Belfast Telegraph

Is Pep Guardiola really planning to quit or is it just melodrama?

By Ian Herbert

"I see you don't feel like talking today," Spanish TV journalist Jordi Grau put to Pep Guardiola when attempting to extract some answers from him after a match in April 2011. "No, not so much," the then Barcelona manager replied.

The one-sided conversation, viewable on YouTube, makes the Spaniard's monosyllabic replies to the BBC's Damian Johnson on Monday seem gushing by comparison.

Guardiola bites his lip, fiddles with his nostril and does not look very far from tears as Grau offers a series of questions about Barcelona to him.

"Yes, they are very good," he repeats over and over again - the extraordinary aspect of this exchange being that his players had just beaten Shakhtar Donetsk 5-1 in a Champions League quarter-final at the time. They went on to defeat Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid in the semi-final of a tournament they would win, against Manchester United at Wembley.

The point is that the terse responses to Johnson were of no surprise to seasoned Guardiola watchers. Viewed alongside the Catalan's NBC interview on Monday, in which he said he might be three years away from retirement, they appear superficially to be the signs of a man failing under the pressure of English football.

They are actually just a fairly standard melodrama from an extremely intense individual whose flaw, you might say, is a tendency to overthink the game. It's why his relationships with players have not always been good.

There were all the usual mannerisms of the tortured Guardiola in Monday's interviews - the hand across the forehead; the widening eyes - and this, like the Grau encounter, after a win - against Burnley.

Little wonder that this man needed a full year's sabbatical after three years of battles with Mourinho, the only individual capable of provoking Guardiola into full, on-screen meltdown.

Yet when the dust had settled on a difficult Christmas programme, the word from the Guardiola camp yesterday was more positive than the 45-year-old's demeanour had suggested: namely that he feels the challenge of the Premier League is a marathon not a sprint and that he is upbeat, despite trailing leaders Chelsea by a distance.

Guardiola is not flourishing in all the ways that we might have expected, though. As an individual who arrived at Bayern Munich with such excellent German, honed during his sabbatical, it was perhaps thought that his English would have been better than it is by now.

Irrelevant to his footballing success though it may be, he is still conquering the language. He couldn't locate the word 'foul' in interviews at the weekend, confusing it with the Spanish 'falta' and using 'fault' instead. That created a confused impression of his complaint that Claudio Bravo had been done an injustice.

We can assume that his biggest frustration resides in the transfer market, which failed to deliver him the defenders he identified last summer as the prime requirement.

He is not a big fan of Nicolas Otamendi and knew that there were uncertainties about the fitness of Vincent Kompany so the pursuit of Juventus' Leonardo Bonucci, Athletic Bilbao's Aymeric Laporte and Arsenal's Hector Bellerin were important. None of the targets came to fruition.

Those close to the Spaniard say it was something of a surprise to him when City won their first 10 games.

Look beyond the surface gloss of what he has said this weekend - "I am reaching the end of my coaching career, of this I am sure. I will not be on this bench when I am 60" - and you see that these words do not necessarily signify anything. Given that he is 15 years away from the age of 60, it is hardly a declaration of imminent departure.

City want Guardiola to make them a 'project' and would be delighted if he stayed until 55. Where else is there? Spain and Germany are countries he has done. There is only Italy left. The Middle East would offer riches but no professional stimulation.

It was a measure of the emotion at Guardiola's core that when he struggled in the early weeks at Barcelona in 2008, losing 1-0 in Soria against Numancia on the opening day of the season then drawing 1-1 against Racing Santander, the arrival of Andres Iniesta at his door, to offer support, overwhelmed him.

"People think it is the coach who has to raise the spirits of players; that it is the coach who has to convince players; that it is his job to lead all the time," Guardiola told the authors of 'The Artist', Iniesta's autobiography. "But in truth, he's the weakest link. We're there, vulnerable, undermined by those who don't play, by the media, by the fans. They all have the same objective: to undermine the manager."

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