Champions League final - Has Man City's Pep Guardiola overtaken Sir Alex Ferguson as the best manager ever?
If Pep Guardiola wins the Champions League for a third time, to go with a ninth league title already secured, where does it leave him in the pantheon of the greatest managers ever? Pete Sharland looks at some of the arguments in favour of the Spaniard as well as the ones often levelled against him ahead of Saturday’s big match.
Depending on who you ask you will get different answers. Bill Shankly and Sir Matt Busby helped build two of the most famous clubs in the world. The Dutch would put forward Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff whilst the Italians would tout Arrigo Sacchi, Marcello Lippi and Giovanni Trapattoni. Brian Clough produced extraordinary results at Derby County and Nottingham Forest but Vincente del Bosque oversaw one of the most dominant international teams we’ve ever seen. Of course Arsene Wenger had a profound effect on English football and the most famous unbeaten season ever.
And hang on, are we just ignoring the fact that Jose Mourinho won a Champions League with Porto? Then changed the entire fortunes of Chelsea as a club. Carlo Ancelotti won the Champions League as both a player and manager and then with two different clubs when in the dugout. Jurgen Klopp gave us rock and roll football. Hipsters will want you to consider Valeriy Lobanovskyi, one of the game’s great innovators.
Generally most people, even Liverpool fans, would agree that the greatest of all time is Sir Alex Ferguson, winner of 13 Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues with Manchester United.
Sir Alex Ferguson
Image credit: Getty Images
But could his position be under threat soon?
Should Manchester City beat Chelsea in the Champions League final on Saturday their manager, Pep Guardiola, will move into esteemed company. He will become one of just four managers to win three Champions League titles, along with Bob Paisley, Zinedine Zidane and Ancelotti. Plus he will become the sixth person to win the competition with different clubs, joining Ancelotti, Ernst Happel, Ottmar Hitzfeld, Jupp Heynckes and Mourinho. He is already one of seven to win it as both a player and manager.
Domestically, Guardiola is now sitting at nine titles across Spain, Germany and England. Whatever way you look at it his resume is impressive. It should get even bulkier given he is only 50 and recently said he thinks he will retire later than he initially planned.
Guardiola, who previously said he wouldn’t want to manage into his 70s like Ferguson or Roy Hodgson, said at the start of this year:
Before, I thought I was going to retire soon. Now I'm thinking I'm going to retire older. So, I don't know.
He signed a contract extension in November that will keep him at City until 2023.
Given his current levels of success you’d expect at some stage that Guardiola will move onto three Champions League titles, be that Saturday or in the future, and he seems odds on to be the first manager to win four. Give it another decade and perhaps he would have overtaken Ferguson’s Premier League tally, and maybe even his total tally, including his three Scottish Premier Division wins with Aberdeen.
Image credit: Getty Images
Would that make him the greatest to ever stand, or crouch, in the dugout?
How you answer that probably depends on your philosophy. There will be some who will defend Guardiola to the last, whilst some will never recognise him as even a top five manager, let alone the best. In many ways it’s remarkable how polarising he is.
The argument for Guardiola is his relentless winning. He has nine domestic league titles in 12 seasons. You can make it 10 in 13 if you want to include the Tercera Division he won in his solitary year in charge of Barca’s B team in 2007-08.
There is also his footballing philosophy, his high-intensity possession-focused system that is unlike anything we’ve quite seen before. A blend of the old and the new. He’s never been afraid to throw in young players either, which started at Barcelona, one of the clubs at the forefront of youth development, and has continued right up to Phil Foden this year at City.
There’s also the players he has improved. Dani Alves, Pedro Rodriguez, Raheem Sterling, Joao Cancelo, Joshua Kimmich, David Alaba and Gerard Pique are just some of the players whose careers may not have hit the heights they have without Guardiola’s influence. His work with players is famous, trying to extract every inch of talent they have in their bodies.
However Ferguson can pretty much match that step for step. He developed academy players (Class of '92 anyone?), he was a serial winner, plus his motivational skills were the stuff of legend. There’s an argument that no manager has got as much out of his players as Ferguson. The post-Ferguson United collapse was a perfect demonstration of how much he was tricking us as to the quality of his squads.
Alex Ferguson with Cristiano Ronaldo
Image credit: Imago
It’s interesting because their philosophies are different. Ferguson gave his players more freedom and often relied on his man-management ability, leaving the tactical side of things to Carlos Queiroz and Mike Phelan. Guardiola obsesses over the tiny details to try and find an advantage. Of course both can be extremely intense.
Unfortunately, we can’t have this conversation about the greatest of all time without talking about money. Finances within football distort most things and that can happen in this conversation as well.
Put simply, Guardiola’s detractors will often point to the sheer amount of money spent, particularly at City. The line of thinking is that it is easy to win titles if you have the best players.
