Pep Guardiola - A Victim Of The Hype Machine

By Howard Hockin | 09 July 2020
Howard looks at how the hype for Pep Guardiola has put him in a no-win situation, and open to plenty of criticism.

When Pep Guardiola joined Manchester City way back in 2016, there was a lot of hype. Some of it even fatigued me, amongst the giddiness. It was no surprise therefore at the glee that followed his debut season, the satisfaction of many of Fleet Street’s old guard that the Premier League had defeated this fancy dan, with his tactics, intensity and low BMI. You don’t just waltz into this league and show it who’s boss. It shows you. And then you beg for forgiveness, manically scratching your head in the process. Huge resources and a glorious reputation is a backlash waiting to happen.

As you probably know by now, Pep soon got the hang of things, as 198 points in two seasons suggests. But now, those early days are remembered by me, because Pep has failed to win the league once more. And I got to thinking about the perception of Pep, and that of rival managers, one in particular, when my sole Liverpool-supporting Twitter follower wondered why Pep does not attract more column inches for his failure this season in the Premier League. He also wondered if it was due to club size, whilst considering the attention such a failure would attract if he managed United, Liverpool, or even Arsenal?

I won’t linger on the most tedious of topics, club size, but it is relevant to mention that in an era of newspapers almost surviving on website clicks alone, that how certain clubs are covered and written about is varied and a real thing, and it is influenced greatly by how many fans they have. But for me, the bigger question is whether Pep has really escaped column inches for a league campaign that has underwhelmed us all. The idea that he is not talked or written about, along with his club, is laughable. But more to the point, the thought that entered my head immediately after was this: why isn’t Jurgen Klopp judged to the same standards?

Of course, one of the main problems in writing anything critical about these two enigmatic and successful men is that neither is ever getting sacked, so what purpose do these column inches serve? Well, journalists are perfectly entitled to express an opinion of course. We all have space to fill, content to produce. But as Ste Tudor mentioned on a podcast this week, without an angle there’s little point in such columns. With the rumours of Pep leaving now gone, what really is there to say except “could do better?” Columns need a set point, a reason to exist beyond mere criticism, though a two-year European ban would do the trick. If Jonathan Wilson cannot tie in Gabriel Jesus missing a chance at the far post with the Epicurean desire for tranquillity amongst hedonism, then us writers are all done for.

Anyway, is Pep not getting column inches? Miguel Delaney wrote on the topic recently, so I’m told. Have people scoured the entire internet to collate a figure? Or have they just decided themselves that nothing has been written because nothing has shown up on their Twitter timeline, and now state that as a fact? I’ll assume it is the latter, considering I recall Stan Collymore (who else?) writing about how Klopp is superior to Pep just a week or so ago. Maybe when imbeciles with a chip on their shoulder produce column inches, it doesn’t matter. And as I only know of this article’s existence after it was pulled apart by someone else, I cannot begin to imagine how many other pieces could be out there that do not cross my path.

Here’s a fun fact for you. Jurgen Klopp has failed in three of the four competitions his team has entered this season. In two of those four, he has failed in them every season he has been at the club. In fact, he seems to have little intention in succeeding. Such an approach from such big teams undermines those very competitions, whether or not the approach is justified. Or maybe the approach is a symptom of their existing problems. His disdain for them would infuriate me as a fan, and yet he seems immune from criticism.  It seems trying and failing in a competition is somehow worse than never trying in the first place. Either way, how many inches have been written about this, to my limited knowledge? One, and you’re reading it now. Not one other person, not one column, have I seen written about Klopp failing.  Again though, I may not have seen all these articles. There was criticism earlier in the season for playing “the kids”, the first time I’ve seen criticism directed his way. Meanwhile, Pep is criticised by one journalist for being disrespectful for playing a strong side against Burton and scoring too many goals against them. Now criticising Jurgen right now would be rather ridiculous currently would it not, after securing Liverpool’s first league title in 30 years, with over a 20 point lead. Correct. But was anything written back in March? I don’t think he deserved any, but hey, if the shoe fits for Pep…….

And if the shoe does fit, then there should be criticism for Klopp’s’ failure in the Champions League in the same way Pep is for his league failure? Or does that not count? Does going out as holders in the round of 16 not count as the worst defence of a “title” just as City’s current league campaign does? Many a Liverpool fan last season was only too keen to proclaim that the Champions League was the ultimate test, and the ultimate trophy. By winning that, and then the Club World Cup, they could rightly be called the greatest team in the world. So by that reckoning, they can no longer be called that. The lock down of football was well timed not only to delay Liverpool’s crowning as league champions, but also for us all to forget their failure in Europe’s premier cup competition. But no, conveniently, it now seems the rules have changed. Now, it is the league campaign that is the true barometer of success, except when City won it then retained it, when the main topic of conversation was the death of competitive football.

Truth is, there is no best team in the world. No fan base can claim their team to be so. It cannot be decided by a cup competition. Only a European super league could decide such a thing, and none of us want that (the best team surely being a European one). The best teams, it is generally accepted, win their league, but the best team does not always win a cup competition. That is why Wigan can win the FA Cup and still be relegated. That is why many a Champions League winner did not win their domestic league the same season.

