Pep’s always had players. Messi, maybe the best midfield in the history of the sport in Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets. Lewandowski, Lahm, Boateng. He’s had so many players that he’s been able to discard great ones. He drove Ibrahimovic and Eto’o out of Barcelona and he seems just about done with Aguero despite the fact that all the Argentine forward has ever done is score goals for City. Pep has a particular idea of what kind of player he wants at every position, and anyone who doesn’t live up to that idea is swiftly jettisoned and replaced.
Manchester City probably aren’t yet the team Pep wants them to be, but they’re also eleven points clear in first place of the Premier League, in the middle of a sixteen-game winning streak, and they haven’t lost yet this season in domestic competition. Their most notable recent triumphs include a relatively even win over Manchester United and twin total demolishings of Tottenham and Arsenal. They’re also hammering lesser squads in the same way Pep’s Barcelona and Bayern teams did: 7-2 over Stoke, 6-0 over Watford, 5-0 over Crystal Palace. Their goal differential is plus-44. They’re the best club in England by a mile and, considering that the Spanish giants, Juventus, and Bayern are all having slightly-to-moderately off years, they might very well be the best club in the world.
This didn’t exactly happen by accident—Pep Guardiola is one of the most on-purpose dudes in humankind’s history—but it did happen ahead of schedule and with greater force than anybody expected. City have deep pockets and are terrifically talented, but they’re not far and away the most stacked team in England or indeed Europe. They have recently been making due with Fabian Delph, Perfectly Cromulent Midfielder filling in at left back. Nicolas Otamendi isn’t Pep’s ideal center back, but he looks even better now than he did on his best days with Valencia. Raheem Sterling is improving every game, but he’s neither David Villa nor Arjen Robben. There’s no way to explain this without lapsing into contradiction: City are still slightly slumming it, talent-wise, next to extremely loaded clubs like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, while also being just gobsmackingly fortunate compared even to Champions League sides like Sevilla or Dortmund.
And that’s sort of what that rubs people the wrong way about Pep Guardiola’s success: at worst, he’s had to make due with players who would be worshipped at West Ham. (Well, that and the whole pizza ban thing. The boundlessness of Pep’s asceticism is the most ridiculous thing about him.) He’s never had to fix a truly deficient squad, never had to say to himself I guess my midfield simply isn’t very good this year. We’ll have to play on the counter. He wins with teams that would play pretty well if a ball boy were installed as manager, or, put another way, he takes teams that are great on paper and makes them great in fact. That’s a wholly different feat than having no forwards and lousy fullbacks and somehow finishing fourth. It’s less magical.
Which makes for good grumbling pundit fodder, but also: Man City are playing the most beautiful soccer these days. Pep’s philosophy that all eleven players have a role to play in possession doesn’t have the novelty it did around the time he took the Barcelona job, but it’s been interesting to see him make it work in the rough-and-tumblest league he’s ever managed in, with the most direct group of players he’s ever managed. Though he caught some heat from German traditionalists for playing too daintily, Pep’s Bayern didn’t do tiki-taka. It was a modified version of what flourished in Catalonia, more suited to powerful wingers like Robben and Douglas Costa. They kept the ball, but they ran at defenses too, and short passing wasn’t sacrosanct. They would whack long diagonal balls to the flanks when they could. Robben was permitted to uncork the odd twenty-five yard curler. What developed over Pep’s three years in Munich was a necessary if subtle evolution of his style. He insisted his team play quickly and fluidly, but he didn’t try to make Thomas Muller imitate Pedro.
Manchester City represents another evolution. Though there are some obviously Pep-style players in the squad—it surprises no one that David Silva is amazing in this system—distinctly English talents like Sterling and Kyle Walker have relied throughout their careers more on pace than finessese, and Kevin De Bruyne is performing a role that’s never totally existed in a Guardiola side. It’s part Andres Iniesta, part circa 2006 Frank Lampard. The terrifying prospect is that Pep and City might still be figuring each other out. They could yet produce a higher level. And of course, he’s going to get more players next summer. The back line still has its issues. They could maybe upgrade Fernandinho’s spot, or at least add some depth there.
Which is to say, yes, of course, Pep Guardiola doesn’t achieve what he achieves improbably. But perhaps nobody in the world dominates as inventively as he does. Even last year, when City were occasionally disastrous, they were at least trying some audacious stuff, learning the hard way how to play with a high line, drowning in the ambition of the man who was trying to teach them to breathe underwater. Whereas Jose Mourinho’s United, to cite a random example, were flatly depressing to watch. Pep has a lot, always, but does at least undeniably do something only he can with it.