On the one hand, this is definitely correct. Guardiola has spent at an obscene rate at City, probably helped by the owner’s limitless pockets. Although it must be said that their record signing, Ruben Dias at £64 million, is lower than that of PSG, Juventus, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and, somewhat remarkably, Arsenal.
What does this show? Not a lot. Cumulative expenditure is more instructive of course, but it is interesting to see how Guardiola often spreads the cost rather than splurging on just one player. Now, that could be blown out of the water later this summer if City do go all out for Harry Kane but even that would be extremely out of character.
In some instances this is City using their immense wealth to activate release clauses, in others it is a case of them using that wealth to close deals quickly, something Chelsea have done in the past. In some instances it’s the selling club drumming up a few extra million because it’s City. What we’re trying to say is, sometimes the fees are not Guardiola’s fault.
Josep Guardiola of Manchester City with the Sport Director Txiki Begiristain during the UEFA Champions League Group stage match Atalanta BC v Manchester City Fc at the San Siro Stadium in Milan, Italy on November 6, 2019
Image credit: Getty Images
In fact, hitting Guardiola with the money thing is really weird given that he always worked with a scouting hierarchy above him. Unlike Ferguson or Wenger, Guardiola doesn’t really get involved in transfers, he usually identifies players or types of players he thinks he needs and leaves it to the sporting director and his team.
Do you think Guardiola cares that City spent £64 million on Dias after spending so much on John Stones and Kyle Walker? Do you think he cares that City decided to go for Dias after being unable to get a reasonable deal in place for Kalidou Koulibaly, Jules Kounde or Jose Gimenez and then actually got Dias for cheaper by selling Nicolas Otamendi to Benfica? Or do you think he only cares that he got one of the players he told the sporting team that he’d be happy with?
It’s not as if he was going mental when he was at Barcelona or Bayern Munich, two clubs that traditionally tend not to spend as heavily as English clubs. He had big outlays of course, but they were normally confined to one per season. It’s only at City where the rules have gone out of the window but that’s probably in part because he’s at City and their limitless access to wealth - and in a league that has more TV money than sense. Why wouldn’t City use their financial advantage in the market? It’d be nonsensical not to. It’s not their fault that regulation in football is weak.
Of course he has made mistakes and so have those above him, there is no such thing as a guarantee, but heck you can point at Anderson, Juan Sebastian Veron, Alexis Sanchez, Mateja Kezman, Park Chu-Young and Andre Santos, amongst others to show that no-one is perfect.
Look, if you want to, you can go back and look at the spending of clubs like Manchester United or Real Madrid in the past and adjust for inflation, like this impressively dedicated City fan:
The reason being is that football’s history is littered with clubs spending amounts that are ridiculous relative to the time. For years the general public have bemoaned the gaudiness of transfer fees, this is nothing new.
There are countless players signed for stupid amounts of money who never lived up to their price tags whilst at the same time an equal number of players who far outperformed their price. If some of these players end up staying for seven, eight, nine, 10 years, or even more, then the investment is worth it for the club. City have great examples of this in Fernandinho, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, signed for a combined £85-95 million, depending on which reports you believe. At the time of writing, City have a combined 28 years of service out of those three. Ferguson had Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney, for example.
Seriously, on a side point why does everyone care about who’s spent more? It’s different now. Scouting is more competitive than ever and fees have been blown out of the water across the globe as the Champions League pumps money into the game and clubs outside of Europe, from America and China, start to get involved as well. Managers throughout history have spent money, that isn’t about to change any time soon. You can spend money and still fail, you still have to produce the results as a manager, and that’s something that Guardiola definitely does.
For this writer one of Ferguson’s most impressive traits, aside from his ability to get players to play above their ability, is the way he rebuilt his teams. There was the team that he first built, that got United back to where they needed to be, and that was a decent-sized rebuilding job. Then the team that dominated at the turn of the millennium, had legendary battles with Wenger’s Arsenal and won the European Cup. Then there is the team he built in response to Mourinho’s Chelsea that won a second European title as well as five Premier League titles in seven years.
Guardiola hasn’t had to do that yet. His rebuild of Barca, who were in some disarray in 2008 when he took over, was impressive. His attempt to evolve with Zlatan Ibrahimovic did not go well but the 2011 team was notable for the way Guardiola put more of a La Masia stamp on the squad. His evolution with City in response to Liverpool is the next best example of his flexibility, something that we didn’t always see and is an encouraging managerial development.
As mentioned at the top of this article, there are some people who will never give Guardiola the credit he deserves. He could win five Champions Leagues and it wouldn’t be enough for them. As with the best player ever it will come down to age and personal preference but what cannot be denied is this; Guardiola is on course to go down as one of the best managers ever. If he can stay at City for four or five more years and continue to dominate at home and abroad his record will speak for itself. If he can go to Italy and prove himself, like Mourinho did, that could push him over the top. For now though, Ferguson remains top of the pile, and we will certainly never see his like again, but maybe in 10 years' time the conversation will look quite different…