COMMENT: You can see it. In his media conferences. In his interaction with players. With fans. For Pep Guardiola, being a loser has been good for the Manchester City manager.
He admitted as much at the end of last season. It wasn’t for the drama. Or to create a headline. He knew it. He could physically feel it. At Bayern Munich in one club Germany. Or Barcelona in the LaLiga. He’d be gone. Last season’s stumbles with City would never have been tolerated at his previous employers.
“In my situation at a big club I’m sacked. I’m out,” declared Pep, with no hint of hysterics. “Sure. Definitely. At the clubs I worked at before I am not here [for the following season], but here we have a second chance and we will try to do it better than this season.”
For Guardiola, this was new ground. No league title. Not even a Cup. Even a top four finish was under threat for several anxious weeks. Yet, in the aftermath, the sky didn’t fall in. The world didn’t end. And we all thought the same of him as we did going into last season. And from his manner this season. His body language. Something has clearly dawned…
Guardiola has found himself in a league where he is just one of a number of great managers. It’s new ground for the Catalan. There’s now others to share the spotlight – or as Pep would see it, the burden. In Germany at Bayern, he was it. The biggest name on the touchline. And pre-Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, it was the same in Spain. Bernd Schuster? Juande Ramos? Give us a break. They couldn’t generate interest like Guardiola. Off the pitch. In the dugout. The LaLiga had only one genuine star – and it was Pep with Barca.
But in England? Even with his City flying and breaking all sorts of goalscoring records, Guardiola can see his mug dumped from the backpages for a 70 year-old Harry Redknapp sacked by Birmingham City in the division below. And the story and all the publicity around it would be legit. That’s English football. And you sense that opportunity to duck the spotlight is something Guardiola is embracing.
Mourinho’s carry on at Manchester United. The tension at Arsenal with Arsene Wenger. Even yesterday, with Antonio Conte dropping a bombshell on Chelsea and his pining for an Italy return. There is always another personality. Another club. Another hot issue. All to ease the tension and the glare. For Guardiola, after Bayern and Barca, it has to be a relief.
Yeah, he’s had his tense moments. But it’s been nothing like last season. The need. The desperate need. To list his titles won in media conferences last season now a distant memory.
Yes, there’s still the antics on the touchline – and even the tactical talk with the ball boys. But you can see he and City’s players are more comfortable with eachother. The connection is now something genuine. When the players talk of the manager, there is truthfulness to it. No longer just the droning patter of last season.
Even Sergio Aguero is buying into it. His assist for Raheem Sterling‘s goal in the romp over Crystal Palace on Saturday his third of the season – matching his record for the entire last campaign. 28 chances the Argentine created for his teammates last season – and he’s already up to 11 this time around.
And that Palace triumph equaled a 59 year-old record – with Blackburn Rovers in 1958 being the last top-flight team to score five or more goals in three games.
City, as they were last season, are at the summit staring down upon the rest of the competition.
But this time, the coverage is different. The expectations less. Guardiola hasn’t arrived to transform English football. To have tiki-taka played in every school and on every pitch in the country. To turn John Stones into Bobby Moore. Or Raheem Sterling into Leo Messi.
No, this season Guardiola is just one great manager among many. In charge of one great team competing with a half dozen more great teams for the Premier League title. That’s it. There’s nothing holistic. Nothing spiritual. He’s just a bloody good coach trying to win a bloody tough competition.
And, from the outside at least, it appears a very welcome new experience.