Pep Guardiola was treated like footballing royalty when he arrived in England. Manchester City had got their man and surely success was only a heartbeat away. Here was the coach whose style and sophistication on and off the pitch would make City the envy of their rivals.
In fairness, Pep himself was the first to say it was not going to be that simple while other managers — notably Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp — warned him that the Premier League was a more demanding beast than most.
Of course, City started superbly with such a flourish that it was possible to believe that the revolution would be instantaneous. A one-horse title race looked in prospect.
But 10 wins on the bounce and goals galore have been followed by six games without a victory — the worst run of Guardiola’s managerial career — and a strong suspicion that not all the players are finding it easy to play the Guardiola way. At the centre of the storm is the £47m defender John Stones, whose fan club includes some very good judges like my co-commentary colleagues Glenn Hoddle and Michael Owen. Stones’ class is beyond doubt and he should bloom into a wonderful player for club and country, but at the moment his decision making is leading to costly errors and frayed nerves among the City fans.
One of those mistakes, an errant back pass, presented Southampton with a gift goal and a point at the Etihad last Sunday, after which Guardiola locked his players in the dressing room for 50 minutes,
“He told us to keep on believing in how we are trying to play and we do believe,” said playmaker Kevin De Bruyne.
This is reminiscent of the story Guardiola himself tells of his early days coaching Barcelona. Results were not good and the young coach was worried. Then one day Andres Iniesta popped his head around the door to say: “Just keep on doing what you are doing.” The rest is history.
Of course, at the Nou Camp Pep could call on Lionel Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano, and Dani Alves as his on-field disciples. The cast list in his next job at Bayern Munich was almost equally impressive, though there Guardiola could never quite capture the glittering prize of the Champions League.
He insists his play-out-from-the-back passing game is non-negotiable and gave Manchester journalists a sharp rebuke when they asked why he sticks to his plan even after the Claudio Bravo howler at the Nou Camp in the Champions League last week: “Because I have won 21 trophies like this,” he said.
In other words, he believes that the occasional slips from Stones and Bravo will be more than compensated for by a winning brand of football based on passing, movement, making the pitch big and pressing hard to regain possession.
That all sounds easy, but players of Barca, Bayern and now City will tell you that it is not. It needs discipline, fitness and high quality.
What if results continue to falter and the players wearing light blue struggle to adapt? Would Guardiola have to tweak his style and sacrifice a few of his principles to find a winning way again? Isn’t that what top coaches do: Work out a best pattern for the players available?
Yet Guardiola’s message is clear: “I will play this way until my last day as a coach.”
And is the previously untouchable ace scorer Sergio Aguero a part of his plans? Fair to say the decision to leave him out against Barcelona left many of us aghast, and it clearly did not work with the attack lacking a focal point.
It is too early to jump to any conclusions. City’s recent slump may just be a transitional phase and, after all, they are still top of the table, albeit on goal difference.
Guardiola’s problem may be that rivals are well clued-up on how his teams play and will undoubtedly try to high-press his team into errors as they look to build from the back. In the past, he has always found the answers given his innovative and restless coaching style.
You would back him to do exactly that again, but revolutions take time and this might well be his toughest assignment yet given the players at his disposal and the quality of the opposition.
Right now, City’s chances of winning the title look no better than those of Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs or Chelsea.
Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN’s lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.