It's unfair to resent Man City because Pep Guardiola has perfected football
Manchester City appear to be pulling away and heading towards another Premier League title triumph. UK columnist ALEX KEBLE reflects on the unrelenting brilliance of Pep Guardiola and his impact on English football.
We are living in the age of Manchester City. They are gliding towards a fourth Premier League title in five years, the next four months mere ceremony; a king waving to the peasant crowd. This is a dynasty, an almost perfect half-decade that surpasses anything Sir Alex Ferguson achieved in the same time frame.
There is certainly a regal air to Pep Guardiola’s team, a grace to how they rule English football. But there is also something distinctly dull. Man City are too exacting in the science to be edgy; beautiful but sterile. If how sport makes us feel is semi-adjacent to art then Man City is like photo-realism: impressive but cold, the favoured style of the crypto-investing type, the uncle who doesn’t see the value in painting now we have 8K cameras on our iPhones.
Too harsh? Perhaps that view simply reflects how bitter and bored we are of the same outcome every year. Nobody likes a winner, and just as Ferguson has been warmly celebrated as he turns 80 this week, despite everyone pretty much hating Manchester United when they were winning everything, maybe in years to come we will drool over historic footage of Guardiola’s side.
They certainly deserve praise. There is a good chance Man City will come close to 100 points for the third time under Guardiola. A Champions League win feels increasingly likely this year, given how close they came last season. 11 consecutive wins without going behind, fearlessly racked up despite what had looked like tremendous pressure from Liverpool and Chelsea, is to be applauded.
And even putting to one side the extraordinary points tallies and tangible achievements, Guardiola has reshaped English football to prove he is one of the all-time great tactical innovators – possibly the best we’ve ever seen. It’s easy to forget just how badly the Premier League lagged behind in 2016, the hopelessly-vague patterns on display like a park kickabout in comparison to what was developing in mainland Europe. In no other climate could Leicester City have won a title.
Before Guardiola there was no hard pressing or high lines, no positional discipline in possession, no talk of half-spaces or acknowledgement of pre-set attacking moves. There were certainly no free eights and no inverted full-backs, the latter a revolution over the last couple of years that proves Guardiola is still creating, still changing the very shape of the sport.
If City fail to excite that’s because their manager has perfected football. And it’s hardly fair to criticise him for being too good, although that is essentially what people are doing when they claim Man City’s success under Guardiola is the result of their wealth alone. It’s worth noting Chelsea’s periods of dominance didn’t receive quite the same scrutiny despite similar financial doping, most likely because they strained and suffered for their success; they exhilarated us with power surges and crises: they played the game.
By contrast, the absence of raw individual expression – not to mention peril – at Man City has created a sense of roboticism. And while distance from the present might breed a more sentimental view of the Guardiola empire, there is certainly no guarantee that Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling will ever evoke the same romantic nostalgia as Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard, or even the icons of the Roberto Mancini years: Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany, Mario Balotelli.
Or perhaps this whole thing is backwards. It’s possible City only appear robotic because they so often win the title by a huge margin, and only appear machine-like because we have decided it is so. Because one thing particularly interesting about the 2021/22 season is that despite the accepted narrative City have shown plenty of vulnerability.
Had Arsenal not imploded, the post-match analysis would have focused on how unsettled City looked on Saturday. In the weeks before, Brentford, Aston Villa, and Wolves all made Guardiola’s team look wobbly or passive, and all three were unlucky not to take a point. The league table could have looked dramatically different, the conversation turning to an anxious Pep presiding over a City side looking soft and striker-less.
Depending on your interpretation games like these, shaky 1-0 wins, are a sign of champions winning ugly or just blind luck, and while there is no right answer it should be acknowledged that the two are intimately linked. By being so good Man City invoke fear and resignation, hence why Granit Xhaka will panic in the box or a referee will assume the City player was in control of a tight penalty call. The strength of a dynasty is built on its psychological stranglehold on the public as much as its actual ability to defend itself.
This is just what happens when you bend the entire world to your will. The story unfolds as if predetermined, even though the margins are finer than they appeared, and the football starts to look formulaic even though it’s actually astonishing skill crafted moment to moment. In the Premier League it has created a feeling of boredom that sees Guardiola continue to go weirdly under the radar, his success lost amid more interesting stories developing elsewhere.
It’s striking how the thrilling, breathless 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Liverpool on Sunday evening felt like the title battle we deserved. Only when we came up for air in the final 20 minutes, and reality came rushing back, did anyone recall that a draw was useless. This would have been one of the all-time great Premier League matches - if only Man City didn’t exist.
Maybe willing for Man City’s annihilation is just resentment borne from their endless success and the absence of real competition. But maybe it points to something deeper, to a feeling that some essential energy has drained out of the Premier League; that Guardiola’s football slips through the fingers, lacking the urgency, the blood and sweat and pain, that we demand of Premier League icons.