Under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona have come to represent the very best that any team can offer in the world of football.
The former Spanish international midfielder has overseen a dramatic change in fortunes at the Nou Camp since taking charge in 2008. He had spent the previous season working with the club’s ‘B’ team, before being announced as the replacement for Frank Rijkaard.
Barca hadn’t been deride of success pre-Guardiola, of course, sharing the La Liga title with arch-rivals Real Madrid in a ping-pong style that saw both teams achieve relatively equal levels of silverware in the 00s.
However, the club-legend’s arrival as manager has led to a domination rarely seen in one of world football’s most competitive (between two teams) leagues. The Blaugrana have won three consecutive domestic titles, two European cups and two Club World Cups during Guardiola’s three-and-a-half years in charge. They are favourites once again for the Champions League thisterm.
Real Madrid turned to ‘the special one’ in an effort to stop Barca’s dominance, with Jose Mourinho the man to deny them that third European Cup during his reign at Inter Milan.
And, whilst major success eluded the former Chelsea boss during his first year at the Bernabeu (they won the Copa del Rey), he’s poised to stop the rot at Los Blancos, with an almost unassailable ten-point lead now in place at the top of the table in Spain.
It is, in many ways, the first major test of Guardiola’s time at the helm in Catalonia. True, the loss to Inter was a blow in a season when the Copa del Rey also eluded Barca, but winning the league held the season together.
This season, La Liga isn’t there for Barcelona to fall back on though, and the cracks have started to show as clubs continue to take points off the previously dominant champions, particularly away from home.
Then there’s the issue of Guardiola’s contract, which is taking headlines away from the pitch and into the boardroom. The 41-year-old has only ever signed one-year contract extensions at Barca, but this season more than most, speculation is rife that the manager will walk away after a period of such dominance.
Is the captain leaving his sinking ship? Overwhelming favourites in this season’s Copa and a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League almost assured, Barca aren’t exactly falling without trace.
But, for the first time in a long time, the giants of Spanish football aren’t guaranteed one of the big two trophies they challenge for. A team with Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, three of the four best players in world football.
And, if Guardiola is considering his position because of these ‘hard times’, he’d be showing a trait that is unlikely to sit well in English football.
Heavily linked with the Arsenal managerial position this week, speculation in the British press has claimed that Arsene Wenger could move ‘upstairs’, allowing Guardiola to take the main position at the Emirates Stadium.
Given the comparisons between Barcelona and Arsenal, with the football the Gunners try and in-frequently have played this season, it’s easy to see why Guardiola is seen as the ideal man to take charge in north London.
However, life is much harder for Wenger, who has always worked within a self-imposed tight budget to try and bring success. It’s true that trophies have been in short supply, but Arsenal have never been far away from success in recent seasons.
This term, it can’t be denied that they have fallen off the pace though, hence Guardiola’s link to the club. But, there are many questions that are still to be answered in his career, which wouldn’t instantly make his appointment the right move.
Firstly, the English league is much more competitive than the Spanish in terms of depth. The argument over which league is better isn’t one I’ll be getting into here, but the Premier League produces many more examples of ‘lower’ teams upsetting the odds against the so-called big-boys. Would Guardiola be able to handle the defeats?
Also, the Gunners’ biggest signing in recent years was Andrei Arshavin, who joined for an undisclosed fee believed to be in the region of £15 million back in February 2009. Whilst Barca have built much of their success around players developed through their La Masia academy, big-name signings have also helped aid success.
Dani Alves (£23m), David Villa (£40m), Javier Mascherano (£19m) and Alexis Sanchez (€23m plus bonuses) are three high-profile additions in the Guardiola era, and then there is Cesc Fabregas to throw into the mix too.
Guardiola simply wouldn’t have that type of money to spend, and would need to pull off signings of the quality of Gerard Pique (£5m in 2008) on a more regular basis to bring success to Arsenal, or any club in England for that matter.
With the Financial Fair Play rules set to kick-in over the next three years, such spending is unlikely at any club in England, even Manchester City, who tightened their belt this summer in an effort to avoid future sanctions.
Guardiola has never been tested to the same extent as Wenger, and other managers have shown that success in England can take time. Andre Villas-Boas is under constant pressure at Chelsea, having failed to deliver instant success in a similar way to his time at FC Porto. Would Pep be able to handle a similar situation? More importantly, would he stick around if it's taking time.
These are questions we don’t currently know the answer too, and one argument for Guardiola would be that we’ll never find out unless he gets the chance.
My point is that his arrival wouldn’t guarantee instant success, not just for Arsenal, but at any clubs. His achievements at Barcelona would be impossible to replicate literally anywhere in the world. No manager has the same caliber of players at their disposal, and few have a bank-balance to go with it as well.
Many would herald the appointment of Guardiola, possibly at Manchester United in ‘two or three years’ when Sir Alex Ferguson resigns, as a major coup. But a word of warning – the jury is still out on his credentials as a master tactician. Unlike, dare I say it, Mr. Mourinho.