“I’m a little bit upset with the Premier League because they put the game when Tiger Woods is back!”
Two days before a huge match against Premier League title rivals Liverpool, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola was talking about golf. Speaking to journalists ahead of a meeting dubbed by many – but not Guardiola nor opposite number Jurgen Klopp – as a potential title decider, Guardiola cut an extraordinarily relaxed figure.
His demeanor marked a significant departure from the stereotype assigned to Guardiola’s management style: a maverick, a touchline-pounding, wildly-gesticulating genius cursed by his superior knowledge of the game and the inability of others to meet his intellectual level. Stereotypes are often wrong of course, but they do tend to start with at least a small kernel of truth. Guardiola is the same football obsessive he has always been; his preparation and tactical planning of him before games goes way and beyond what is considered normal for a professional football manager.
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It was recently reported that one night last month in the middle of the night, Guardiola got up and meticulously analyzed clips of recent matches between Liverpool and Southampton. He has always been like that and he always will.
Yet during his time at Barcelona that intensity and obsession went into overdrive. Combined with the pressure of managing the Catalan giants, Guardiola was left burnt out and in need of a sabbatical.
“I’m more relaxed [now],” Pep said when asked how he deals with games of the magnitude of the upcoming Liverpool tie. “The week before the Champions League final too. I suffer more in October [until] December for the rhythm. I’m not nervous because we can win or lose but we give everything for our people. We know if we don’t perform in our excellent way we don’t have as much changes. Be solid until the last minute.”
It now seems that Guardiola is so relaxed at crucial points in the season – where he knows that much of what will happen will be decided by the hard work done earlier on in the campaign – that he has found new ways to entertain himself during tedious press commitments.
During his first few years in Manchester many interpreted Guardiola’s frequent tetchy interviews – “I am happy, more than you believe. Happy new year” – to be a sign of the pressure getting to him. Now though, in the space of a week, he has held at least three press conferences jam-packed with sassy remarks and playful jokes.
When speaking about his admiration for Liverpool manager Klopp, Guardiola couldn’t resist making a cheeky, light-hearted and unprovoked dig.
“So I [Klopp] says many times we are a rich club so the wine [after the game] will be perfect!” he jested. When asked if City will change their approach for the game on the basis that a draw wouldn’t be a disastrous result, he turned on the sarcasm.
“We train today to sit back 90 minutes. 0-0.” He did so with a dead-straight face, avoiding the faux joviality of a Frank Lampard and leaving that little doubt in everyone’s minds as to whether he was really joking around or not. But of course he was, this was Guardiola at his mischievous best of him.
Or rather that came on Monday ahead of the Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid, a match billed as – and proved to be – attack versus defence. Guardiola has taken on criticism in the past, but never quite in such a sarcastic and almost passive-aggressive way. It was a joy to see him dangle the bait by dropping the phrase “over-thinking” into one of his answers from him, and then see his cheeky smile from him emerge as journalists took the bait and asked if the accusations leveled against him are fair.
“In the Champions League, I always overthink, I always create new tactics and ideas, and tomorrow you will see a new one,” I answered dryly. “I overthink a lot, it’s absolutely fair (to say that). That’s why I’ve had very good results in the Champions League. It would be boring, my job, if all the time I had to win the same way.
“I have to adapt. That’s why I love to overthink with stupid tactics, and if I don’t win I look stupid. Tonight I will take inspiration and do incredible tactics tomorrow. We’ll play with 12 tomorrow.”
Perhaps Guardiola’s recent bout of sass means little, but it does suggest that he is feeling good about the challenges that await City in the coming weeks. A clear-headed manager can only be a good thing for City’s hopes of securing silverware.
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