Has Pep Guardiola destroyed European football?

Tomos Millward

Pep Guardiola is the greatest manager in history, but has he ruined football? Though Guardiola has coached some of the greatest teams and players of all time, he has created two of the greatest issues in the sport today. 

Firstly, football is a victim of Guardiola’s success. Pep’s dominance of domestic leagues has fed into systemic and engrained hierarchies across three of Europe’s top five leagues and, despite being ridiculed for his supposed failure on the European stage, continental dominance has perpetuated the pre-eminence of certain clubs throughout European football. These clubs are Barcelona in Spain, Bayern Munich in Germany, and Manchester City in England. He has made three of Europe’s greatest leagues boring and predictable. Add onto this PSG’s dominion in Ligue 1 and European football’s entertainment value is lower than ever when it comes to title races. 

Whilst Pep’s style may make him successful, it is not conducive to an exciting and entertaining product

Secondly, Pep’s style of football, the world’s most tactically advanced and becoming more commonly used across Europe, has become tediously predictable in recent years and erodes players’ individual expression. This removal of individuality robs football fans of a key source of entertainment and enjoyment from the game, turning players into cogs in a machine rather than individual athletes capable of making decisions independently. Whilst Pep’s style may make him successful, it is not conducive to an exciting and entertaining product. 

On the other hand, football is a sport that is meant to be won. It is not the WWE or another form of pre-determined entertainment, it is a competition. Surely, as in every endeavour, we should be constantly striving to evolve and progress the game from a tactical perspective to create even more dominant and high-level teams, just as Pep himself has done his entire career? Pep has done this more than any other manager, but football may be worse off because of it. 

League dominance 

Pep Guardiola has won a staggering number of trophies in his career. His teams have collected a combined 11 domestic league titles, 6 major domestic cup trophies, and 7 European trophies. This dominance has had a negative impact on Liga Santander, the Premier League, and the Bundesliga. Due to Pep’s success, he has created a scenario of stale and predictable title races that are detrimental to the entertainment and engagement of fans. The most significant example of this is with Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, who Pep managed for the 2013/14, 2014/15, and 2015/16 seasons.

Bayern had previously been successful in the Bundesliga, but not to the extent that Pep both demanded and achieved. In his first season he led them to their 23rd Bundesliga title at a record pace, securing the title with seven games left to play. This bested the previous record which was set by Bayern the year before. The Bavarian club also achieved the greatest winning streak in league history and contributed to a 53-match unbeaten streak. Guardiola only lost nine times out of 102 games in the Bundesliga 

As Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain have shown, financial spending is no guarantee of success

Manchester City’s dominance needs no introduction. English football fans have experienced firsthand the dull sludge through a season that inevitably ends with the Cityzens winning the league. Whilst many fans will try and attribute Guardiola’s success in England simply down to financial power, this is inaccurate. As Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain have shown, financial spending is no guarantee of success. The differential between these three clubs? Guardiola. 

Whilst more forgivable due to a multitude of factors, Guardiola’s first managerial appointment at Barcelona not only solidified the hegemony of Barcelona and Real Madrid, but also led to European-wide dominance with two UEFA Champions Leagues in four years. However, this reduction in title race entertainment is far outweighed through his creation of two of the best footballing sides of all time. 

Pep’s success and ability to build teams that dominate domestic leagues is not the sole issue here. Criticising someone for being successful is a futile and illogical argument, especially when criticism should primarily be levelled at the surrounding teams and their failure to compete, as well as the structures of each domestic league which allow these cycles of dominance to continue.

However, whilst Guardiola cannot be blamed for knowingly ruining football, the effects of his stints at Barcelona and Bayern Munich greatly entrenched the dominance of a few clubs over dozens of others, creating a less entertaining spectacle for the average fan. English fans are especially fed up with the Premier League title race becoming a foregone conclusion and a ‘farmer’s league’. Pep has tarnished much of the European footballing landscape by simply being too good. 

The removal of player’s individuality 

Pep’s rigid system of positional play has meant that players of immense talent have had to compromise their individual creativity and expression

Nonetheless, Pep’s worst crime against football’s entertainment value is his systematic destruction of player’s individual expression which reduces the visual spectacle of the game. Pep’s rigid system of positional play has meant that players of immense talent have had to compromise their individual creativity and expression in order to maintain certain positions and allow greater ball retention for the team.

One of the most notable examples of this is with Thierry Henry. When we compare Henry’s time at Arsenal with his time at Barcelona, a stark contrast emerges. Henry was given a free role under Wenger, who allowed the Premier League’s greatest player to play on the last line of the defence, drift wide, or even drop towards the halfway line to receive the ball. This tactical freedom allowed Henry to become Arsenal’s talisman and the best player in the world for multiple seasons, as well as a true entertainer and joy to watch.

