The Great Guardiola Gamble

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

First published on SB NATION, 2 March 2012

It’s a funny term, “the People’s Choice”. I don’t remember voting, and the suspicion remains that many of the people in question have chosen Harry Redknapp out of a combination of sentimentality, a desire to kick against his predecessor, and a simple lack of options, like a man choosing to have a cup of tea having decided that tea is the best, it’s proper and English and what he’ll be most comfortable with, and that the coffee’s too expensive and there isn’t any anyway. An actual vote would probably be less conclusive, and might well see England led into Euro 2012 by One Direction.

(Yep, that’s a joke about a band I’ve never heard, following their victory in an awards ceremony I didn’t watch.)

Before England lost to Holland on Wednesday night, it emerged that while Redknapp may be the choice of (some) of the people (who write for some of the newspapers), the FA were looking at other options as well, which seems unusually sensible for them. And now, with the tremors from thatArsenal game fresh in everybody’s mind, and Redknapp apparently going a little cold on the idea, it appears that two names in particular are making what looked to be the shortest of shortlists longer: José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola.

Stop laughing!

As Daniel Taylor has pointed out in the Guardian, the FA have never shied away from tilting at names that might at first blush seem a little, shall we say, unlikely; indeed, Don Fabio Capello himself probably fell into that category at one point. And deep pockets will get your calls answered — why do you think they change the shirt every eleven games and charge £4.30 for a pint of Carlsberg at New Wembley? You’re overpaying so that the FA can overpay.

Let’s entertain the possibilities for a while. Mourinho would obviously be both hilarious and brilliant, and if he is going to leave Real Madrid at the end of the season, then the FA would be exceeding even their own usual standards of handcackery not to sound him out. I’m sure Umbro can knock out a white bodywarmer with red trim in fairly short order.

Guardiola, though, is more interesting, if probably less likely. It is generally presumed that he will be leaving Barcelona relatively soon, and his insistence on only signing one-year contract extensions — his current deal ends at the end of this season — means that there’s no administrative obstruction. Sid Lowe has cited “those close to him” as saying that this season, his fourth, will probably be his last, perhaps followed by a sabbatical. Again, the FA would be fools not to ask, and they’ll do so with a tiny sliver of hope: not only is Guardiola on the record as a fan of English football, but as a player he agreed in principle a move to — and you’ll like this — Paul Jewell’sWigan Athletic, before in the end joining Mexican side Dorados.

It’s hard to argue with three titles and two European Cups in three seasons, and for all that Madrid look to have this year’s title safely in hand, the Catalan side remain favourites for the European Cup. Yet there remains a question over Guardiola: could he do it anywhere else?

I hope it’s not controversial to suggest the reputation of every great manager is built on their ability to manipulate what they have been given, or been able to take. And Guardiola has been given a club that respects him, fans that adore him, plenty of cash, three of the five best players in the world, a squad largely raised from childhood to play the football he believes in, and a domestic competition skewed helplessly in favour of the duopoly in which he resides. You don’t have to buy into the dream of the marketing men from Nike and Qatar to recognise that Barcelona are a unique proposition in a lot of ways, and while none of that makes his job easy, it does make the job a specific kind of difficult.

The FA, by contrast, can offer him a cynical and vicious press, players that concede a significant technical advantage to their international rivals, an office with a nice view of Brent, and a lot of free Premier League football. It might be tempting to envision Guardiola leading some kind of technical revolution through the overgrown roots of the game — the skinny-tied saviour striding through Hackney marshes, children tiki-taka-ing around him — but that kind of reconstructive surgery is a job for administrators, not managers. Germany’s recent reflowering wasn’t simply down to the summer of Löw, but to the post-Euro 96 reforms of the structure of German football.

Add to that the distinct rhythm of international football: long slow periods of nothing but scouting and planning, interspersed with a week here and two weeks there of actual management, and then, every two years, as intense a month as the game can throw at you. Even without presuming to predict how Guardiola might cope with the change personally — and I’ve long suspected that the Capello Index was simply a consequence of boredom — it is a fact that many of the skills of club managers are less relevant or even irrelevant at international level, for the simple reason that your player pool is curtailed, your planning is more long-term and so less precise, and your time with the squad is truncated.

If we’re honest, the idea of Guardiola taking on the England job is a little bit ludicrous, particularly straight after an experience as draining and emotional as Barca. While football loves a ludicrous idea — Fabio Capello? England? — we can probably rule this one out. But the questions remains: Guardiola is almost as Barcelona a person as can be, and the contrast with Mourinho is stark. The Portuguese’s CV demonstrates versatility and adaptability as well as genius, albeit only in the presence of significant amounts of cash and with a trail of scorched earth behind him. Guardiola’s CV, by contrast, demonstrates exceptional achievement in just one, exceptional circumstance.

As you may have heard, Andre Villas-Boas gave an interview to the Portuguese media earlier this week. While the British press went to town on his comments regarding Chelsea, his job security, Roman Abramovich, and all that good stuff you need to keep a crisis rumbling, tucked away as well was a rather cute description of Guardiola: “Barça’s game represents a state of soul that shows Guardiola himself, a coach-fan who was player-captain”.

That’s the question. Can he do it outside that state of soul, as a manager at a club that he never supported or captained, outside of the environment he was nurtured by and has, in his turn, nurtured. Mourinho does what he does, and is brilliant, and we know he could probably do it anywhere. Guardiola, on the other hand, while he’ll be able to pick his job when he leaves the Nou camp, represents a gamble slightly larger than you’d expect from a man who has won nearly three-quarters of the games he’s ever managed. Guardiola’s answers to the questions of Barcelona have been nearly perfect. Whether he will know the answers for England, or Manchester United, or Arsenal or Wigan or whoever, is surprisingly hard to predict.


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