Pep's pursuit of the Champions League will continue relentlessly

Since he became Barcelona manager, Guardiola has spent 13 seasons in charge of Barca, Bayern Munich and City. The victory over Aston Villa brings him his tenth league title in that period
Pep's pursuit of the Champions League will continue relentlessly

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 22: Pep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City celebrates after their sides third goal during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Aston Villa at Etihad Stadium on May 22, 2022 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

A season may be made up of a thousand individual snapshots but, as Manchester City celebrate a fourth, dramatic league title in five years, one - involving a mobile phone and a furious Pep Guardiola - lingers in the memory.

It came after a comfortable Champions League victory over Club Brugge at the start of November when City barely broke a sweat in winning 4-1 but their perfectionist manager was furious at what he considered a lacklustre effort.

Always a big-picture thinker, Guardiola had seen City knocked out of the Carabao Cup at West Ham a week before, ending the club’s four-year stranglehold on the competition, and been beaten at the Etihad 2-0 by Crystal Palace in the league just four days earlier. Now, he was worried.

A furious Guardiola was seen after furiously pacing the touchline by journalists working in the Etihad press box, mobile phone in hand, deep in animated conversation with somebody. Moments earlier, it later transpired, the Catalan had announced to a stunned dressing room that he had “had enough,” a comment that was widely interpreted as an informal resignation announcement.

A complex character at the best of times, Guardiola’s true intentions on that night may never be known but if his outburst was a psychological equivalent of Sir Alex Ferguson’s old penchant for hurling tea-cups around a dressing room to grab attention; this more subtle version worked just as effectively.

Three days later, City played United off the park in a 2-0 win in the Old Trafford derby and the Brugge game marked the start of a run of 19 wins in 21 games. Only RB Leipzig, who won a dead rubber European group game 2-1, and Southampton, who held the Blues to a 1-1 draw, were able to resist Guardiola’s team in the next three and a half months.

Southampton, a team that has long intrigued Guardiola and also drew at the Etihad in September, figure in another anecdote that sums up the 51-year-old’s mindset this season.

His wife Cristina Serra and family have long been based back in Barcelona, leaving Pep living in an exclusive apartment complex in Manchester City centre, but remain very much together.

However, one of her visits to her husband ended with the couple in separate rooms while Guardiola was busy studying video of a Southampton game against Liverpool. City were playing neither team in the immediate future but Guardiola had heard about a particularly interesting tactic employed by the Saints and wanted to study it for himself.

Such attention to detail, bordering on the obsessional, is, of course, one of the personality traits that has made Guardiola the pre-eminent coach of his generation.

The Champions League may well remain a major asterisk against the dizzying body of his work - and more of that later - but since he became Barcelona manager in 2009, Guardiola has spent 13 seasons in charge of Barca, Bayern Munich and City. The victory over Aston Villa brings him his tenth league title in that period.

It is a remarkable record of consistency, especially given the level of intensity Guardiola brings to his job, seemingly for every moment of every day and certainly for every second of every match.

Stories have abounded throughout his career of players, exhausted mentally and physically, eventually tuning out from the excitable Catalan or at least being unable to meet his exacting demands and shipped out.

Yet, curiously, Guardiola claims to be more relaxed now than at any stage of his career or, at the very least, better equipped to cope with the pressures generated by afternoon’s such as this one.

There has been plenty of humour around Guardiola, even in this, the business end of the season, such as his recent tongue-in-cheek claim that the whole country, especially the media, were Liverpool fans who were willing City to lose the title chase.

Even his perennial complaints about television schedules making his already difficult task that little bit harder have been delivered in more humorous fashion - certainly in comparison with rival Jurgen Klopp - this season.

“Whatever they want, no problem,” he said late last month. “We adapt. If they say play Saturday, we play Saturday. If they say play Tuesday, we play Tuesday. Thursday? We are going to play Thursday.

“If I'm not satisfied I go home and don't be manager of Man City. I go to another league in the Maldives, the Maldives League, and play one game a week and I'm so comfortable under the coconuts and it would be so perfect.” 

DROP CAP

Which begs the question why a man reportedly paid around £20 million a season by his Abu Dhabi employers is not already sunning himself somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

A keen student of basketball, Guardiola has often spoken about the challenges the legendary former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson faced in motivating players like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen who had won the title season after season after season.

Guardiola faces the same challenge at City, not least the challenge to motivate himself for what will be, come August, a seventh season in charge at the Etihad; the longest tenure of his career by three years.

Next summer, Guardiola is out of contract with the club and, perceived wisdom was that would mark the end of his English adventure; a break and career in international management looked a strong bet for his next move.

But of late, a feeling has grown within the club that he is now thinking of extending his stay. The money helps, of course, and so, too, does the autonomy he enjoys at City; unparalleled in his own career or, arguably, anywhere else at this level of the game.

Then there is also the great white whale that Guardiola is chasing, Captain Ahab-like, around football’s great oceans - the Champions League.

Twice a winner in his first three seasons at Barca, the trophy has eluded him since; the result all too often, despite his protestations to the contrary, of Guardiola “over-thinking” tactical issues in key games or simply refusing to take a more pragmatic - read, defensive - approach in key games.

Add the fact that new signing Erling Haaland, who had his pick of moving to any club in Europe, would surely not have selected City without the guarantee of working with their genius manager for longer than 12 months, and the indications are that Guardiola may be in charge of his Premier League juggernaut for some time yet.

“I don’t know what will happen in next games – so won’t figure out the future,” said Guardiola when asked about it, in the wake of Klopp pledging himself to Liverpool long-term.

“You ask me what will happen and I don’t know. I’d love to say we will do well in the next years but I don’t know. Football changes so quickly – it can give you a punch in the face. Other times it looks a disaster and you can change anything. We have been 11 months working to get here and won’t get distracted by what will happen in the next seasons. We can’t be distracted.” 

Prescient words from the manager of the Premier League champions.

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