Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been one of the most successful centre-forwards football has known over the past 15 years, and probably its biggest ego. When he was at the Italian club Inter Milan in 2009, he saw the extraordinary football Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were playing as they won the Champions League and decided he wanted to be part of it.
Except it turned out that he didn’t. Ibrahimovic wanted to do his own thing, to be the big star, to have his teammates play to service his talents. Guardiola didn’t work like that. Soon after joining Barça, Ibrahimovic was dismissing Guardiola as “the Philosopher”. The atmosphere, he said, was “like a school…the best footballers in the world stood there with their heads bowed”.
Maybe so, but they won three successive Spanish league titles and two Champions Leagues before Guardiola, seemingly exhausted by the intensity of his approach, faltered in his fourth season and left to take a sabbatical in New York.
Yet in a sense, Ibrahimovic was right. Guardiola is a philosopher, at least as football understands the term. Nobody thinks about the game or theorises as much as him and few others are politically engaged enough to wear a yellow ribbon in support of those jailed for backing Catalan independence.
No other coach places abstract principles so absolutely before individual players. It’s a style of football that was developed in the Netherlands and carried to Barcelona in the Seventies by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, who was a forward in Michels’ sides at Ajax and Barça before becoming Barça coach in 1988.
It was Cruyff who gave Guardiola his debut, Cruyff who shaped his thinking, Cruyff who, as the éminence grise at the club long after he had ceased to be coach, helped persuade Barça to appoint him as manager in 2008.
Guardiola’s record is one of remarkable achievement: three Spanish league titles in four seasons with Barcelona; three German titles in three seasons with Bayern Munich. And then, in summer 2016, he came to Manchester City. The club had been set up for him by the chief executive, Ferran Soriano, and the director of football, Txiki Begiristain, both of whom worked with him at Barça, but the move to England still required significant adaptation.
Guardiola was working in an environment that tended instinctively to Ibrahimovic’s way of thinking. As George Orwell noted in “The Lion and the Unicorn”, the English “have a horror of abstract thought, they feel no need for any philosophy or systematic world-view.” To many the idea of a style of football that focused almost exclusively on the manipulation of space seemed altogether too fancy, too sophisticated, too, well, foreign, for the English game.
When Guardiola last season spoke airily of never coaching tackling and expressed horror at the number of “second balls” in English football (the moments when the ball runs loose after a tackle or aerial duel), it was taken as evidence that his fastidious, controlling nature was unsuited to the visceral chaos of the Premier League. City finished third.
But Guardiola kept going. He continued to work on the same training pitch divided into 20 zones to encourage the positional play he wants. He continued to encourage his side to press high up the pitch, squeezing the space and relying on the goalkeeper to mop up behind the defensive line. And this season, it has paid off.
If there was, ultimately, a sense of anticlimax about the way the title was confirmed, it was born largely of just how good City have been this season. If they win three of their last five games they will break the record for points won in the Premier League. If they manage 11 more goals they will set a new scoring record. Yes, they’ve spent a net £360m on players under Guardiola but have played football of extraordinary aesthetic quality, the sort of football that was supposed to be impossible amid the hurly-burly of the English game.
And yet, there is a flaw. City went out of the Champions League against Liverpool in the quarter-final largely because of three goals conceded in a 20-minute spell. Similar collapses keep on undermining Guardiola sides; he has not won the tournament since leaving Barcelona. It’s extremely difficult to get through a Guardiola midfield, but if you can, his sides are defensively vulnerable. More than that, their response to a setback often seems to be panic, as though those schoolboys Ibrahimovic described lack the personality to grab a game and yank it back their way.
This is the Philosopher’s dilemma: the way he demands his players subordinate their individuality to his system is precisely what prevents them reacting effectively when things begin to go wrong. For this City side to be considered truly great, the Champions League is probably necessary, but seven league titles in three countries over nine seasons as a coach is a remarkable record – and Guardiola has proved his philosophy can prosper in England.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of “Angels With Dirty Faces” (Orion)
This article appears in the 18 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge