Yes, it’s St Pep who I’m blaming for Wednesday night’s defensive capitulation at Newcastle.
It’s all down to him.
So not unreasonable for you to ask me why.
Pep’s free flowing Barcelona side from 2008-2012 captured the imagination of the world’s football fans. Players, coaches, pundits, cynical old hacks and football fans alike. The way they played the game seemed to redefine football, turning it from mere sport to a sub-division of the entertainment industry.
Barcelona were showbiz. Barcelona were Hollywood in polyester mesh.
Barcelona were either the team you loved or the team you wanted to love. With Guardiola, Messi and the midfield pairing of Xavi and Iniesta ruling the heavens.
Whilst making everyone else feel that they and their team were sat in the depths of footballing hell.
It must have felt that way for the management and players at Manchester United.
The 2008/09 season saw them win their eleventh Premier League title, thus, in doing so, retaining the status that they had also won at the end of the previous season. Their playing squad included the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs, Vidic and Ferdinand.
Their dominance was so total that, come the end of that season, six of their players were named in the PFA Team of the Year whilst one of them (Vidic) was named Premier League Player of the Season. In addition to all of that (and there’s more but I won’t bore you with the list of awards and accolades), Sir Alex Ferguson won the Manager of the Year award for the tenth time.
Little wonder, therefore, that his latest and very nearly greatest team of delights got to the final of the Champions League at the end of the season, seeing off, in doing so, opposition of the proven calibre of Villarreal, Inter Milan, Porto (don’t mistake that vintage with the shambles that turned up at Leicester earlier in the week) and Arsenal in the process.
Barcelona then, in the final. A fitting final people said; the two best club sides in Europe.
Except you wouldn’t have thought so as you watched the game, witnessing, in the process, Guardiola’s side deal with their opponents with contemptible ease; their 2-0 victory as convincing and dominant a win by that scoreline as you will ever see.
It was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters at their peak. Toying with the opposition, teasing and taunting them, and, ultimately, winning with both ease and good grace. Winning almost apologetically, winning as if they had hoped that their opponents would at least give them some semblance of a game but, as it wasn’t to be, well, they’d just get on with the job in hand.
The old fashioned number nines in football’s seventies and eighties heyday used to be asked if scoring a goal was better than sex. Refreshingly, one, at least, in Frank Worthington replied that no, it most certainly was not. But most, strangely, concurred. Yes, scoring a goal really was better than sex.
Well, come the naughty noughties, if football was great sex, then Barcelona were playing it. And making it last.
And that is where the trouble begins.
Because fans of other clubs started wondering why their team wasn’t playing like Barcelona as well.
It wasn’t about the winning or the dominance. Most pretty much accepted that there wouldn’t be any of that.
But they could at least be entertained.
And it caught on.
Club owners, most of whom are fans at heart, began to think the same way.
And, slowly but surely, discontent at players and managers started to move from not being happy because their clubs weren’t winning matches to expressing dissatisfaction that the team wasn’t playing ‘entertaining’ football.
Fans started to claim that they’d rather lose a thrilling encounter 4-3 than bore and grind their way to a tedious 1-0 win.
Sam Allardyce, in particular, started to feel the wrath of the West Ham support.
Under Allardyce, the Hammers had a more than reasonable 2014/15 season, ending it in 12th place with victories against Liverpool and Manchester City along the way.
The sort of season, you suspect, we would all love to have in the Premier League. But I’ll come on to that shortly.
Yet, despite all of that, rumours surrounded Allardyce’s tenure at the club from the off.
He was too dour, the football was too dull. We are, the fans pointed out, West Ham.
Entertain us. Like it was in the days of Martin Peters, Ken Brown and John Bond.
David Gold and David Sullivan listened. They do, after all, have a successful track record in knowing exactly what keeps middle-aged men happy when it comes to entertainment.
Out went boring old Sam. And in came super sexy and sophisticated Slaven Bilic.
He’d bring style, sophistication and a sense of panache to the club. And then some.
And maybe he has? Yet, at the time of writing, Bilic’s team are 18th in the Premier League. They’re still entertaining people mind you. In their six league games played so far, their fans have witnessed 23 goals being scored, a healthy ratio of nearly 4 goals a game.
Which is all very well. But sixteen of them have been scored against them.
I bet their fans would like some Big Sam-type stability and organisation right now. Plus a few 1-0 wins.
Entertaining football is all very well. But you’ve got to be able to get away with it.
John Bond entertained us all with Bacchus-like abundance when he was Norwich manager.
But he could afford to do so; given the calibre of players he had available to him during his time at the club.
Peters, Paddon, Neighbour and Suggett to name but four. Plus Kevin Keelan. Yes, even the goalkeeper was an entertainer first and footballer second.
I was lucky enough to spend a morning in the company of Kevin Bond not so long ago. Much of the talk was, naturally enough, about his father. And I wasn’t particularly surprised when Kevin said to me, in the course of our conversation, “…we never did much defensive training under Dad”.
Fast forward now to the 2012/13 season. Chris Hughton’s last full campaign in charge at the club.
As things turn out, it ends up being the Canaries second best ever season in the Premier League as well as the sixth best ever league finish in the club’s history.
Not too shabby you would say. The sort of campaign we would, dare I say it, yearn for and treasure forever if it was to happen next season. Providing, of course, we get promoted this time around.
Yet we weren’t particularly appreciative at the time.
Hughton was, for most of that season, labelled as a dull and unadventurous manager. The football being played at the club was, according to many, the “worst” they had ever seen from a Norwich City team.
He was too dour, the football was too dull. We are, the fans pointed out, Norwich City.
Entertain us. Like it was in the days of Martin Peters, Ken Brown and John Bond.
We certainly had entertainment on Wednesday night. Seven goals and chances galore. A game to delight the neutral. A bit like the one we played at Carrow Road against Liverpool last season.
Entertainment in abundance. But it only works if it goes your way. If it’s an entertaining game and your team loses, do you still go home happy?
I don’t. I just want to win. Every. Single. Game.
If we entertain in the process, then great. Fantastic. Yet, given the choice of losing 4-3 or winning a turgid game 1-0 then I’ll take the latter.
Pep Guardiola has, through his efforts at Barcelona, changed how many fans perceive the game. Our expectations have grown; our sense of self entitlement has gone through the roof. We want it all and we want it now.
That ‘Pep effect’ is filtering down to all levels of the game.
Portsmouth sacked Andy Awford as their manager in 2015. I was assured by two friends, who are Pompey season ticket holders, that one of the major reasons he had to go was that the football on offer was dull, boring and unimaginative.
We are Portsmouth. Entertain us.
Everyone is doing it. Everyone wants entertainment.
During the film Gladiator, the coach of Maximus has a quiet word with him before one of his fights in the arena.
“All you do is kill, kill, kill. They don’t want a butcher, they want a hero. We want them to keep coming back. So don’t just hack them to pieces. Remember, you are an entertainer”.
Minutes later, after dispatching six opponents with no little flair, Maximus imports that immortal line to the crowd.
“Are you not entertained?”
The arena was, after all, show business. And the gladiators were the performers of their day. Today’s footballers and football stadiums are the modern day equivalent.
Entertainment first, results second? It would have seemed so, even back then.
Maximus Decimus Meridius brought entertainment to the fictitious masses eighteen hundred years ago.
Pep Guardiola has done the same today.
And we all want a little bit of it. But at any cost?