There is something spectacular about watching Pep Guardiola fail. Whether against Chelsea with Barcelona in 2012, against Barça last season, or against Atlético Madrid just two days ago, he does it in the most amazing ways.
The loss to Diego Simeone’s Atlético is inevitably being pitched in some circles as the victory of realism over idealism. This is natural. Pep’s teams play gorgeously, and while there is a kind of ghastly beauty to Simeone’s system, it is widely regarded as boring, and even ugly. It is simplistic to view Guardiola in this way, though. Pep is an idealist, but so is Arsène Wenger. The two have been connected casually for years, but the Arsenal manager lacks the diligence and sophistication Guardiola possesses at a level that borders on pathological. Wenger believes his job is to position each of his players so that they have the room to become the best expressions of themselves; Pep wants this too, but he – like Simeone, ironically – cares more that the orchestra is fully in tune with itself. He obsesses over the movement of the team – the famous 15-pass rule being the most obvious example. They must move together, stay connected, and never let each other down. This is what he had in mind when he instituted Barça’s furious counter-pressing regime (a system that reached its peak in 2010-11). The system doesn’t work at all if the players are not connected, if they stray too far from one another, or if they fail to anticipate the situation properly. They must know the game and know one another.
Watching Barça grow and peak meant watching their manager grow bolder and more sure of his ideas. Watching him leave was sad, but it was also an exciting test. How would he grow? It isn’t fair to say Guardiola is a failure because he didn’t win the Champions League with Bayern Munich. Tournaments are famously given to randomness – of the draw, of the result – and Bayern were victims of both during Pep’s tenure. He wasn’t brought to Germany to win trebles – though it was expected that he might; he was brought there to establish a footballing identity, and in that sense, he was tremendously successful. How many managers are capable of doing that to the extent Guardiola did? Simeone, Paco Jémez, Marcelo Bielsa, Thomas Tuchel, and possibly a handful of others, but no more, and of those, Pep is the most complete.
He pushed Bayern to play his way, and mostly, they loved him for it. When they lose, some blame it on his ideas, on tiki-taka, but they aren’t watching. Tiki-taka is shorthand for an aesthetic, and over time its use has mainly become a crude way for pundits to buck against the triumphalism it inspired from 2008-2011. Sometimes, it is merely a way of ridiculing Pep, even as he has openly declared that tiki-taka – as he defines it, passing for the sake of it – is worth nothing at all. The passing, the triangles, the clever combination play – all these are nice side-products of a larger system founded on the same kinds of principles that Simeone instills in his players. The team is an organism. The organism must move together, must breathe, must eat, and must fight for survival.
Before he pushed Bayern, he pushed Barça, his heart’s club, his home. When he took over in the summer of 2008, they were rudderless and depressed. He got rid of two of the club’s most celebrated players, and turned the team into a machine. The players who became the cornerstones of Barça – Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi – trained like mad for him, “like beasts” he said in Martí Perarnau’s Pep Confidential. They learned and transformed, and he grew along with them. His obsession with dominance over the pitch, over the ball, over every patch of grass swelled and became their obsession. They were, for him, the perfect template, the perfect orchestra to play his score.
On Tuesday, Bayern gave one of their finest performances under Pep. Atlético have rounded into a merciless form, and Bayern pushed them to the brink. Unlike what happened to his team at the Allianz against Real Madrid in 2014, or what happened to them last season at the Camp Nou, against Atleti, Pep’s plan worked. His players went onto the pitch with a plan and they executed it. Simeone’s men had to survive for 90 minutes in a raging furnace. Somehow, they did, and Pep’s tenure in Germany will end without winning the big one. In that one sense, he failed, but in most of the others, he succeeded.
In a few months, Guardiola will head to Manchester, and as Wednesday’s tie between Manchester City and Real Madrid demonstrated, he has a monumental task ahead of him. It is similar, in some ways, to the situation he inherited at Barça, though without the La Masia core and without (this can’t be stated loudly enough) Lionel Messi. A year from now, we may well know how his first year turned out, and culés will watch with pride, fascination, and nostalgia as one of their greatest sons turned philosopher king tries to bring his ideas to an intractable soil. Whether he succeeds or fails, they will still tell anyone who will listen, “He was ours first; he will always be ours.”