yesterday were two of the world’s seven most expensive defenders, Joao Cancelo and Benjamin Mendy who cost a combined €123m between them. That neither player was judged worth a start in City’s rickety back-four raises question marks over either Guardiola’s selectorial judgement or financial acumen. Maybe both.
Meanwhile, Liverpool fielded perhaps the two best full-backs in the Premier League, Andy Robertson who cost £8m from Hull City and Trent Alexander-Arnold who, being a home-grown product, cost nothing at all.
Both players have improved hugely under the tutelage of Jurgen Klopp. They had to because Liverpool weren’t in a position to go out and buy ready-made big money starters for every position.
Klopp has spent big over the past couple of seasons but Liverpool got into a challenging position because of his ability to coax career best performances from the likes of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah.
They may be superstars now but Mane and Firmino together cost Liverpool as much as City spent on Riyad Mahrez, another bench-warmer yesterday.
Could Guardiola be a luxury manager? Contrast his career path with that of his opposite number at Anfield. Guardiola’s first job was at Barcelona where he inherited a team packed with world class players.
Klopp, by comparison, spent his first eight seasons as manager with Mainz, taking over a team stuck in the second flight of German football and tasting both promotion to and relegation from the Bundesliga.
Borussia Dortmund were an upgrade but Klopp had to break the dominance of a Bayern Munich team with enormous financial advantages. It’s proved a good rehearsal as he tries to do the same to City. Klopp’s path is the usual one followed by managers, Alex Ferguson began with St Mirren, Arsene Wenger with Nancy, Antonio Conte with Arezzo.
From this point of view Guardiola is something of an anomaly. His has been an aristocratic football life, far from the plebeian worries which affect managers at other clubs, like the ones Klopp has dealt with so brilliantly. This has had its advantages in terms of confidence but you wonder if it might not have been the best preparation for overcoming adversity.
Guardiola’s complaints about the VAR decision which confirmed Michael Oliver’s refusal to award a penalty against Alexander-Arnold were understandable.
Yet there was the sense of a man creating a smokescreen in order to hide his team’s failings. No-one could really claim that the decision cost City victory and the accidental handball by Bernardo Silva a moment earlier might well have led to VAR overturning the penalty had Oliver awarded it.
You wonder what effect it had on the players to see Guardiola obviously losing the head on the sideline over that and subsequent decisions.
He seemed like a man who’d taken the decision to be out of control. He seemed, and this is a problem with an aristocratic upbringing, like a bit of a spoilt brat.
For all his words in praise of his opposite number you sense that Klopp feels he has Guardiola’s number now. It will require a collapse of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle-type proportions from Liverpool for City to retain their title now. They could even become involved in a struggle for second place.
That’s a kind of struggle Guardiola isn’t used to. You wonder if it’s even the challenge he’d relish or if, as he did at Bayern when Champions League failed to arrive, he’d move on if things weren’t going exactly to plan at City.
Liverpool’s victory was sealed by a Mané goal which owed everything to a magnificent Jordan Henderson cross.
There was a time when Henderson was best known as a punchline in Alex Ferguson’s autobiography. The type of technical skill he showed yesterday was something he wouldn’t have been thought capable of back then.
That’s what Klopp has done throughout his career with unpromising material. Guardiola has never had to deal with players like Jordan Henderson.
Maybe it might have been better for him if he had. Just once . . . just for the novelty of it. Just so he learned how to win when the odds are against you. The experience would be invaluable now.
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