Pep Guardiola and the pursuit of perfection
Pep Guardiola doesn’t demand much of his players - just perfection
Pep Guardiola doesn’t demand much of his players - just perfection.
“What I want, my desire, is to have 100 percent possession,” he said after his team had just completed a comprehensive 5-1 aggregate win over Arsenal in the Champions League last season. It’s unclear if he said that tongue-in-cheek.
This will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Guardiola’s managerial career since taking over at Barcelona in 2008. At the Camp Nou and then at Bayern Munich, his philosophy has been to starve the opposition of the ball. Ever the perfectionist, his obsession with jealously keeping hold of the ball is legendary and he treats loss of possession as an affront to his ideals.
Football remains the most imperfect of sports and statistics, sometimes hugely impressive on paper, can mask the truth. In their dismal 2-0 defeat at Burnley earlier this season, Liverpool managed an ultimately pointless 81 percent possession and 26 shots.
A manager may set out to win every match, but while perfection is something to idealistically target, in real life it is inevitably unattainable.
Guardiola, however, is giving it a pretty good shot.
A perfect start
The start of his reign at Manchester City has been, in terms of performance, spectacular; in terms of results, perfect.
Six Premier league wins, three in the Champions league and one in the League Cup. Twenty-nine goals have been scored in 10 matches, only six conceded. Last season, Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City started the season with five straight wins before inconsistency set in. This has been surpassed with some ease.
Guardiola could even break City’s record of 12 consecutive wins in his first 12 matches. And it’s not just in results that Guardiola craves perfection. He demands improvements of even the most consistent of players and barring a few exceptions, they have all answered the call.
Kevin de Bruyne, the team’s best player during the last campaign, has been the outstanding player of the admittedly fledgling Premier League season.
Raheem Sterling, as has been pointed out endlessly, looks a different player both physically and mentally under Guardiola, who has pulled off the double trick of making the England international a better and, to his army of critics, more likeable player in a ridiculously short period of time.
Guardiola believes he can even improve the Premier League’s best player of the last few years, Sergio Aguero.
You get the feeling Guardiola thinks that the Godfather fell short of expectations; John, Paul, George and Ringo could have made something of their careers if they really applied themselves; and kittens really should work on their cuteness.
The trophy hoarder
So what are the limits of what Guardiola’s team can achieve this season?
When, in the aftermath of a 4-0 win over Bournemouth, it was suggested to Guardiola by a member of the typically overzealous English media that his team could win the quadruple, his reaction was one of barely concealed exasperation.
Yet such is his quixotic zeal for perfection, it’s hard to imagine he will not seek to win every single match, every single competition. Guardiola may prioritize the Premier League and Champions League in private, but he will certainly not sacrifice any matches in the so-called lesser competitions as other managers continue to do. And with such a formidable squad, why would he?
He also has previous experience when it comes to hoarding trophies. In his first season at Barcelona, when his team often flirted with football perfection, he won the Champions League (at, 38, he was the youngest manager to pull off the feat), La Liga and the Copa del Rey. The Spanish Super Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup followed. A record trophy haul, in record time.
At Bayern, he won the Bundesliga, the German Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup in his first season. So lofty were the public’s and his own expectations that many wrongly perceive his obscenely successful time in Germany as anti-climatic due to his failure to land the Champions League.
At Manchester City, it is the Champions League that will present the most formidable challenge this season, with many experts hastily calling the Premier league a forgone conclusion after only six matches.
Champions League ambitions
Manchester City have been improving in Europe’s premier competition over recent years, but not enough to be considered one of the favorites. Yet.
However, the swagger with which they annihilated Borussia Mönchengladbach 4-0 in Matchday 1 suggests the manager has his team believing progress is inevitable, even in a group that contains his former club Barcelona.
On Wednesday, Manchester City will face Celtic in Glasgow and will, rightly or wrongly, be expected to swat aside a team humiliated 7-0 by Barcelona.
That would make it 11 wins out of 11 for Guardiola, with what already seems like an epic clash against a superb Tottenham team up next at the Etihad Stadium. A win there would make it a remarkable 12 in a row, and yet another record, in record time of course. A perfect start.
Guardiola naturally will not tolerate discussions of perfect records or quadruples, something that in all likelihood will not happen. Yet the standards he has already set will not stop others from contemplating the possibility. It’s frightening for his rivals that he believes his team can improve considerably on their current irresistible form.
As fellow Spaniard and dreamer Miguel de Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote: “Thou hast seen nothing yet.”