The Spaniard is poised to bring a style the likes of which England has never seen.
While the Premier League trudged through a congested and grueling holiday schedule, Pep Guardiola was enjoying a sun-drenched escape in Doha, Qatar. He was there to prepare his almost-perfect Bayern Munich side for the second half of the Bundesliga season, in which they will inevitably be crowned champions of Germany. But amid the relaxation and tactical drills, his mind may have been elsewhere: It’s no secret the Spaniard longs for a new club in England, it’s only a matter of which one.
No matter where he ends up, Guardiola’s arrival in the Premier League will be a fascinating collision of personalities, philosophies and cultures. He is a man focused on control — of the ball, space, his players’ dietary habits, and the media. But it make his desire to join the world’s most unpredictable league a daring one. Premier League matches often devolve into track meets, with teams sprinting the length of the pitch in chaotic fervor, relying on pace and strength to overcome opponents as opposed to nuanced tactical execution and skill. And nothing could be more repugnant to the mind of Guardiola.
When he first arrived in Munich, Guardiola faced a similar challenge. His players were grounded in the playing style of Jupp Heynches. As a collective, the team was excellent in possession, and effectively the best counter-attacking side in the world. But Guardiola vowed to dismantle it. He has spent the majority of his tenure teaching his players the one things he values most: control of the game. This lead to his much publicized “15-pass rule,” which dictates that a successful transition from defense to attack must not be completed in less than 15 moves. The idea was completely alien to Bayern, which thrived on speed and athleticism in the open field. It seemed counter-intuitive to put the reigns on such an attack.
But this method of transition is crucial to the way a Guardiola side needs to play. And it worked: the “15-pass rule” gave Bayern an effective structure to fend off the counter-pressing teams of Germany, and diminished the chances of being caught wide open in defense without the ball. The result? Bayern has controlled its matches with a suffocating sense of power. Players are always in the right place at the crucial moment, keeping the opponent caged in one half of the pitch.
Guardiola’s methods are not without criticism. Some say his playstyle is tedious, that he is a hard-line fundamentalist. But that is looking at him through too narrow of a lens. Guardiola is pragmatist guided by principles. There will always be an extra man in midfield, but there will never be a set formation, or a specific tactic.
Guardiola has not manufactured Barcelona 2.0 in Munich. He always knew the Bundesliga would ask different questions than La Liga, and require different answers. He has been a consistent problem-solver, tinkering with line-ups and patterns of play, partly due to recurring injury issues, partly due to his nature of constantly seeking a perfect formula. What has not changed throughout his tenure is that Bayern win, and win in often overwhelming fashion.
What does all of this mean for England? It means Guardiola is poised to bring a style the likes of which the Premier League has never seen. It will take time to develop, but he has proven his ability to play to a team’s strengths while still following his principles. This is a man in his seventh season in the top flight of European football, during which he has won the league title five times, and is well on his way to a sixth. Make no mistake — Guardiola is ready to conquer the Premier League. The question that should be asked is, will it be ready for him?