Under Guardiola at Barcelona, Henry was asked to hold position out on the left wing to stretch the opposition’s backline and create space in the half spaces and central areas of the pitch to allow for attacking overloads. This system initially frustrated and confused Henry who has spoken extensively about his struggles adapting and recounting a time when Guardiola even substituted him after scoring a goal as he had left his assigned area of the pitch. Surely forcing a player of Henry’s calibre to stick to as rigid a system as this is a net negative for the footballing results? 

Jack Grealish has experienced a similar situation to Henry in recent years. Following his £100 million move to City, Grealish has been much less adventurous in his dribbling style and has sought to retain possession of the ball above all else, often playing simple passes back to his fullback or inside to a midfield player. This has agitated Premier League fans and led to ridicule as Grealish’s move seems like a flagrant waste of money, inflating the general European market, and is a waste of a player’s most entertaining and skilful attribute. 

An interesting comparison can be drawn between Guardiola and Fernando Diniz, the current Brazil manager. Upon being asked about the similarities between his playing style and Guardiola’s, Diniz stated: “Since we both like having possession, people associate my style with Guardiola’s. But that’s where it stops. The way he likes having possession is the opposite of mine. His style is positional, mine is anti-positional … players are allowed to migrate positions, the field stays more open, it’s a free-er game. In certain moments players all move together in the same parts of the field, and even within that section of the field players switch positions … Those are the key differences. (Guardiola’s players) are ‘imprisoned’ … our players are more free.”

This raises some interesting questions about what is the optimal way to play football. Whilst Guardiola has found the optimal way to win trophies, especially at Bayern Munich and Manchester City, he has sacrificed the entertaining and beautiful football he once held so dear at Barcelona 

A defence of Pep

Guardiola has created teams that play some of the greatest football the game has ever seen

Despite Guardiola’s strict adherence to positional play and the monotony of England’s current Champions, Guardiola has created teams that play some of the greatest football the game has ever seen. This is best exemplified through the 2011 UEFA Champions League final, where Barcelona bested Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United 3-1 at Wembley. This was one of, if not the, greatest performances by a footballing side of all time. Guardiola’s team were in a different stratosphere to United, dominating the ball with 63% of possession and 12 shots on target to Untied’s 1.

Away from the statistics was where the true achievement laid, however, as Barcelona rendered United and their defence ineffective through high-tempo passing and interchanges between players, winning the biggest trophy in club football whilst playing some of the most technically proficient and beautiful football of all time. Pep’s Barcelona, throughout his entire tenure, redefined modern football and played some of the most entertaining football ever witnessed.  

There is also an extremely significant exception to Guardiola’s strict position and possession-based approach in Lionel Messi. In many ways, the rigidity of Barcelona’s system allowed even greater fluidity and freedom for Messi, with wide players maintaining their width and creating space in the centre of the pitch for him to drop in from Striker as a False 9. Guardiola has been vocal in his admiration of the Argentine and has openly admitted that Messi is, simply put, above even his system.  

Returning to Henry, he has recently spoke about Messi and his role in Guardiola’s team, saying: “You have to be dumb not to understand that you need to run for this guy. So, I don’t care about ego. I don’t care about anything in my life. But, at one point I love to compete. Who can make me win? If I look in the mirror and its me, the main guy. Okay, its me. But it was Leo … I mean it was Messi’s team.” Whilst Henry is speaking about his personal realisation that he had to work even hard off the ball to allow Messi to shine, the same principles also apply to Pep’s system.

Henry’s aforementioned sacrifice by staying wide on the left wing, similarly to his undertaking of greater off-the-ball work, was a sacrifice to amplify Messi’s greatness. Messi was the exception to Guardiola’s rules and the two greats propelled that Barcelona team to the greatest heights we have seen in the game. 

Guardiola’s system is a real conundrum. He was the architect of possibly the greatest team of all time before his more recent turn towards monotonous and repetitive hegemony with Manchester City. Was the beauty of Guardiola’s football dependant on the greatest player of all time? 

The success and longevity of his managerial career has been unique and exceptional, making him the greatest of all time

Above all else, Guardiola must be admired. The success and longevity of his managerial career has been unique and exceptional, making him the greatest of all time. His obsession over minute details and ability to consistently evolve the game from a tactical perspective is bewildering, even if his football can be boring and tedious. Guardiola has undoubtedly contributed to the aridity and negative regularity of continental football, worsening the experience of the average football fan. Despite this, his footballing innovations, once magical, are a form of beauty and entertainment in themselves and have propelled modern football to never before known heights.  

Tomos Millward

Featured image courtesy of The Sport Review via Flickr. Image use license found here. No changes were made to this image.  

In article image 1 courtesy of @mancity via No changes were made to this image. 

In article image 2 courtesy of @mancity via No changes were made to this image. 

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