There is no love lost between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. But after his Manchester City side’s narrow victory over Newcastle United on Wednesday, the Catalan was threatening to channel his Portuguese nemesis and closest rival for this season’s Premier League title. In a game they totally dominated, City managed to scrape a 1-0 win, prompting Guardiola to say after the match that it’s difficult to win matches when “only one team wants to play football.”
The implications were obvious. We have heard similar petulant remarks about "park-the-bus" tactics from Manchester before — but almost always from the embittered and increasingly paranoid Mourinho on the red side of the city. It was surprising to hear the usually affable and relaxed Guardiola take such a tone, especially considering had his side failed to get the three points, their title lead would still be in double figures territory. Perhaps he felt he had let the supporters down by only scoring one goal to secure a record-stretching 18th straight league victory. It is fair to say the City faithful have become accustomed to much larger winning margins this season.
But the truth is, Guardiola does not need to concern himself with the tactics of other teams.
This City side have demolished their opposition at every turn in 2017. Unbeaten in this league campaign, and only two defeats all calendar year, Guardiola has built a juggernaut that shows no signs of stopping as we enter the second half of the season. But perhaps more impressive is that he has built a team that consistently plays staggeringly beautiful football on their way to victory. The likes of Kevin de Bruyne in midfield and Gabriel Jesus up front have been sublime — even Raheem Sterling, who flattered to deceive before this season, now looks like a world-beater. And in turn, Guardiola has finally silenced his last remaining critics who always had a nagging doubt about the 46-year-old’s ability.
His playing career for his home-town team Barcelona was a glittering success and his rise to the Nou Camp hot-seat was inevitable. His 2008-2012 tenure at Barca brought him more than a dozen trophies. But many pondered if could he do it outside of Spain. Of course he could.
At Bayern Munich, his incredible win ratio of more than 80 percent won the German giants seven titles in just three seasons. So, when Manchester City landed their favored target in 2016, much was expected of Guardiola at the helm of one of the world’s richest clubs. And yet, in a season of frustration, he finished 15 points behind eventual champions Chelsea. Despite the seemingly endless wealth of Abu Dhabi-backed City, he had failed at a club not yet considered one of the mega clubs of Europe and it appeared his weakness had finally been found.
Guardiola, however, is quick to learn and he identified two things straight away. Firstly, that he had massively underestimated just how difficult the Premier League is to win. Unlike Spain or Germany where the same two teams battle it out for supremacy almost every year, English football is wonderfully unpredictable at times. Its strength in depth means weaker teams often spring a surprise on the strongest teams, making it difficult to dominate in the same vein for so long. Secondly, the defensive frailties he inherited needed to be addressed, and he brought in players who subscribed to his possession-heavy, high-pressing tactics.
But what this season is showing is his willingness to adapt his footballing philosophy in arguably the most competitive league in the world. It is no secret Guardiola believes football should be played a certain way, but results like Wednesday’s at Newcastle now prove he knows more than one way to win, even in the face of very English, ultra-defensive displays that were his undoing last season. And he should expect to face many more in the coming months.
A short time ago, Guardiola’s critics were quick to point out that not only had he been lucky to manage two of the biggest clubs in the world but also two of the best sides ever put together which, his naysayers believed, had been built for him prior to his arrival.
Yet, at City, Guardiola has taken over at a club yet to break into the elite of Europe and inherited a team that, while expensively-assembled, has never fulfilled its true potential. Looking at what he has created this season, however, it will not be long before City join the higher echelons of club football while breaking a host of records as they go. And Guardiola will silence his doubters once and for all on the way to cementing his position as one of the greats.