Josep (Pep) Guardiola is the latest in an ever-growing list of potential replacements for the great Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, despite the fact that earlier in the season the Scot expressed his desire to see out another three years at the Theatre of Dreams. But is Guardiola suited to the way of life at Carrington, or is the United model – if one exists – too distinct from its Catalonian counterpart?
I say at present because times are ever-changing in football. After the 2010 World Cup, many were calling for Fabio Capello’s head at England and for the appointment of the wise Roy Hodgson who had utterly transformed Fulham from relegation certainties to European Power. Only eighteen months later, Capello has resigned and Hodgson is no longer in contention due to the steady rise of Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham and the torrid time Hodgson suffered at Anfield. Another case in point would be Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard two years ago was on the shortlist of potential successors at Manchester United having almost brought Liverpool their first league title since the late 1980s, and an unlikely two Champions League finals – one of which they famously won. This came off the back of his impressive record with Valencia, with two domestic titles and a UEFA Cup to his name. However, a turbulent end to his Liverpool tenure as the American money dried up and certain big money signings turned out to be rather average – Dirk Kuyt, Ryan Babel step forward. This Benitez’s stock plummet, a fall that was only compounded by a disastrous few months at Internazionale while attempting to succeed the treble-winning Jose Mourinho. One could argue that Benitez’s reputation has never been lower.
At the present moment Guardiola would appear to be a wise choice: he is young, articulate and not the PR disaster that Mourinho has often proved. Moreover, Guardiola has arguably built the greatest side in club history with two Champions Leagues in the past three years and the Catalans are hot favourites this season to be the first club ever to retain the European Cup in the Champions League era. On arrival at Barcelona he proved his willingness to make so-called ‘big’ decisions in a way that someone like Andre Villas-Boas has perhaps failed to do at Chelsea. Guardiola immediately sold off the aging Ronaldinho, Deco and Edmilson, all of whom were European champions under predecessor Frank Rijkaard. This ruthless streak was extended a year later to Samuel Eto’o, who the young Spaniard had wanted to sell the previous summer, as he was offloaded to Inter in a swap plus forty million euro deal that saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic moving to Camp Nou. In similar fashion, the often underwhelming Swede was shown the door a year later after a poor season and due to Guardiola’s belief that he was a disruptive influence within the squad á la Eto’o. Perhaps the most persuasive argument in support of Guardiola’s candidacy would be the brand of football that los Cules play. Barcelona play a brand of football that is the envy of the footballing world, a coexistence of elegance and penetration that no one – Swansea’s Leon Brittain aside – can match.
The style in which Barcelona play, however, could also be his candidacy’s undoing. It cannot be forgotten that at the Camp Nou Guardiola has Lionel Messi, the world’ s finest player; Xavi, the world greatest creator; and Gerard Pique, arguably the world’s best centre-half. These players would not follow him to Manchester. Furthermore all three, as with many others from this great Barcelona outfit (Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Fabregas, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Alcantara to name a few), are products of the club’s own youth set up and carry that club-specific ethos. Is it not possible that Guardiola, a man himself cut from the Catalan cloth, is great with that team because he has been brought up with an ethos that the majority of his team have also been raised with and that this synergy is only possible in this one place? Is it not Barcelona rather than Guardiola that allow los Cules to play the way that they do and to such a high level of success? Would Guardiola really be able to reproduce the footballing utopia somewhere else where that ethos and culture is not endemic within the club’s fabric? I suggest not.
Those who disagree of course would ask why Guardiola’s record is so much better than the likes of Antic, de la Cruz, van Gaal, Rexach and Serra before him, all of whom were trophyless. Every now and then someone manages Barcelona who appreciates the culture at Barcelona. Guardiola flourished as Cruyff did before him because as a player he learned the Catalan way and as a manager he merely allowed it to flourish. Of Guardiola’s Champions League final side from last season, seven of the eleven were academy graduates; even of Rijkaard’s Champions League-winning XI there were only three – Valdes, Oleguer and Puyol.
Manchester United too it would seem have a formula for success of their own. United have made their reputation on two successful eras, those of Sir Matt Busby and Ferguson. Other than these periods the red half of Manchester has been largely unsuccessful. The United system tends to involve the purchase of young, talented and hard-working individuals, the latter being paramount as the recent sale of Ravel Morrison to West Ham would suggest. While Busby had his ‘babes’ and ‘holy trinity’, Ferguson had his ‘class of 92’ and ‘Giggs-Scholes-Rooney axis’. It is interesting that at the weekend Ferguson compared Paul Lambert’s Norwich City to his own Aberdeen of the 1980s as Lambert is certainly one that fits the hard but fair Scottish mould that has defined Manchester United for over half a century. As Busby selected and guided Ferguson as a man cut from the same cloth, so too will Ferguson come 2014-5, by which time the more likely answer will be Lambert rather than Moyes. Is Ferguson likely to recommend that the club sell-out of his age-old and only successful policy? I think not, not if Ferguson’s opinion is respected as we are led to believe it will be. To that end, Guardiola is an unlikely choice and even so, probably an illogical one as well.