How Pep Guardiola's pursuit of perfection is destroying the Premier League
It was a question asked with an agenda to stroke the already inflated ego of the Premier League, but the answer was the very opposite of what was expected to come from Pep Guardiola's lips. As a result, the entire outlook on the impact of his Manchester City side has changed forever.
Gary Neville is a Manchester United fan and an Old Trafford favourite, and while he admires Manchester City from a professional perspective, his personal preference would be for the other half of Manchester to be embracing the footballing plaudits that are coming their way. But as Neville concluded his recent interview with Guardiola, the damage of his deepest footballing desire became very apparent.
Neville innocently asked Guardiola for his thoughts on the Premier League and how it compared to the other European leagues that he had worked in. Expecting praise for the product he now endorses, Neville was genuinely shocked to hear Guardiola describe the Premier League as defensive, especially given its reputation as an open and attacking league.
But Guardiola has a very different vantage point to the majority of press, public and television pundits. On Wednesday night, Newcastle United purposely offered nothing with the view of containing Manchester City. Sadly, their blatantly negative approach almost worked, but Guardiola's side laboured past their destructive opponents to claim a 1-0 victory.
However, it was not for the first time, and it has now become such a common approach to dealing with Manchester City that it is largely ignored as a tactic until it is also deployed by their main rivals. Jose Mourinho was scorned for Manchester United's defensive approach in their recent must-win match in the title race, but it was no different to how the majority of opponents now choose to compete against them.
Pep Guardiola is rightly celebrated for what he has achieved, and continues to achieve, in the game. His pursuit of perfection is a never-ending crusade, and his biggest opponent is himself as he continues to work at fine-tuning and improving the most minute aspects of the performance of his team. He is the ultimate perfectionist, and the day he settles for anything less will be the day he walks away from football.
Manchester City knew exactly what they were getting when they attracted Guardiola to their project in the summer of 2016. Chief Executive Ferran Soriano and Director of Football Txiki Begiristain had witnessed the way he had revolutionised Barcelona first hand, and there was an inevitability about Guardiola's appointment from the time that they arrived in Manchester.
Guardiola's Barcelona changed the tactical direction of football for a generation, but like Guardiola himself, the key players had emerged through the ranks of La Masia and understood the values of John Cruyff and how he had inspired Guardiola's philosophy. It was a footballing fairytale in many ways, and the influence of that Barcelona side at their peak on modern football culture will not be fully appreciated for many years to come.
A switch to Germany and Bayern Munich followed Guardiola's sabbatical from the game, and while he began building his own team, he inherited established German stars like Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm and Thomas Muller that formed the core of his team. Like the La Masia graduates, they provided an identity that could not be bought. But while domestic success followed for Guardiola in Germany, UEFA Champions League glory eluded him.
By comparison, Manchester City was a new project, the start of a long-term plan with significant cash reserves to spend. Guardiola is older and wiser than when he took charge of Barcelona a decade ago. He has experienced new leagues, new players, and new rivals. But he has also developed his ever-evolving style of play to a level that means it is now detrimental to the wider game.
Guardiola has a passion for football. It is his drug and appreciates it only in its most perfect form. His knowledge is immense to a level that often leaves him despairing that the triviality and banality of questions asked at press conferences and pre and post-match interviews. He stands above all before him, and his natural honesty is impossible to hide.
But while Guardiola has a passion for perfection, it now appears his perfection is having a much-deeper impact on the Premier League, and the only answer opponents have is to play the complete opposite way. Teams cannot dare to open themselves up against such a formidable collection of attacking talent, and so they sit back with the intention of temporarily destroying the beauty that Guardiola has created.
Does Guardiola accept responsibility? He recognises the Premier League as being the most defensive league in Europe, but does he appreciate that this defensive approach is only saved for the challenge of his side? Each week he works on improving the tiniest tactical elements of his team to make them even better, but each tactical tweak makes their opponents only more likely to respond in a negative way.
Guardiola has the financial resource and backing to go out in January and make his team that much better again, and maybe weaken their rivals in the process. Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez is a good example of such a likely transfer target, but as his team become even stronger, so their opponents will look to destroy their strengths rather than concentrate on those of their own.
Premier League games involving Manchester City should be the most entertaining in Europe, but they have become stale as Guardiola's side are allowed to dominate possession before reaching the highly-concentrated lines of their opponents' midfield and defence. It is not a new challenge for Guardiola from his time in Spain and Germany, but it is a new experience in England, and it is not proving to be a popular one.
Like Lionel Messi at Barcelona, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva are responsible for providing the perfect pass to exploit the very few spaces that Manchester City are able to attack, and even the most defensively solid teams struggle to contain the moments of individual brilliance that these two players can create from nothing.
Guardiola needs those players to be the antidote against such destructive opposition, but long-periods of each and every game are now played out in the final third of the field. It is frustrating to watch and does little to build on the traditions of the Premier League. Considered a league where every team can beat another on their day, there is now an exception to the rule, and Guardiola has created this change.
There is no doubt that Guardiola has changed the modern game during his decade in management, but like the 'tiki-taka' football that he came to resent at Barcelona eventually moved on, there is now a real concern that the brilliance of his Manchester City team will change the landscape of the Premier League forever.
Guardiola has dedicated his career to creating the perfect team, but the brilliance that has evolved through his commitment to his dream is having a clearly negative effect on the overall competition. As much as his team should be celebrated, their perfection has been the breeding ground for a whole new negative approach that has never previously been seen in the Premier League.
Such is Guardiola's passion for the game, it is difficult to see him enjoying the fact that opponents will forsake all that he believes in when they take on his team. He has perfected his side to a level that means they currently cannot be matched, but they are being hampered from playing the perfect way by teams offering nothing but a tactical plan to destroy each and every week.
Guardiola arrived in Manchester in the summer of 2016 with a determination to make a big impression on the Premier League. There is no doubt that he has already succeeded. However, his lasting legacy could prove to be a negative one in the wider context of the competition, and it will be directly through the success of his pursuit of footballing perfection. Sadly it seems, some things are just too good to be true.