"Fraudiola" claims are ridiculous; Guardiola needs time at Man City
Well, so much for the much ballyhooed supremacy of Spanish and German football. No wonder the Barcas and Bayerns have had their way in La Liga and Bundesliga for all these years. They had virtually no competition.
Oh, sure, their opponents may have possessed some smattering of skill, but there was obviously no intensity to their play, no bone-jarring physicality, no in-your-face pressing, none of the qualities that make the Premier League such a unique challenge to a ball-hogging purist like Pep Guardiola.
I mean, if the most successful manager in history couldn't cut it on a rainy night in Leicester -- and, as it turns out, in Liverpool and London -- then what hope is there for all of the other self-styled messiahs?
Here we are, with only 17 games remaining in the season, and the man who won six league championships at a canter in Spain and Germany, not to mention the Champions League twice, has been reduced to playing spoiler in the title race when high-flying Tottenham -- wait, isn't that an oxymoron? -- bring their six-game Premier League winning streak and we-won't-collapse-two-years-in-a-row confidence to the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.
Who knows how many empty seats will greet them after Guardiola's concession speech last weekend dropped Manchester City out of contention for the prize everyone thought was guaranteed when he arrived last summer amid awe and genuflecting? It's not that Guardiola has done a bad job, it's that he failed to do what was expected of him: turn City into the greatest team on earth.
In fact, to listen to the howls of derision swirling around the English media, you'd think Guardiola's side wasn't even the greatest team in Manchester. They are but barely -- two points ahead of United -- in what is shaping up to be a fierce battle for Europa League bragging rights.
City fell 10 points behind league-leading Chelsea last weekend, when they lost their fifth league game of the season, a 4-0 beatdown that will live long in Guardiola's memory. Quick, which of these European powerhouses inflicted the heaviest defeat in the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager's career?
a) Real Madrid b) Borussia Dortmund c) Everton
The fact that the humiliation came at the hands of the Toffees and not one of the Top Six clubs, explains why Guardiola's public meltdown has triggered so much fiendish delight throughout the land. The English do not look kindly upon foreigners, who act all sniffy at the somewhat less-than-refined pedigree of their football. Such professorial disdain is exactly what Guardiola laid down a few weeks ago after City eked out a 2-1 win over Burnley. To put it mildly, his actions did little to endear him to the press.
Never one to embrace the media dance that his crosstown rival Jose Mourinho has used so cunningly to his Machiavellian advantage, Guardiola took umbrage when he was asked by a BBC reporter about Fernandinho's dismissal for a reckless challenge. Given that it was City's seventh red card of the season, the question hardly seemed out of order, yet Guardiola all but sneered at the interlocutor.
"We're the team always with more ball possession, and we always have sendings off, so we have to understand the rules in England," Guardiola said. "I know you are special."
The moment the word "special" escaped his lips, everything about Guardiola -- from his tactics, to his selections, to his ludicrously tight jeans -- was fair game. It all culminated in the pathetic capitulation to Everton, which was seen as definitive proof that the Cult of Pep had been punctured. That he was, according to the hysterical headline of one tabloid, "Fraudiola," rather than the managerial genius he was cracked up to be.
I'm sorry, but a fraud doesn't automatically win two Champions League titles in three years, even if his team contains the Holy Trinity of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. A fraud doesn't win three Bundesliga titles in a row simply because his front line boasts Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Thomas Muller.
The truth is, it takes time to adapt to the "special" challenges of the Premier League, and unlike, say, Antonio Conte, another manager new to English football this season, Guardiola didn't exactly walk into a league-winning side that essentially took a year off to get Mourinho fired, but kept its core intact.
I doubt even the Catalan's coaching idol, the great Johan Cruyff, could have fixed this aging, overpriced squad with as many mediocre players as Guardiola inherited.
Seriously, can you name any Guardiola-worthy players besides David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero? Let's face it: City's transfer policy has been a hot mess for some time. How is it possible that a club with seemingly unlimited resources can't find better defenders than a pair of Arsenal rejects, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna?
Over the last four years, more than a half billion dollars has been squandered on such dross as Raheem Sterling, Jesus Navas, Fernando, Nicolas Otamendi, Fabian Delph, Wilfried Bony, Eliaquim Mangala and Stevan Jovetic. The blame for those ridiculously expensive buys cannot be laid at Guardiola's cultured feet.
Where he is at fault, though, is in his imperious belief that he could transform many of the helpless underachievers into quality players, just as he was convinced that his two most notable recruits, John Stones and Claudio Bravo, could be made to play in a way that was totally alien to them, i.e., defending and stopping the ball from going into the goal.
In replacing Joe Hart with Bravo, all Guardiola succeeded in doing was making the Englishman look like a world-class goalkeeper, which he clearly isn't. Yet at least Hart has the physical presence and sure hands to command his penalty area, if not the ball-playing ability that is central to the philosophy of City's manager. Guardiola is all about possession-based football, and against Everton, Bravo had just that -- the four times he picked the ball out of his net.
Meanwhile, poor play-it-out-of-the-back-at-all-costs Stones, the most expensive defender in English history, who has twinkle-toed himself into a number of howlers against high-pressing opponents, finally mustered the courage to defy his manager and hoof the ball out of danger against Everton.
It will probably not help his confidence that the clearance hit his former teammate Seamus Coleman and rebounded into the path of 19-year-old Ademola Lookman, who duly scored Everton's fourth goal and placed the cherry atop City's humble pie.
Guardiola has stubbornly refused to admit that he made a mistake in acquiring either Bravo or Stones, but if I were the former I would make sure my passport was up to date.
There is so much dead wood -- possibly as many as 10 players -- to be cleared out over the summer, which Guardiola is going to have to check for termites in the City changing room. It has taken him more than half a season to realize that only high-caliber talent can execute Pep Ball to his exacting requirements.
That means players who possess the stamina to press hard for 90 minutes, the composure to wriggle out of tight spaces, the confidence to always want the ball and the mental fortitude to adjust to a dizzying amount of tactical changes on the fly.
Whether his latest recruiting coup, 19-year-old Brazilian prodigy Gabriel Jesus, has what it takes to fit into the master plan could be known sooner than later: The 19-year-old, who announced himself to the world at last summer's Olympics, has been cleared to play against Spurs.
"Projects" of the magnitude Guardiola is attempting -- to overhaul a football philosophy and turn City into a dominant European force -- don't happen in a single season. Mourinho has spent in excess of a quarter of a billion dollars to make United worth watching again, and his team is still outside the Champions League qualification spots.
Jurgen Klopp has taken two seasons, four pairs of broken glasses and an improved vertical leap to imprint his ethos on Liverpool. Mauricio Pochettino has brilliantly transformed Spurs' style in a relatively short time, but what have they won? And, of course, the Arsene Wenger Project is at 20 years and counting.
So it would be foolishly premature to judge Guardiola on the basis of his inaugural campaign in the Premier League, not that it will stop those guardians of English football who want to knock him off his know-it-all perch.
But who's willing to bet that City won't come good by next season, when we see the full-Pep? I, for one, can't wait, although I'd greatly appreciate an early return on my optimism on Saturday.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.