Pep Guardiola is finishing 2017 leaving a certain section of English Premier League fans and followers red-faced, even before winning anything yet! Years of self-praising – calling EPL the best, most competitive, toughest, physical league etc – is now in tatters. All myths busted. Deriding the Catalan manager, before he had even landed – that his football will not work, a cheque-book manager, lucky to have great players, could he do it in a cold night at Stoke City and even Jose Mourinho once mocking that ‘any Anthony could win Champions League with Messi’; It’s all coming back to bite now. Guardiola has torn EPL to shreds. At the time of writing, 18 matches-winning streak, 13 points ahead of second-place (and red-faced Manchester United), scoring 102 goals in 2017 …. the staggering list of records being created every match day is becoming mind-boggling. Achievements, that look tough to break in future, even by Pep Guardiola himself. All #Fraudiola trolls are disappearing as critics are now left with refereeing decisions to crib (and even that’s not happening) or taking morale victory from games where Manchester City are winning by narrow margins!!
Guardiolismo was not affected by injuries!
Guardiola attained all of the above without many of his first choice players (injured) for reasonable periods during the current season. Benjamin Mendy hardly has a part in this record-breaking journey; John Stones is injured for a month plus now; Vincent Kompany – well he may have cumulatively played for just two months; David Silva is off to Spain during the crucial December fixtures and Aguero had a car accident keeping him away for a month. Yet, and yet, Pep’s Man City has been storming ahead, irrespective.
Converting rejects and unknowns to matchwinners
The reason behind this run being the intense work Guardiola and his coaching unit have invested in upgrading the struggling players. I mean look at this – Fabian Delph hardly featured in City’s plans till last year; Tottenham had clearly told Kyle Walker that he was back up to Trippier at best; Raheem Sterling struggled the last two seasons and reports suggested Mangala was all set to be sold off. Essentially Pep converted a few rejects to match winners. To add, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus were unknown to the football world when Pep signed them up in 2016. One year down, they are leading the charge for the most inform team in Europe.
Guardiola vs Valverde
Having said that, Pep has managed this turnaround in roughly seven months since he joined the blue half of Manchester. The results started coming from February 2017 (late last season). But there is one manager in Europe, who started turning around things within two months of being in charge and that too at a club whose expectations and fan demands are much higher – FC Barcelona Manager, Ernesto Valverde.
Valverde had to deliver instantly
At the time of writing, Valverde has made match-winners out of players who looked clueless at Barcelona. Some were lucky not to be sold off in summer – more due to lack of decent offers. Thomas Vermaelen, Paco Alcacer, Andres Gomes and Aleix Vidal are all now contributors to FC Barcelona’s impressive march to the top – Nine points and 14 points clear of the two Madrid giants! There are racing ahead, much beyond expectations. Pep was expected to do very well in his second year at Man City, but fans had doubts off Valverde. While Pep had to silence the EPL ecosystem, Valverde had a tougher job – the club’s fans themselves were not sure of him. The board didn’t give him adequate players following Neymar’s departure, yet he had to deliver. Pep would never be sacked the first year, Valverde never had that level of cushion. He had to deliver from day one.
Barcelona’s summer woes
FC Barcelona had an ordinary 2016-17 season. Point to note, Barcelona’s standards are so high that an ordinary season means winning Copa Del Rey, coming a very very close second in the La Liga race and reaching Quarter Finals of the Champions league! I mean these are numbers, many top English clubs and their fans would dream of. Yet Neymar’s departure, unheralded Paulinho’s acquisition, a transfer window where only known glitter was getting back a once castaway Gerard Deulofeu, new boy Ousmane Dembele’s instant injury and early thrashing to Real Madrid in Kings Cup, sort of made Catalan fans fear … the end was near. That the Catalan independence movement was in parallel generating steam, was further making fans uneasy about the future. Would FC Barcelona remain a club of any relevance a year down?
That was where Ernesto Valverde took over, earnestly!
Getting the ‘rejects’ to perform
Since then FC Barcelona has not lost a single game for 25 games now. The year, 2017, rounded off with a 3-0 thrashing handed to Real Madrid on the day the Galacticos were celebrating their five trophy season, at their own den. Valverde has strengthened the team and solidified the defence with much less talented resources than what his predecessors have done at Nou Camp. All talks if the 1-0 wins were destroying the club’s identity and style of play are now out of the door. His rotation policy, a major problem with Luis Enrique, has ensured Barcelona now have a larger pool of players to take on in the big games. Paco can now start a big game and deliver. Gomes too. Vidal too. Digne too. Unthinkable in Lucho’s era, but now possible. Another unheralded new acquisition, Semedo too.
Doing the unthinkable
Valverde has done some unthinkable things too – Messi is playing deeper and no more caring for Ballon D’Or stats. He gets rested (doesn’t start) at times too. Rakitic is in a more defensive role and Paulinho is now a bull-dozing attacker. Some of the established players are now back to their best – Jordi Alba again making those searing runs; Ter Stegen has been a standout player (recall him letting in near post crucial goal vs Juventus early this year?); and the engine room, Sergio Busquets, is functioning optimally again. All this work within first few months of the head boss joining. Including trying to revive (unsuccessfully it seems now) Gerard Deulofeu. Suddenly Barcelona look the real deal!
Ernesto Valverde is the best manager of 2017-18 season so far
Valverde’s work won’t get the accolades, reverence and coverage that Pep is getting; the latter being in England. But he has silenced the club’s doubting fans, critics and got the entire Barcelona eco-system to believe in him. FC Barcelona are back in business. They tore apart Juventus in one Champions League group game and then Real Madrid at Bernabeu in La Liga. By doing that, before the end of the year, Barca have taken revenge over the teams that stopped them last season. Manchester City are yet to play any team of the calibre we are talking about here – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich, PSG – teams with Champions League winning credentials or potential. Teams which lift trophies every year. Much as I worship Pep, Valverde is my manager of the season, so far. In Pep’s own words, two days ago, he said ‘Barcelona are favourites for the Champions League’. And it’s true.