Manchester City’s appointment and unveiling of Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola was neither normal nor run-of-the-mill, but then Guardiola is not a normal or run-of-the-mill kind of guy, or manager.
We are approaching February of 2017. This time last year – February 1, to be precise, was the day in which the Citizens announced to the world, mid-way through the season, that ‘Charming Man’ Manuel Pellegrini, nicknamed after the renowned Manchester-based band ‘The Smiths’, was to depart the Etihad Stadium in June to be replaced by ‘Enigmatic Man’ Guardiola.
That in itself was bold and some suggested less-than-charming to the Chilean, Pellegrini, but there was more to come, in the shape of a fan parade. Tickets sold out in a matter of hours, demand exceeded supply, and over 20,000 people attended the event. The title of David Conn’s excellent book suggests Manchester City are richer than God, you could be forgiven for thinking they had just hired him as well. Maybe they had.
In his first 10 competitive matches in charge, City won all 10. The critics that said the King of Catalonia was going to struggle in a ‘more competitive’ league following title wins in Spain and Germany, with Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively, looked like fools.
City were four points clear at the top of the Premier League, eight points ahead of current clear leaders Chelsea, and they had taken Europe by storm as well, winning their two qualifiers before demolishing Borussia Monchengladbach 4-0 in their opening group stage match. God. Call the sport off in September. We’re done for the year.
This had all been done with Claudio Bravo in goal too, who had been signed as part of the rebuilding process being done on the blue half of Manchester, as England number one Joe Hart, who had a disappointing European Championship with his country, was ousted and joined Italian outfit Torino on a season-long loan. Things then started to get interesting.
On September 28, Manchester City drew 3-3 in a frantic Champions League night at Celtic Park and a matter of days later Tottenham got a 2-0 win against them at White Hart Lane before City drew three of their next four games 1-1 – against Everton, Southampton, and Middlesbrough. Then you add in the fact that in that ten-match winning streak, City kept just three clean sheets and suddenly you have a scapegoat. Bravo.
Football, more often than one might think, reflects society. Wherever you look in the world of politics at the moment, people are scared of the new and the never-seen-before.
The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union – this is uncharted territory as they are the only full member state to do so – and America has elected climate change-denier, sexual assault-accused and disabled reporter-mocker Donald Trump as their President. These are scary times for those that don’t like change. Pep Guardiola is a man, albeit in a more trivial sense, that wants to change things but, regardless, people are scared.
A man that wants to play a goalkeeper that can’t keep goal, (Bravo has faced 59 shots this season and conceded 25 goals), because he wants his keeper to be his first attacker is one that opens himself up to ridicule from sections of both fans and the media. Being worshipped as the best thing to grace the Earth by those same sets of people does this as well, as does being prickly to those journalists that oh so adored you last weekend when you won 4-0 and those that don’t think you’ve proved yourself yet cannot wait for you to fail.
Initially, Guardiola was staunch of his philosophy. Bravo should be the first attacker, just like Victor Valdes was at arguably the greatest club side to grace the game, and just like Manuel Neuer was at his Bayern side and John Stones – a defender that, let’s face it, can’t really defend, should also be, and will become, the ultimate ball-playing centre back that gets City going.
In October he told journalists: “I think about that (changing), yeah but in the end the solution is not better than what I believe, so I cannot. In seven years I won 21 titles…I’m not going to change…if it’s not going well in the future I will go home.” By January, he was stating that “maybe (he) is not good enough for (his) players.”
Maybe Guardiola isn’t God after all, maybe for now he’ll have to settle for being Jesus. Establishing mega-rich Manchester City into the European elite is no miracle, but his second coming might not be too far away once his disciples and those who watch them, have understood his gospels.