Pep Guardiola can still win a treble (not THE treble). If City win the Champions League, the season assessment must be rewritten. There can be no talk of failure as there was not for Klopp last season, or do we have to factor in net spend at this juncture to truly evaluate? Spending will be used as a key argument in all of this – after all, Liverpool have merely been spending the Coutinho money for over two decades now. Pep has more tools with which to succeed. Liverpool have the league in the bag. City are a long way off winning the Champions League and have only done half the job on Real Madrid. They may go out at the same stage as Liverpool. Ifs, buts and maybes. And that’s why it is better to write obituaries after people have died.
Pep has spent big but needed to, considering just how jaded and underwhelming the squad he took over (despite what many rival fans may claim). A lot of money really helps managers to succeed, but as we see across the city, it takes more than that. There are murmurings that United might be about to challenge City once more, due to a long unbeaten run that sees them still 11 points behind a City team that has under-performed and lost 9 league games. City will undoubtedly finish above United for the 7th year in succession. Levels.

Pep Talk

Have no doubt, Pep deserves criticism. And he’s paid enough, man enough, and self-aware enough to take it. This is not some “the media are against us” tin foil hat piece that bemoans City’s coverage. In over 50 podcasts we have done this season, Pep has come in for a lot of criticism from us. He has from many fans online too. Baffling tactics, playing time for Phil Foden, his role in City not strengthening the squad in key positions, especially in defence, and his woeful and inappropriate response to the Bernardo Silva tweet, though you may not agree with me on that one. There’s loads more we have questioned this season alone, with the caveat that he knows a thousand times more about football than any of us ever will. He gets it in the neck from his own fan base most weeks the second the team sheet is announced.

City will finish 2nd in the league. This will be the case whether they get 80 or 95 points. I guess a pertinent question is whether Pep deserves more criticism for getting 80 points than 95 points? Does he deserve more flak for losing 9 games instead of 4, if the end result is the same, position wise? To some extent he does, but with the league essentially lost by the New Year, there is a caveat that attention and priorities may have focused elsewhere, intensity levels dropping with the knowledge that it was all a lost cause. We will never know, but Pep certainly deserves criticism for some of his decisions. I’ve considered a where did it all go wrong piece myself, which would include my confusion at some of Pep’s actions, but would it tell you anything you don’t already know? Not replacing Vinny, profligacy, double pivots, endless crossing, key injuries blah blah blah…..

Yet more questions. Is Pep a failure? Is 6 out of 7 domestic trophies not good enough? Is he defined by Champions League failures instead? Can any manager guarantee any team a Champions League trophy when, despite Pep’s past overthinking in key matches, it often comes down to the players, key decisions and moments by them, and the finest of fine lines? After all, City have exited the competition twice despite having not been outscored by the opposition. Is Pep to blame for the vagaries of VAR, wrongly disallowed goals, offsides not spotted, penalties not awarded and more, or is this all a smokescreen for his own tactical failings in key matches? You can no doubt make up your own mind. It is almost as if not everything in football is black or white, in fact it rarely is. Nuance is sadly missing in much coverage.

Of course, Jurgen Klopp deserves no criticism right now, having dragged Liverpool to European and domestic success. But again, why were there not more column inches after that defeat to Atletico Madrid? I guess the answer may not just lie in the way certain managers are treated differently to others, but also the tacit acknowledgement that league performance is the bread and butter of assessing the worth of a manager, not a cup competition when one false move can prove fatal. And maybe that is the end point for my initial question, and my inane ramblings. That criticism is deserved for underwhelming in a league campaign more than it is in any cup competition.
Phew, I got there in the end. I do not think criticism is warranted – in fact it’s tiresome. Liverpool losing in extra time to Atletico Madrid is what football is all about – it is unpredictable, and if it wasn’t most of us would have drifted away. Look at the positives of that game, rather than what went wrong for the losers.

Whether Pep has succeeded, failed or performed somewhere in between is highly subjective of course. It is down to perception, and what we all expect of him. Why was he brought to City? To improve them, or to win a minimum number of trophies? Does failing to win the Champions League during his tenure mark him down as a failure irrespective of other achievements? Does a Champions League ban for his final year(s) make criticism harder or simply act as a distraction for previous failures? You decide. Pep deserves some criticism, via some column inches. How many inches I do not know, there’s no right answer. Men often struggle measuring inches, after all. And he gets that criticism and those columns. After all, he seems to spark debate more than any other manager, despite being in charge of little old City. He is in the spotlight, and always will be. He’s had plenty of criticism and deserved some of it. So please, let’s stop this pitiful claim that he gets off scot-free, whatever he does. He has been criticised more than any manager I can ever remember. Those column inches would fill books. The more pertinent question, if there is one, is why others seem to evade scrutiny, not why Pep does. And in the end, it probably comes down not just to spending a lot of money, but the endless hype of a brilliant man who still has flaws, hype over which he has had no control.