The Star Early Edition - - FRONT PAGE - IAN HER­BERT

“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

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