Pep Guardiola: Beauty, Perfection & Overthinking

In his book ‘The Idiot‘, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a Russian writer and philosopher, writes that “Beauty Will Save the World”. This statement, that appears to be ambiguous on the surface, hides a world beneath it. Existence thrives on beauty because an intrinsic value has been attached to it, and that intrinsic value is the meaning that people associate with beauty. Pep Guardiola’s beautiful football is one such example of Dostoyevsky’s statement that is personified on a football pitch.

Manchester City have just won the first Premier League trophy tonight since 2013-14 season. This was made special because of the fact that they won it with 5 matches to spare, equalling a record held by their fiercest rival, Manchester United. If City manage to win 13 points in the next 5 games, they would become the first side in the Premier League to touch 100 points mark.

But the significant feat, the beauty that is often overlooked in the mass celebration, is the fact that Guardiola won his first Premier League trophy in the midst of whispers that his magic wand wouldn’t work in England. Injecting beauty into the pragmatism of English football has been an accomplishment that cannot be overlooked.

Pep Guardiola has revolutionised world football in the past decade. When he took charge of Barcelona’s first team, comprising primarily of La Masia graduates a decade ago, people saw a spark of Johan Cruyff in him. Pep Guardiola may not have saved the world with beauty in a sense as Dostoyevsky said, but he breathed new life into Barcelona with his brand of football that was almost seductive. After a 3 year drought, Barcelona won the Champions League under Guardiola. While fans acknowledged his two Champions League trophies and cabinet full of other silverware, there were several others who were questioning his abilities, fuelled by a sceptical view that he wouldn’t be able to win so easily on English soil.

Pep’s decision to join Bayern over an English club gave even more leeway to emphasise the fact that things would be tougher in the Premier League. Even though Pep dominated the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich, receiving critical approval seemed an insurmountable task unless he did it on English soil. There is no doubt that the Premier League is the most competitive league in the world due to its cramped fixtures and intense physical demands, but a certain level of humility should come with such greatness, which seems to have been lost in the process.

Make no mistake, the critics were absolutely right about the League’s difficulty and Guardiola had the worst season of his managerial career during his first season at Manchester City losing 6 games and accumulating only 78 points. But critics have a misplaced sense of how someone should be classified as a legend and the Premier League seems to be the benchmark. It is the stage where one has to finally arrive to be judged. This misplaced sense often calls for managers or players to ‘prove’ themselves in the harsh requirements of the Premier League.

Analysing a manager’s tactical nous with respect to a difficult league is a logical procedure and one that should be certainly done, but to belittle existing credentials unless one wins the Premier League renders any logic void. This is analogous to why Messi doesn’t require a World Cup to become a legend. The Premier League doesn’t require Guardiola to fail to prove that it is the most competitive and Guardiola doesn’t require winning the Premier League to prove his legendary stature. These are things that are inherent and should be left just as it is.

After the first season failure, Guardiola understood the requirements of the league and strengthened his squad resulting in a complete domination this season but this was not at the expense of his philosophy. In fact, his side have had a higher possession this season as compared with last year, have scored more goals and won more points, yet this was achieved with little weightage on tackles or deep defensive line. The fact that Guardiola stuck to his methods in a league reliant on pragmatism has made the title special.

Winning the Premier League is a significant achievement for Pep Guardiola as a manager. It is a moment that the Catalan wouldn’t forget, for this was a moment when the critics were silenced. It was a moment for critique to metamorphose into a silent acknowledgement. This is synchronous to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s philosophy.

“People said we couldn’t play the way we did in Barcelona in England, but it is possible, and we did it. Everyone can play how they want. That’s why football is so beautiful.” -Pep Guardiola (On 10th December 2017)

Those who considered his beauty to be sterile for the Premier League have now approved of his methods and its effectiveness. The 2 time Champions League winner is not in the Premier for an approval though. He is here to build a dynasty at Manchester City. But several issues still remain for Pep Guardiola.

While Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s statement on beauty is an apt analogy for Guardiola’s football which pushes the envelope of creativity in modern times, it is sometimes stretched too far in crucial games. Guardiola has been striving for perfection in football management but the very quest for that perfection has often left him flawed, exposed and down in a slump. Guardiola has been indulging in compulsive over thinking in order to out-think an opponent and these very compulsions have seen him commit grave errors.

The Champions League disaster in the first leg against Liverpool this season is one such example where Guardiola opted to play an additional midfielder, deviating from his usual game. The derby against Manchester United in the following game saw the Catalan surprise everyone by starting Sterling as a lone striker and Delph and Danilo as wingbacks in a switch of playing 11. An incredible comeback from Manchester United left Guardiola with more questions than answers.

Obsessive need to tactically out-do opponent also saw him start with 3 defenders against the might of Barcelona when he was in-charge of Bayern Munich. The trio of Messi-Suarez-Neymar ripped Bayern to shreds within the first half and it was too late for Guardiola to mend anything. Similar poor displays at Real Madrid in 2014, Inter in 2010 and Monaco in 2017 have seen him concede multiple goals in a quick blitzkrieg.

The failings at crucial stages in Champions League knockout rounds and semis indicate a recurring pattern of thought process in the Catalan’s mind. Maybe sticking to his methods rather than trying to spring a surprise could see Manchester City lift the Champions League under Guardiola.

But the relentless quest for perfection and the winning mentality often comes with a certain level of craziness and this is a trait of a genius. Overturning the 0-3 deficit to qualify for the semi-finals was one of his biggest managerial challenges for Pep Guardiola which he failed at owing to the first leg mistake. But if he stays true to his methods and curbs his indulgence to go overboard with the thinking, Pep Guardiola will give birth to a new European giant in the form of Manchester City. That would mean just one thing: Guardiola’s beautiful game will certainly save the world for Manchester City.

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