Absence makes the heart grow fonder, we are told, and never has that been more true than in the case of Pep Guardiola. It has been just eight months since the Spaniard took his leave from Barcelona, commencing a period in which clubs have seemingly clambered over each other to flutter eyelashes at the coach, desperate to attract a man of such calibre to their particular hotseat.
In England, we were told that Manchester City were going to provide Pep with that most cherished of footballing entities, the transfer warchest, before the media then fed rumours that Roman Abramovich was sounding out his man or that Arsenal could replace Arsene Wenger with a coach prepared to start another cultural evolution. Further afield, Guardiola was made favourite for the Brazilian job, and after a sluggish start in Ligue 1, PSG were also rumored to have shown interest. Essentially, if it was big money, high profile or both, Pep was your man.
Except that he wasn’t. Like the sexiest girl at school ignoring the rugby louts guffawing over what size her tits were, Pep ignored the clamours from England and instead chose Bayern Munich, the rather arty kid that had kept suspiciously quiet until now. Yes he was popular and yes he was cool, but this was a choice seen as off kilter by some. In the main, the Twitterati of European football wannabe hipsters (and I unfortunately include myself in such a generalisation) drooled over the choice. This would be Dortmund v Bayern, Klopp v Guardiola, the philosophy of beauty vs. the beauty of philosophy.
However, forgetting our selfish desires of footballing satisfaction for a moment, is the move actually an intelligent one for Guardiola? Now lauded as the best club manager in the game, has he made a wise choice? And what of Bayern, have they taken a risk on a manager returning from a self-imposed sabbatical?
It is crucial to remember that Barcelona is the only managerial position that Guardiola has ever held, groomed within La Masia and Barca B. He took over a squad that had underachieved in Frank Rijkaard’s final two seasons, but had the potential for greatness already laid at its feet. Whilst one should not attempt to undermine the improvement the Spaniard instigated at the Camp Nou, when he joined in 2008, Lionel Messi was 21, Samuel Eto’o 27, Xavi 28, Andres Iniesta 24, Yaya Toure 25 and Carles Puyol only just 30. Quite simply, this was the perfect basis for success.
Moreover, Pep’s last season at Barcelona cannot be viewed positively. They won the Copa del Rey, but finishing nine points behind Real Madrid and losing out to Chelsea in the semi-finals was less than had been expected of such a squad. Guardiola left with his head held high, but this was not the joyous fanfare which had been desired and perhaps deserved.
One merely needs to look at the record of Tito Villanova in his first five months in charge to see that Guardiola is not alone as a manager that can direct Barcelona to success. 39 matches, 29 wins, 106 goals and a win ratio higher that 80% with a 15 point lead over Real Madrid. The question must still remain as to whether he can transfer the skills gained in Spain to the Bundesliga, a league operating amidst a differing culture to that of La Liga.
To simply add pressure to the appointment, Bayern are currently enjoying their most successful season in recent history. Their record to date in the league would see them total 86 points, comfortably their highest ever points total, and they have conceded just seven league goals in 19 games. They topped their Champions League group and are third favourites for the competition behind Barcelona and Madrid. Jupp Heynckes seems likely to to retire at an impressive crescendo.
Increasing this burden, Guardiola looks set to be handed a sizeable transfer budget upon his arrival in Munich. Whilst the Daily Mail reported that this figure was near £240million, one suspects that this figure is wildly inaccurate and instead relates to the valued equity of the club stated by President Uli Hoeness during the latest shareholders’ meeting. Nevertheless, the Spaniard will be permitted to spend lavishly in order to improve his squad.
The concern for any incoming manager must surely be the suspicion that Bayern Munich have reached a ceiling. They now partake in a league in which anything below top spot will be seen by directors and supporters as significant underachievement, such is the financial weight of the club. Bayern are the only club in Germany that could consider themselves as a non-selling club. Even Dortmund, the closest threat to thisdominance, have sold Nuri Sahin and Shinji Kagawa in recent times, and there are continuous rumors regarding the potential sales of Robert Lewandowski, Mats Hummels and Mario Gotze.
My worry for Guardiola would be the question of what he has to gain at Munich. At Barcelona, he seemed to be a coach that thrived on a project, an opportunity to build a cohesive unit of players within his philosophical ideal of how football should be played, a system that brought great dividends. Bayern is not a project, simply a squad already performing close to maximum both domestically and continentally. The art of successful football management is knowing exactly when to take an offer of employment and, more importantly, who from (Brian Clough is wonderful example of this). Propositions may seem attractive, but a club’s standing must be improved to sustain or increase reputation.
Absence may have made our hearts grow fonder for Pep, but he has challenged himself immensely in his next destination. After just four years top level experience and having never managed outside of Spain, it will be the sternest of tests. Football management is an industry in which reputations are lost all too quickly, with patience a rarely recognised virtue. Guardiola may have rewritten the manual at Barcelona, but his next chapter will be more challenging still.