One goal in football can change everything. It can take you from the relegation to safety, Europa League to Champions League, a 2nd placed finish to a league title (as Manchester City fans know all too well), or a “genius” to a “fraud”.
Unfortunately for Pep Guardiola, in this new age of football conversation via social media and clickbait articles, not even a domestic treble will now be able to spare him of criticism for going out of the Champions League last night on away goals to Tottenham. Reference will inevitably be made to the money Guardiola has spent during his time at City, the fact he is yet to take this team further than a Champions League quarter final, and that Guardiola’s special sauce will never taste the same without his not so secret ingredient – Lionel Messi.
However, the efforts to undermine the achievements of Guardiola as a coach are so ludicrous that they should almost be seen as a testament to how well he is doing as Manchester City manager. Apart from his failure to win a Champions League within the first 3 years of his tenure at City, Guardiola’s performance in England has been nothing short of revolutionary. Much is forgotten of the squad Guardiola inherited, which makes City’s turnaround from other-yearly title contenders to Centurions even more impressive.
After finishing 3rd and trophyless in his first year at the club, Guardiola knew to implement his style he needed youth with a willingness to learn, rather than world renown superstars. In the summer of 2017, Guardiola shipped out the following; Wilfried Bony (28), Nolito (30), Fernando (30), Aleksander Kolarov (31), Samir Nasri (30), Gael Clichy (31), Jesus Navas (31), Pablo Zabaleta (32), Bacary Sagna (34), Joe Hart (30) and Willy Callabero (35).
The type of overhaul Manchester United fans could only dream of. And here lies much of the reasoning behind criticism of Pep and Manchester City – opposing fans just wish someone could do what he is doing with their team.
Over the 2 seasons that led to the record-breaking 100 points total gained in 2017/18, City signed; Gabriel Jesus (19), Leroy Sane (20), John Stones (22), Aymeric Laporte (23), Benjamin Mendy (23), Bernardo Silva (22) and Ederson (23). On top of these transfers, only 3 recognised first teamers were signed between the ages of 25-27, those being Kyle Walker, Ilkay Gundogan and Danilo. Many of the younger players Guardiola signed were fairly irrelevant on the world stage, with the most notable being Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva for their part in City’s exit out of the Champions League in Guardiola’s first season in charge of the club. Although highly talented young players, none of these signings could have been considered a “big name”. Similarly, there was no signs in Raheem Sterling’s performances in sky blue prior to the implementation of Guardiola’s style of play that he would ever reach the heights he is currently soaring at. In his first 2 seasons at City, Sterling only managed 13 goals in 66 league appearances. In his last 2 seasons, Sterling has got 55 goal contributions in 62 league appearances. Although expensive, these players were not proven world beaters. They had the potential, but Guardiola was the key to unlocking it.
However, fast forward to today, and Guardiola’s Manchester City look like seasoned veterans of the game, who have been playing with each other for 10 plus years. Their awareness and trust in each other verge on telepathic. Even the goalkeeper Ederson, appears to possess the touch and passing range of a top European midfielder. They appear almost impossible to dispossess at times. City’s patterns of play are so ingrained in the players they seem to score the same goal every weekend. Aguero’s finishing, De Bruyne’s passing, Sterling’s movement, Bernardo Silva’s close control. These unique qualities to each player are machine-like, with success rates telling in the 183 points Manchester City have gained in nearly 2 full seasons.
But they aren’t robots.
These players are susceptible to human error. And last night they fell short because they did not defend a corner well enough, and that is the bottom line of it. To the reasonable-minded, you will understand how usually, to play the football Guardiola teams do, you need mobile, creative, attacking players. Therefore, you will be more prone to losing aerial duels. This really does not go any deeper than this. Spurs were brilliant, and City were brilliant. Both showcased the different qualities that have got them so far in the competition. Heung Min Son was frightening and could one day play for Barcelona or Madrid. There appears to be no fault in the South Korean’s game. He’s strong, deceivingly fast, creative, smart, funny, handsome and charming. But you get my point. Ironically, for many systems in the modern game, the lone striker now needs to offer a lot more than just goals in the box. Son does this, but not only that, it feels like a foregone conclusion when he believes he is in range of scoring, he scores. It felt inevitable once he had taken the touch before his 2nd goal that the shot was going in.
Pochettino deserved to be on the receiving end of last night’s last-gasp VAR interference after another year of defying expectations. Daniel Levy is often regarded as a shrewd business mind, however his handling of the Tottenham boss has been nothing short of negligent, and doused with luck. Pochettino has been one of the best managers in world football for a number of years now, and after not making a summer signing, coupled with the underperforming jobs carried out by Jose Mourinho and Julen Lopetegui at Manchester United and Real Madrid, it seemed clear his time at Tottenham would be coming to an end. However, after Solskjaer’s successful audition as caretaker manager at United, and Madrid succumbing to the demands of a returning Zinedine Zidane, Pochettino was left with no alternatives other than to stay with Spurs. And had Sterling’s goal stood last night, or Llorente’s not have, Pochettino would have bared similar criticism to what Guardiola is suffering from today. Fingers would’ve pointed at his team’s mentality on the big stage when it comes down to the crunch, because that’s how football fans work.
Players and clubs make so much money nowadays, we don’t see them as human beings anymore. There’s no connection between the working man and the elite footballer. We no longer account for human error from footballers.
In actuality, both teams and managers should be praised last night. We should be thankful we witnessed one of, if not the, best Champions League knockout game in the competition’s history. Because there is only one set of supporters in the world who would reject the idea of Guardiola or Pochettino managing their club; and that’s Liverpool fans.
For Tottenham and City, they will meet again on Sunday. City will look to now get back on track to not only keep alive their hopes of a domestic treble, but to become the first team since Manchester United in 2008/09 to retain a Premier League title. For Tottenham, their league approach may now change. With talisman Harry Kane seemingly out for the remainder of the Champions League campaign, Pochettino cannot afford to lose another key player before the ties against Ajax. As important as top 4 is to teams in England nowadays, Tottenham may never get a better chance to arrive in a Champions League final. Ajax have proved they’re no pushovers, but similarly to Liverpool’s draw to Roma in last years Champions League semi-finals, there will be an unspoken understanding around White Hart Lane that Spurs have drawn the team that Liverpool and Barcelona ideally would have wanted. However, despite their different aims for this season, both managers and teams are performing miracles.
Pochettino and Tottenham are outperforming the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, having not spent a penny this season but still coping with the demands of Premier League and Champions League football.
For Guardiola and City, a domestic treble is still within reach. Consecutive league titles are still within reach. 198 points in 2 seasons is still capable. No matter how much money a manager spends, that level of domestic dominance would be unparalleled if achieved. A Champions League for City under Guardiola will be delivered in time, just not this time.