Europe may define Guardiola’s City era but home rule is no mean feat | Barney Ronay

May 17, 2019 Off By readly

Veni, Vidi, City. With the Premier League title retained and an FA Cup final to follow there already something imperial about the climax to Pep Guardiola’s first three seasons in English football, a sense of nation-building zeal.

This has always been a part of the grander plan, the intention not just to win, but to win right, to embody a vision, a way of winning. There have been minor bumps in the road along the way, most notably some disorientating defeats in the first Pep-season, the what-is-tackles, let-them-eat-cake days at Leicester and Everton. But Guardiola has refused to bend, and two years later English football has in effect been brought to heel, a stage for that relentless will-to-power.

Victory in Saturday’s FA Cup final against Watford would make Guardiola’s City the first English men’s team to complete a domestic league and cup treble in 58 years since the League Cup was first called into being. Winning the FA Cup would make it five domestic trophies out of six for City over two seasons, a spell of dominance that is alsounmatched in the Premier League era.

For some there will still be reluctance to trumpet this too widely, a fear that such sustained dominance raises questions about the stratification of English football, the dizzying gap in resources even between the top and the slightly less than top, an increasingly centralised system of power.

But there is more here than just the pounding fist of big football. Most notably there is something in the prospect of that treble that speaks directly to the manager’s methods. In the last decade Guardiola has become football’s domestic god, the depth of resources at his elbow, and more charitably the relentless systems-football of his teams, ideally suited to business of winning domestic trophies.

In Spain Guardiola won five out of eight available domestic trophies with Barcelona. In Germany it was five out of six with Bayern Munich. In England he has four out of eight so far. Another FA Cup final win would make it 15 of 23 domestic trophies in Guardiola’s 10 years as a manager across three separate leagues.

There has never been a cross-border run quite like this, a spell of sustained domestic dominance that has, for the last eight years, been soundtracked by regular late stage exits in the Champions League. Something is happening here. But what, and why?

It is worth noting that this was never really the plan for Guardiola. No matter what he might say, irrespective of the genuine pleasure at edging out Liverpool over 38 games, Guardiola’s obsession has always been with the Champions League. The Barça team of 2011 will remain his deepest pleasure, the furthest peak of achievements to date.

And yet 2011 is also the last time Guardiola reached a Champions League final, a performance from that the Messi-Xavi-Iniesta godhead, that appeared to have been beamed in from some distant future-world. At the time it seemed a given that Pep teams would continue to thrive in that most rarified air. Successive ambitious Euro heavyweights have hired him with precisely this dream of global domination in mind.

In the event his greatest triumphs have been closer to home, his methods better suited to domestic juggernaut status, his vision of how football can be played finding its highest expression in the more controlled home environment. Guardiola has had to be content instead with starting a revolution from his bed.

There are various theories as to why this should be the case. The first is the most dismissive. Guardiola has simply managed the richest clubs in Germany and England. In Spain he had the best club footballer of all time to grease the wheels, his own scurrying magic bullet. Fast forward to the current potential treble season and the draw has been notably kind, twin cup runs throwing up games against Rotherham, Burnley, Newport, Swansea, Brighton, Oxford, Fulham, Burton, Leicester and Chelsea. The last two of these were won on penalties. Beating Watford on Saturday would be City’s biggest scalp of a double-cup season.

And yet the facts don’t bear out this sense of cards falling the right way. This domestic dominance didn’t have to happen. Guardiola is the constant when it does. As a simple control experiment: in the three years before Pep Barcelona won one cup and one league. In the four years before Pep came Bayern won two league titles. In their own three pre-Pep years City won one league and two league cups.

This adds up to seven of 23 available domestic trophies for Pep’s pre-Pep clubs, or half as many they would go on to win with him in charge.

Saturday night at Wembley could skew the ratio even further, but this is not a given. Not that you’d know it looking at Watford’s record against Guardiola’s City in the Premier League, which reads, played six, lost six, aggregate score 21-3 to City. But then, the league really has been the stage for this mature Pep-City team, a place where those rhythms can settle, and where a superior, team coached and resourced to the highest possible level, will eventually win out. City’s dominance is a feat of coaching, rewards for perhaps the most incredibly well-drilled team English football has ever seen.

Whereas cup games can add that little edge of something beyond the system, a raggedness, a chance to hurl a grapple hook across the divide. Tension can do strange things. Particularly to an entity defined in its better moments by its opposite. Guardiola’s entire schtick, his vision of how the game should be played is about its tension, about finding those easy, frictionless patterns.

For Watford the task will be to disrupt that, to insert a note of tension in the works. They have power and craft in midfield in Abdoulaye Doucouré. Troy Deeney remains a vital influence. Gerard Deulofeu has the skill and incision to punish City’s high full-backs. For City Kevin De Bruyne could be back after his hamstring strain eased. And Raheem Sterling will be keen to extend his run of fine Wembley performances, taking in a hat-trick for England and the winning penalty against Chelsea in the other domestic cup final.

There will still be suggestions, whatever happens on Saturday, that only European success, bans notwithstanding, will define this City project. But that span of domestic dominance is not to be undersold. One more City victory would crown what has been, by standard; a remarkable two-year surge across the home stage.

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