Over the last 24 years we as United fans have been truly blessed. Sure, he went through some rocky patches at the start, but from the moment Mark Robins scored a goal to save his job in the 1990 FA Cup 3rd round, (now Sir) Alex Ferguson hasn’t looked back, and has guided United to a two-decade period of success unmatched in the history of this or any other club.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and with Sir Alex now 69, it is surely only a matter of time before he feels he’s done everything he can, and unplugs his now famous “hairdryer”.
So who can replace such a giant of modern football management? Just who can take on the pressure of managing the biggest club in world football? In the second of a 5-part series, I examine a relatively inexperienced contender, but one who has already accomplished so much- Pep Guardiola………………….
In the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Manchester United’s captain Rio Ferdinand looks on in dismay as the masterful Lionel Messi rises and guides a header expertly past Edwin Van der Sar. On the touchline, a young manager jumps from the dugout and strides to the edge of his technical area, arms aloft. Pep Guardiola knows he’s just seen a match-winning goal. In a game billed as Ronaldo v Messi (although perhaps only in the Portuguese winger’s head), Messi has just clinically fired his team to European glory.
The gamble of the Barcelona board had paid off; Guardiola had won the treble in his first season in charge. A controversial, risky appointment in June 2008, Guardiola rose through the ranks at Barca, and made the step up to replace Frank Riijkaard as first-team coach.
That summer, while all the focus was on the new manager’s potential tactics, barely anyone noticed what seemed a small, insignificant signing. A young Spanish centre-half joined the club, and has since won the European Cup, La Liga and the World Cup, becoming a pillar of both the Spain and Barcelona sides. Although not quite the prodigal son returning, Gerard Pique was a masterstroke of a signing, forming a formidable partnership with Carles Puyol.
While the signings of Pique and, later, David Villa proved masterful, Guardiola has made some rather high-profile errors in the transfer market, the most obvious of which was the ludicrous decision (in July 2009) to offer Samuel Eto’o and 40 million euro’s for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ibrahimovic simply didn’t match Barca’s style, and was loaned out (ironically to AC Milan) just a year later.
We also have to thank Guardiola on two counts. Firstly, he must be acclaimed for giving us all a good laugh by making Manchester City stump up a ridiculous £24 million for Yaya Toure. Secondly, he must be thanked by all United fans for removing the idiot that is Javier Mascherano from the Premier League.
Guardiola has also given youth a chance at Barca (obviously crucial at United) with both exciting attacker Pedro and combative defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets stepping effortlessly into the first-team.
Guardiola’s treble winning side, while essentially Riijkaard’s team in terms of personnel, utilised a new shape and way of playing. Recognising the disparate talents at his proposal, Guardiola utilised a 4-3-3, with Yaya Toure deployed in a deep-lying role in front of the back four, while pass masters Xavi and Iniesta operated further forward, and formed the basis of what became known as Tika-Taka passing football.
In attack, a fluid front three of Samuel Eto’o, Thiery Henry and Lionel Messi operated, often changing positions. With Henry on the left and Messi on the right often cutting inside to utilise their stronger foot, the width in the side was provided by attacking full backs Eric Abidal and Dani Alves. Messi, Eto’o and Henry were lethal, scoring over 100 goals between them, while Sergio Busquets later broke into the side and challenged Toure for the “shielding” role.
In 2009-10 and 2010-11 the system pretty much remained the same, as did the style of play, although 09-10 saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s lack of mobility somewhat blunt the threat of a front three which now contained Pedro, rather than Henry. The other major changes saw Busquets firmly establish himself in DM, while on loan fullback Maxwell ousted Abidal at LB.
2010-11 has seen a slight change to the system, with new signing David Villa deployed on the left, with Pedro on the right and Lionel Messi playing slightly deeper in a creative central role.
In his relatively short top-level management career, Guardiola has already won the European Cup, as well as reaching the semi-final in defence of that trophy, where Mourinho’s Inter side suffocated Barca in the Nou Camp (see part 1 of this series) and ended their defence.
There are two main problems with Guardiola-
1. He’s essentially Barcelona through and through, having spent his entire footballing career/life there, and, having supported the club as a child, now managing the first team. Put it this way: if you were offered the chance to manage United, would you ever leave for another job?
2. So far, Guardiola has merely fitted an inherited team to a system. It is not a Guardiola team, merely Guardiola tactics and, as such, there is currently no evidence of his ability to rebuild and regenerate a team. Despite the successful introductions of Busquets and Pedro, no one could really argue that Guardiola is a master of rebuilding teams, as SAF has proven himself to be several times.
· Proven experience of winning the European Cup.
· Has successfully brought youth through the ranks at Barca, crucial for any potential replacement of Sir Alex.
· Seems able to motivate players and culture a team ethic.
· Can speak a variety of languages, and is therefore adept at managing foreign stars.
· Has made major errors in the transfer market in the past.
· No evidence of ability to completely rebuild a side.
· In his comfort zone at Barca, no guarantee of ability to meet fresh challenges in a different kind of league i.e. Premier League.
Next time- Laurent Blanc
Follow Josh on twitter @UnitedJosh