An Aching Kind of Growing

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Some things have a way of shocking you when they have no business doing so. A tyrannical figure of popular culture, bowing at the altar of truths unspoken for years, decades even, on his (always “his”) way out to pasture; an airline bumping your flight up two minutes, giving you reason to engage in cognitive dissonance between “What difference does that make?” and “Time in travel is everything”; a disgraced senator riding near-hilariously antiquated fantasies to a too-slim loss of his seat and, as far as everyone is concerned, his relevance.

While the mountains that moved to make some recent changes refused to rattle in the English Premier League to the extent that they once did for the likes of Claudio Ranieri and company, the stars keep dressing themselves up and shivering just enough for a once-beleaguered and tormented club. With its 4-0 win over Swansea City on Wednesday, Manchester City established a new record for consecutive league wins. At the center of this triumphant firestorm is one Pep Guardiola, the ex-“Next-Greatest Manager Ever” and a man of footy demons both external and internal.

There’s an old[1] adage which suggests that the toughest test in European soccer lies on an otherwise ordinary weeknight in adverse conditions in Stoke-on-Trent, home of Lemmy Kilmister and the British pottery industry. Sure, Messi could do it in the Spanish sun on any given Lord’s Day, but he would never assume his birthright as the Greatest To Ever Do It™ unless he came to England and played for a club in the world’s greatest league[2].

Managers take on a less substantive throne, at least until a club’s fan base or board grows tired of platitudes and beauty preceding output. How Arsene Wenger maintains his place at the head of Arsenal after all of the diabolical inactions he’s taken, for example, is a mystery perhaps best saved for St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.

With Pep Guardiola, however, patience is the entire gameplan, not only for his starting XI, or the others left out of the initial lineup, or the fans of the club over whom he presides at any given moment, but for us all. Pep is the exceptional guru king specialist to whom you cater your Friday night in order to be at his yoga class on Saturday morning, early. Pep knows best.

At least, that’s what you have to convince yourself when watching this Man City team, a side that, despite a consistency of talent over the past half-decade, has never looked better than it does right now. David Silva, at 31, has assumed a Xaviesta-esque air as playmaker while still creating opportunities for himself at an alarming rate; Kevin De Bruyne is similarly capable of anything at any given moment, although his outbursts are less predictable due to his superior athleticism; Sergio Aguero sees in the eye of the needle an adequate scoring opportunity, at worst.

Offense was never the problem. Since it became a “big club” in 2008 due to oil ownership and the subsequent influx of endless funds directed at spectacular talent, City has turned out jaw-dropping goals-for and general goal differential lines. Players that have joined the likes of Aguero, De Bruyne and Silva in creating a tenacious atmosphere of would-be instant offense, both just prior to the purchase and since, have included, but are not limited to: Yaya Toure; Samir Nasri; Mario Balotelli; James Milner; Carlos Tevez; Aleksandar Kolarov; Edin Džeko; and Fernandinho, the latter of whose versatility perfectly illustrates the late period, Pep-era Blues, an embodiment of an ethos that nearly died in Madrid in 2012.

Guardiola has had a uniquely enviable run as a manager, in a time when managers are perhaps less-valued and less-regarded than ever[3]. Even after Jose Mourinho digitally wined-and-dined his way to the Manchester United gig after falling out at Chelsea – after falling out at Real Madrid, after falling out at Inter Milan, after falling out at Chelsea, after – Guardiola’s presence in the Premier League is the kind of thing that, had you stopped paying attention to soccer for four years only to tune back in right now, would both alarm and soothe you, a Vicks rub actually working instantaneously where you need it the most.

It is, of course, much to Chairman Mou’s chagrin that Guardiola is again opposing him at all. For all his successes, Mourinho never won a Champions League with Real Madrid, often battling Guardiola’s Barcelona sides in the knockout stages, and, in fact, hasn’t won a European Cup since 2004, the king-making turn he pulled with FC Porto that made him the presumptive boy genius of every egomaniacal soccer fan’s wet dreams.

Like all of us, Mourinho claimed his current position is his dream job, and, like all of us, he may have been stretching some of the truth on his way there. United certainly provides an outlet for his unquestionably rampant egotism, a factor which both admirers and detractors have acknowledged. The siege mentality deserves some credit for withstanding the Glazers’ corporate culture, as well as the self-belief of one Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Even with Mourinho breathing down his neck at every turn, Guardiola has kept a cool head. The same cannot be said of his time in Germany with Bayern Munich or, even, of the end of his record-setting run at Barcelona. Guardiola seems more in control than he has since 2011. Though City routinely maintains the majority of possession, it isn’t the 84-16 view that affords teams just enough time to get complacent. Guardiola, hands off the wheel but with eyes firmly on the speedometer, finally seems at peace, again as the steady figurehead at the helm of one of the world’s greatest sides.

*     *     *

[1] It dates to 2010, which may as well be the Paleolithic Age at this point, courtesy of Andy Gray.

[2] By, presumably, revenue generated, as the quality of play is much more deserving of scrutiny than its reputation generally allows. BUT I DIGRESS–

[3] Which, per Soccernomics, is exactly as it should be, most of the time. Managers are cheerleaders of a different pay grade from you and me, and that is (usually) all. Some, however, do seem to make a statistical difference. Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are exceptions.

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