Normally when Pep Guardiola turns up to a press conference and puts on a real show, it is because he or Manchester City feel backed into a corner and he takes the opportunity to try to change the message.
“You help me a lot when I need to send a message to my players or the club,” he told journalists on Sunday, when he was asked about one of the stand-out off-field moments of City’s season, when he told anybody who would listen that his players and the club itself had become “happy flowers”, meaning that they had lost their desire.
Just a couple of weeks after that, he sent a message to the fans, too, rallying the troops via the media after City were hit with 115 charges by the Premier League for alleged breaches of financial rules. “Maybe we ask Dickov, Summerbee (heroes of past City promotions) to come back and we’ll do it again,” he joked at the prospect of being relegated.
But he was deadly serious in his messaging and he fully grasped the opportunity to turn the tables on those questioning him, as happened when City had been knocked out of the Champions League by Monaco in his debut season six years ago and he told an inquest into his methods that, “Exceptional is my career. I’m sorry, that is exceptional.”
Today (Tuesday), he was in fine form again, only this time he was at complete ease. City have just won the title again and — although he has already started to watch some Inter Milan highlights — it is not yet time to get stressed about the club’s upcoming FA Cup and Champions League finals.
With no concerns at the back of his mind about those upcoming matches against Manchester United and Inter or players being injured or angry over a lack of game time, he sat and fielded every question as it came, providing insight into his own team and also Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton, who are their opponents at the Amex Stadium tomorrow.
But there was still time to raise a couple of topics that were either completely unprompted or, at most, loosely related — a classic move of the Guardiola genre…
Walking away if City win the treble
But first, he was asked about his future.
It is pretty common to hear whispers around City about Guardiola potentially leaving if he were to ever get his hands on the Champions League trophy again, so this time he was asked about it directly and was possibly too honest, playing devil’s advocate about how he may feel in the heat of the moment.
“Right now I am not thinking about leaving, but who knows,” said Guardiola, who hasn’t been European champion since his Barcelona side beat Manchester United at Wembley 12 years ago this week. “But I am not thinking (about that). I would like to continue here next season, independent of the results. I would like it but I don’t know what I’m going to feel winning or losing the two chances we have ahead of us. My feeling is I have a contract and when I sign I want to respect the club.”
He was asked to clarify that position later on, and that is when he broached the big subject.
“I will stay next season while there are a hundred breaches against us,” he said. “Don’t worry, we will be there.”
Guardiola was then asked if he could see himself staying at City another three to four years, given he said after the charges were levelled by the Premier League that he was more determined than ever to stay in his role; to which he laughed, “No, no, no, these two years are enough” — referring to the amount of time left on his contract.
The Premier League charges
He was then asked if it is a case of taking each year as it comes, at which point he took the chance to make some points that he had possibly prepared.
“Yeah,” he replied about his future, before getting into it: “What I would like is if the Premier League and judges could make something (a decision re those charges) as soon as possible, then if we have done something wrong, everybody will know it, and if we are — like we believe as a club for many years — in the right way, then the people will maybe stop talking about that.
“We would love it tomorrow. This afternoon better than tomorrow. We would love it. Hopefully, they are not so busy and the judges can see and listen to both sides and decide at the end what is the best, because in the end I know fairly that what we won, we won on the pitch, and we don’t have any doubts.”
The full process is likely to take years, as both City and the Premier League ensure that countless files and documents are in order, and last week it was reported the club have also launched challenges to the legality of the investigation itself.
Guardiola was asked if he was frustrated about the amount of time it will take to reach a verdict.
“We accept it is there. If it happened, it happened. It happened with UEFA, and you know exactly what happened (then), and now it’s the Premier League. So let’s go. Come on, 24 hours, sit down, talk, both sides, lawyers. Don’t wait one year, two years. Why don’t we do it quickly? Come on. Let’s do it as soon as possible for the benefit of everyone.
“But I know there are many, many cases around the world and many injustices and affairs so maybe they are so busy, but hopefully they can do it as soon as possible. We want to defend our principles and if people doubt… OK, let’s go, let’s do it as soon as possible, please. I would love it.”
Guardiola does not always give away too much about his approach, or about Erling Haaland but he did allow himself to go into some detail about adapting to the prolific front man City signed from Borussia Dortmund last summer. While City had their post-World Cup blip and Haaland seemed more isolated, it was often said that the team were playing conservatively on Guardiola’s instruction, because of the value he places on possession, but in reality he had been telling his players since early in the season that they had to look for Haaland more. It is something they have improved upon, but more work is needed.
“I have to admit, at the beginning of the season, maybe because of our process, we played and we had Erling there and we didn’t look at him. I always said the first action is to look at him and after you decide: pass the ball or not. But you have to know he is there. Step by step, every time we play, we have to take a look at where is he and Julian (Alvarez, his fellow forward), because when you have a player like this in the box it would be a little bit insane if you cannot use him.”
