Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Guardiola has shirked responsibility in rebuilding Barcelona's team

Let's agree that Pep Guardiola, having inherited the greatest concentration of beautifully groomed talent in modern football – the core of which in two years won the European Championship and World Cup under the separate leadership of such crusty old characters as Luis Aragones and Vicente del Bosque – did some wonderful, luminous work in his four-year stint at the Nou Camp.

This, surely, is giving the apparently jaded young Caesar of coaching not a centavo more than his due. However, it is still necessary, rather than niggardly, to say that some of the eulogies that came yesterday when he announced his need for a year-long sabbatical flew so far over the top they were in danger of collecting snow up in the sierra.

Firmly in this category, you have to believe, is the widely accepted belief that Roman Abramovich is in a fever to sign the coach who has, like it or not, walked away from the most basic challenge that can ever face a heavyweight member of his trade.

It is the obligation to re-make a great team, not as the kind of much-trumpeted "project" so haplessly announced by the ill-fated Andres Villas-Boas at Chelsea, but as a seamless response to evidence that a once superb team is in need of some re-shaping.

Maybe the requirement is major surgery; perhaps it is just a nip and a tuck. This is not of ultimate importance, not compared to the vital need for new sense where a deeply frustrated team is heading.

Certainly in the case of a team as stocked with natural-born brilliance as Barça you have to believe that some measured tinkering would be an adequate response.

Messi, Xavi and Iniesta didn't shed their reputation as one of the most sublimely effective triumvirates in the history of football against Real Madrid and Chelsea. They suggested a pressing need for a shift in direction, a little new impetus and inspiration, which of course was the job of their extravagantly lauded coach.

Instead, Guardiola seemed rather more concerned about the accumulation of pressure heaping on his shoulders. Yesterday he had some of the manner of a martyr, not least when saying things like: "Four years is enough – to be in the face of the media every three days for four years is demanding" and "I'm going with the understanding that I have done my duty." With a yearly roll-over contract, the latter point can hardly be disputed.

Yet unease over the heroic profile is not so easy to dismiss.

A number of great managers – starting with Jose Mourinho – might say the ordeal of the bi-weekly press call is somewhat reduced when you can spend at least some parts of the other five days reading that your only remaining challenge is to walk on water.

Abramovich, we know, became increasingly restive when some sections of the English media took a similar stance on Mourinho. Could it now be that he believes pretty much everything he reads about Guardiola? If it is so, he might well be advised to let the Catalan paragon smell the flowers for a while and grant a little more time to Roberto di Matteo, who didn't walk into the most flourishing culture in the world game but a club breaking up before our eyes.

Maybe Guardiola is being merely smart. Perhaps he is going to the bank where he has such huge reserves to cash in a little breathing space. His kudos is so massive that he may well be able to afford to hand the reins to his Man Friday Tito Vilanova for a year, then return, perhaps after the signing of someone like Robin van Persie and an adjustment to the role of Messi, and then face the future again with a fresh set of garlands.

In the meantime, Abramovich might ponder the fact that he would be giving Guardiola precisely the chore that was dumped into the lap of Di Matteo. This was to create something positive from what had come to resemble a football version of civil war.

We have to wait for the Champions League and FA Cup finals against the impressive Bayern Munich and, surely on this occasion, a highly motivated Liverpool, to know quite the extent of the temporary manager's achievement but already it is not much short of breathtaking.

If we get right down to it, he has done something that was expected of Guardiola before the pivotal games with Real Madrid and Chelsea. He gave his players a sense of who they were and what they might just achieve. If neither of his game-plans lifted the soul, they certainly brought the possibilities down to earth.

Guardiola, who confirmed that yesterday's announcement was of a decision that had been fixed in his mind for at least six months, apparently had nothing new to offer before the trials at the Bernabeu and Nou Camp. He invited Messi and Xavi and Iniesta to do for him all those things that were bequeathed when he took office; all those components of a beautiful, relentless system invigorated by endless, at times impossible, skill.

In fact Guardiola was suggesting strongly that he might walk away as long ago as last spring. In some ways it dominated the aftermath of Messi's brilliant dissection of Manchester United at Wembley. When Sir Alex Ferguson was told of the possibility he had just a few words of caution for his young conqueror, saying that in the football life it was a rare privilege indeed to work with the likes of Messi and the players who augmented his genius so perfectly. Indeed, it was something that might never come again.

That, anyway, was the reflection of a football man not without certain achievement, one who was already facing again the need to build a fourth team carrying his signature. It is, of course, the tyranny that football sooner or later imposes on everyone, this requirement to make a new side. Maybe Guardiola knows it well enough – and was yesterday merely delaying the end of a charmed existence.

Belfast Telegraph


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