When Manchester City failed to win anything last year, some pundits and press were quick and delighted to assert that Pep Guardiola had been “found out” by the Premier League. They revelled in naming him ‘Fraudiola’.
The sort of pundits and press who still says that all Premier League games are hard and that anyone can beat anyone “in this league”, even though this has never been statistically less true than now. The sort of pundit who would say Oliver Burke’s transfer from RB Leipzig at the top of the Bundesliga to relegation-battling West Brom was a “return to the big time.”
Nobody disliked Pep’s Barcelona more than me. I knew it was brilliant, I just didn’t aesthetically enjoy its more soporific moments. This City team are crafted out of different, far juicier meats. They are more direct and thrilling and don’t rely on putting everyone in a coma with 154 sideways passes. It’s far more rock ‘n’ roll; far more wah-wah pedal than tika-taka.
The naked desire to see Guardiola fail was very noticeable and very odd, bordering on xenophobic at times. The desire to under-rate what he is trying to do remains, even now. So it was no surprise when, in the wake of Manchester City’s utterly breathtaking sweeping aside of Tottenham Hotspur, with a display of football that was nothing short of glorious, a common comment was “well that’s what happens when you spend so much money,” thus dismissing his quite obvious and impressive coaching of this City team to make it an irresistible force; as though football is just a game of Top Trumps where the largest transfer fees paid wins.
Then there is a perceived hero worship, as there obviously is with Pep. It is natural to want to kick back against it, but while the transformation of Manchester City from also-rans last year to playing football that is a personification of love poetry this season, is clearly not utterly inseparable from wealth – they had to be able to buy the players that are playing so well – it is far from the inevitable consequence of that wealth. It is only happening because of how the Spaniard is coaching and inspiring the team. And that is the crucial difference.
This obsession with transfer fees blinkers too many. Now more than ever, it is about getting and coaching the right player, not the most expensive, and I say that because player valuations have never been more crazy, more random, more pick-a-number-and-add-20. Is Romelu Lukaku worth £15m more than Alvaro Morata? You don’t know. I don’t know. No-one knows. Should they have cost £20m less or £20m more? There is no answer, just like there’s absolutely no line of logic you can draw, no ruler of measurement you can apply, which proves that £89.3m Paul Pogba is worth £33m more than Kevin De Bruyne. Nemanja Matic was £40m, Benjamin Mendy £52m. Eliaquim Mangala was £42m. Why these specific numbers? No-one can tell you that either. These numbers are not representative of each player’s skill, only of how much one club is prepared to pay another, and those two things can diverge markedly. They’re just daft, made up numbers. So you can’t assign City’s brilliant football this season specifically and exclusively to the size of fee they paid for any of their players.
Footballers are not expensive robots. Form will rise and fall based on a myriad of things, both physical and psychological, and these things can make a total mockery of such hysterical financial assessments of their worth. Spurs could probably have sold Dele Alli for £100m last summer but he’s been poor this year. So how do you place a value on him now?
In other words, in the Premier League especially, the amount of money spent on transfers now means much less than it ever did.
So to critique the beauty of City’s play on Saturday by asserting it’s just down to the money they’ve spent on great players is some degree of nonsense, because we’ve all seen expensive players play terribly – a lot of them for City, over the last years – and we’ve all seen cheaper players play really well.
Where having loads of money asserts its primacy is by facilitating strength in depth and the consequent ability to ride out an injury crisis. Being infinitely rich also allows you to waste money on duds and that is most certainly what City have done over the years. Like many of the richest clubs they’ve bought men who were no good for them for hefty wedge. Wilfried Bony was £28m, Stevan Jovetic £26m, Javi Garcia £15m, Alvaro Negredo £16m – and he was so poor he ended up at Boro for a season.
But no matter how deep your squad is, or how much you spend, one thing it most certainly doesn’t guarantee is that your side will play such flowing, dynamic and outright irresistible football – the sort that City are playing. That is all down to coaching and players working hard. Money has become a fog which obscures this truth.
More broadly, I suspect this is all part of the commodification of footballers which treats them as though they are jumpers in a store and quite simply, the more money you pay, the better quality wool you’ll get. Such an attitude forgets or willingly disregards the whole concept of education and improvement. Once you see football success as only to do with how much you pay for players, you are seeing things far too simplistically and have bought the notion that managing is all about what you buy, not what you do. Worse still, it is an attitude which bails out poor or atrophied managers who seek to excuse their inability to compete merely on inequality of wealth.
It is possible to buy a player, even a really good player and make them better, both individually and collectively, and to do those two things simultaneously. Indeed, often a criticism made at top clubs is that they just rely on buying talent rather than upgrading via coaching. So we should be celebrating the fact that Guardiola is obviously improving so many men in his squad.
Maybe the whiff of xenophobia is also because Pep fits a certain foreign stereotype in British culture very well. That of the successful, swarthy interloper who dresses differently, relies on fancy methods and has strange ways and personal habits, which makes good, honest, plain British managers feel wary and paranoid. If you doubt this, I’d suggest imagining how the press in particular would treat Sean Dyche were he managing Manchester City and getting them to play as they did against Spurs. The superlatives would be universal. No-one would be saying he was buying the title.
Guardiola is not buying the title, he’s winning it through an extraordinary tactical acumen, inspiring good players to be great and great players to be world beaters. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, don’t worry, nothing lasts forever. But for now, why not just enjoy the ride? This is potentially history in the making and we all need a bit of Great in our lives.