The inevitable post-title dip
Guardiola also suggested it might have been better for City to still need the tension of having to win their final two matches of the league season. Bernardo Silva said on Sunday that, “We cannot switch off, because if we do it will be harder to switch back on,” and it is the most interesting talking points from City’s final two league matches are likely to be how strong the starting line-ups are and whether they play with the same intensity as the past several weeks.
“I prefer to be already champions but maybe to be really committed against United and Inter, to be still in contention to win the Premier League (it helps) to be there, but it’s normal.
“They (the players) had the party after Chelsea (on Sunday). I don’t know how they will feel (on Wednesday against Brighton) but they have to do it, and I think the best way to prepare for the finals is to be ready.
“We have days off and we relax in the training session but these players set standards and we have to maintain it. It’s normal that we are going to drop, because we spent an incredible amount of energy in the last months and now we lift the trophy. It’s normal, but we have to avoid it, not drop much.”
Admiration for De Zerbi’s Brighton
One motivational tool that City will be able to draw upon ahead of Wednesday’s game at Brighton is that Guardiola genuinely rates them incredibly highly. If he talks about the specifics of their game in the media, imagine what he will be telling his players. He has warned them that if they are not on their game they will suffer, and that is because he ranks manager Roberto De Zerbi among the greats.
“Pay attention to what I’m going to say, because I’m pretty convinced I’m right in what I’m saying: I think Roberto is one of the most influential managers in the last 20 years.
“There is no team playing the way they (Brighton) play, it’s unique. I have the feeling when he arrived the impact he would have in the Premier League would be great – I didn’t expect them to do it in this short space of time. He creates 20 or 25 chances per game, better by far than most opponents, he monopolises the ball in a way it hasn’t been for a long time. Everybody is involved — the keeper is like a holding midfielder.
“If you don’t play at a high level (as opponents), he can do whatever he wants against you. They deserve completely the compliments and the success they have — one of the teams I try to learn a lot from. It is unique, like a Michelin-Star restaurant, unique. In Catalonia there was El Bulli with Ferran Adria, the best cook for many years; he changed the cuisine and Brighton are playing with something special.
“The way they move, it’s an incredible challenge to prepare for the two finals.”
Guardiola was asked what he can learn from a team like Brighton and he said: “The time to take decisions, Brighton is the master of passing the ball to the man (who is) free, but when to pass to the free man. They move at the right time, they are the best in the world, to do the right tempo to pass to the free man.
“Part of how aggressive they are without the ball they continued something from Graham Potter, I think he instilled something really good in terms of aggressivity, man to man. But the way they do the process and use the ’keeper, they don’t pass the ball after the movement of the opponent. The moment the opponent moves, I move, I pass the ball. When? It depends who jumps. And this, in the right tempo, they are the best. The best.”
Perhaps De Zerbi could be considered a potential future candidate for the City job…
Guardiola has said for years that not winning the Champions League would not greatly affect him because he knows the reality of the challenge he has faced at City — keeping players fired up, navigating fixture pile-ups, evolving the team, keeping them at the top while other champions fall away.
He knows that many observers write all of that off as irrelevant because City spend money — which is why he likes to point out that they are far from alone in that. He did not make that point this time but he knows that it is a more and more popular theory that his side are too good/sterile/have removed jeopardy from the game.
“So when people say we failed or lost, it is like the others are shit. But the others can be good and beat us. It’s like ignoring the other ones. If the other ones beat us, it is because they deserve it.
“When people say now that next season just Manchester City can win the Premier League, they are stupid comments. Next season will be tough because all clubs want to beat us. That is the challenge. Next season, for one year, we defend our crown. It belongs to us for one year and we will work for it. If they want it, they have to do it better than us. But if it happens, we will congratulate them.
“United can beat us (in the FA Cup final on June 3). Inter can beat us (in the Champions League one a week later) — they have three Champions Leagues, we don’t have any. But we have to do our best to try to avoid it.”
UK media compared to Spain and Italy
Much is made of City as a club supporting Guardiola in every way, and that is true, but a big reason why he renewed his contract last November is because conditions outside the club are more favourable than anywhere he was been previously.
This is a subject the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach has mentioned several times in the past: basically, journalists are not as rabid in England as is the case in continental Europe. That, according to those who know him, helps him to go about his work in relative peace.
“The environment here is easier,” he said, comparing life in Manchester to his time in charge at Barcelona. “The demands are high but off the pitch our life as a manager is more comfortable. To talk about Carlo (Ancelotti) or Julen Lopetegui from other countries who come here, all managers who have been in other countries and come here, but especially in Spain or Italy, the (outside) noise is… oh my god.
“Here, when you win you are a good manager and when you lose you are bad but after you go home, prepare for the next game and it is more comfortable and our life is better.”
(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Leave a Reply