PEP’S RECENT STOIC BEHAVIOUR NOTHING NEW
“I SEE you don’t feel like talking today,” the Spanish TV journalist Jordi Grau put it to Pep Guardiola when attempting to extract some answers from him after a match in April 2011.
“No, not so much,” the then Barcelona manager replied. The one-sided conversation makes the Spaniard’s monosyllabic replies to the BBC’s Damian Johnson on Monday seem gushing by comparison. Guardiola bites his lip, fiddles with his nostril and does not look very far from tears as Grau offers a series of questions about Barcelona.
“Yes, they are very good,” he repeats, over and over again – the extraordinary aspect of this exchange being that his players had just beaten Shakhtar Donetsk 5-1 in a Champions League quarter-final at the time.
The point is that the terse responses to Johnson were of no surprise to seasoned Guardiola watchers. Viewed alongside the Catalan’s NBC interview on Monday, in which he said he might be three years away from retirement, they appear superficially to be the signs of a man failing under the pressure of English football. They are actually just a fairly standard melodrama from an extremely intense individual whose flaw, you might say, is a tendency to over-think the game. Indeed, it is why his relationships with players have not always been good. Just ask Lionel Messi. There were all the usual mannerisms of the tortured Guardiola, pictured, in Monday’s interviews – the hand across the forehead; the widening eyes – and this, like the Grau encounter, after a win – against Burnley. Little wonder that this man needed a full year’s sabbatical after three years of battles with Jose Mourinho, the only individual capable of provoking Guardiola into full, on-screen meltdown. Yet when the dust had settled on a difficult Christmas programme, on Tuesday, the word from the Guardiola camp was more positive than the 45-year-old’s external demeanour had suggested: namely that he feels the challenge of the Premier League is a marathon not a sprint and that he is upbeat, despite trailing leaders Chelsea by a distance.
The numbers suggest he has reason to feel that way. A Gracenote Sports assessment of the Premier League clubs’ season comparative results (SCoRe) – comparing results in the exact same fixtures as 2015/16 – reveals that Guardiola are three points better off this season than last. The problem is Chelsea and Liverpool, who are 29 and 14 points better off respectively on the SCoRe index.
Guardiola is not flourishing in all the ways that we might have expected, though. As an individual who arrived at Bayern Munich with such excellent German, honed during his sabbatical, it was perhaps expected that his English would have been better than it is, by now.
Irrelevant to his footballing success though it may be, he is still conquering the language. He couldn’t locate the word “foul” in interviews at the weekend, confusing it with the Spanish “falta” and using “fault” instead. That created a confused impression of his complaint that Claudio Bravo had been done an injustice.
We can assume that his biggest frustration resides in the transfer market, which failed to deliver him the defenders he identified last summer as the prime requirement. He is not a big fan of Nicolas Otamendi and always knew that there were uncertainties about Vincent Kompany’s on-going fitness, so the pursuit of Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci, Athletic Bilbao’s Aymeric Laporte and Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin were important. None of the targets came to fruition.
Those close to the Spaniard say it was something of a surprise to him when City won their first 10 games. Look beyond the surface gloss of what he has said this weekend – “I am reaching the end of my coaching career, of this I am sure. I will not be on this bench when I am 60” – and you see that these words do not necessarily signify anything.
Given that he is 15 years away from the age of 60, it is hardly a declaration of imminent departure. City want Guardiola to make them a “project” and would be delighted if he stayed until 55. Where else is there actually to go after City, anyway? Spain and Germany are countries he has done. There is only Italy left. The Middle East would offer riches but none of the professional stimulation such an intense individual as this will always require.
It was a measure of the emotion at Guardiola’s core that when he struggled in the early weeks at Barcelona in 2008, losing 1-0 in Soria against Numancia on the opening day of the season, then drawing 1-1 against Racing Santander, the arrival of Andres Iniesta at his door, to offer support, overwhelmed him.
“People usually think it is the coach who has to raise the spirits of his players; that it is the coach who has to convince his players; that it is his job to lead all the time,” Guardiola tells the authors of The Artist, Iniesta’s fine autobiography. “But in truth, he’s the weakest link. We’re there, vulnerable, undermined by those who don’t play, by the media, by the fans. They all have the same objective: to undermine the manager.” – The Independent