EPL 2016/17: Football beauty in the eye of the beholder for Pep Guardiola
Pep Guardiola has been criticised and questioned for failing to win a trophy this season, but his own real mark of success goes much deeper.
It was the statement that everyone knew was true, but few expected him to say. Pep Guardiola has reached the end of a long and draining debut season at Manchester City, but for the first time in his managerial career, he has no silverware to show for his efforts.
If he had been at any other 'big' club he would have been sacked, Guardiola surprisingly said it himself recently as he addressed the assembled press and media ahead of the final few games of the English Premier League season.
But Pep was not putting more pressure on himself, he was merely mocking the mentality of what constitutes success in the modern game. For Guardiola, success is not measured in silverware. His ambitions are set much higher.
Success for Guardiola is implementing the perfect tactical plan, it is watching his side play perfect football, it is being responsible for actions on the training ground that come together on a match day to create the perfect passage of play. It is getting the best out of his players, witnessing a moment of magic at the end of a constructed build-up, embracing the journey from defence to midfield to attack.
Guardiola won numerous titles as the manager of both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Such success is not rare to them and is the minimum requirement for any manager that takes charge of either club.
But winning trophies in the right way is the real challenge for Guardiola, and his philosophy is not to win at just about any cost. For Guardiola, winning is playing in the right way, and if the performances are consistently at the standard he expects from his players, then the results will follow. The trophies can then finally arrive. It is the different elements of each game that matter, the fine margins.
And that is what separates Guardiola from his peers. Pundits will pounce upon his vulnerability, basking in the triumph of what they see as his failure to conquer the English Premier League like he did in Spain and Germany.
The challenge is a far more difficult one, but failing to win a trophy this season should not be considered as a failure, it is merely another step in the journey to the long-standing perfection that he insists upon in his utopian dreams. Guardiola knows that there are areas in which his side must improve, but his ideals should not be criticised for a lack of tangible assets.
A student of Johan Cruyff, Guardiola has built his managerial ideals on how the game is played, and not on what his teams have won. He expressed great delight early in the season when his side were held by Liverpool, purely through the beauty of the performance of his team and how his tactical plan had been implemented.
They did not win the game, and in normal circumstances that would have soured the moment for any other manager, but Guardiola has a higher platform in which to judge the efforts of his players, and the performance in the draw that day was worth more to him than three points.
It is a philosophy that can be difficult to comprehend, but once it is understood, it emphasises how much work he still has to do at Manchester City.
Antonio Conte also arrived in the summer and has taken the English Premier League by storm through leading Chelsea to the title. Their lack of European commitments this season has played a significant factor in allowing Conte to implement a completely new tactical system, and he was allowed the time on the training ground to perfect his plans between league games.
With the system now established at Stamford Bridge, the UEFA Champions League should not prove too disruptive, but will instead be a new physical and psychological challenge for him and his squad.
Guardiola is again expected to be busy in the summer transfer window, and he has the financial power at his disposal to go out and make some significant signings. However, they will be brought in for a reason, and that reason will be because they suit the ideals of his footballing philosophy, and not because of how many goals they can create or score.
Guardiola works himself to an intense level, and his pursuit of excellence is as tiring as it is admirable. It will take time to consistently produce the perfect plan, while the perfect game is virtually impossible to achieve, especially in a division as intense as the English Premier League.
But where Guardiola has strength is in those that finally brought him to the club. It is no secret that he has always been their preferred choice, and their long-running pursuit to appoint him means that they will not dispose of his services easily. It is just as important for Guardiola's employers to buy into his philosophy, aims and idealism as much as it is the players, and perfection only remains possible if he has the support and belief of both of these parties.
Barcelona produced beautiful football under the guidance of the Spaniard. Inspired by Lionel Messi and the likes of Xavi and Andreas Iniesta, they defined a generation and set a standard that every subsequent manager at the Camp Nou has had to work in the shadow of.
The Barcelona fans now expect perfection as a direct result of what Guardiola's team were able to produce, and it was that era in football history that made him the only target for Manchester City in their quest to take over the world. It is inevitable that trophies will arrive at the Etihad Stadium under Guardiola; the personnel at his disposal make any other outcome impossible, but it is the performance in getting there that will count towards Guardiola's eventual legacy and what represents success in his own mind.