x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A hard act to follow

When Barcelona pronounce themselves "mes que un club", knowing nods are exchanged. Barcelona are indeed more than a club, and Pep Guardiola is more aware of that than most.

There are fewer Catalans as proud of their club as the manager Josep Guardiola is of Barcelona.
There are fewer Catalans as proud of their club as the manager Josep Guardiola is of Barcelona.

Had anyone else adopted such a slogan, their pretensions would have been the subject at mockery. When Barcelona pronounce themselves "mes que un club", knowing nods are exchanged. Barcelona are indeed more than a club, and Pep Guardiola is more aware of that than most. It is rare that manager and club share so many ideals. A believer in a Catalan national team, Guardiola is a product of the club's academy who went on to captain, and now manage, Barcelona.

"He is a man who guarantees the continuation of a footballing concept that has led this club to so much success," said the club president, Joan Laporta. For a much-criticised owner, Guardiola lends a credibility. For a club whose fiercest rivals have won the last two titles, he restores morale. And for the team? That is the most significant issue. An underperforming side with an unproven manager cannot survive on past deeds alone. After mustering a single goal and a solitary point from his first two La Liga matches, Guardiola has overseen two wins in four days containing nine goals.

Barcelona's talent means they always have the capacity to run riot. It is the quest for consistency which has proved problematic and that continues in tomorrow's derby with Espanyol. His rhetoric suggests he and Laporta share a vision. The manager was pleased "that I see a team that makes the effort and plays as a unit". Laporta spoke of a "spirit of sacrifice". It appeared a far cry from the extravagance of recent times, when Barca seemed intent on recreating Real Madrid's galactico era. It is no longer excess all areas.

Guardiola played with Hristo Stoichkov, Romario and Ronaldo, but such criticisms were never levelled at him. Yet his appointment appears predicated on the assumption that his qualities as a player are his characteristics as a person. He was a reassuring presence on the pitch, but does his own positional sense make him tactically astute? Can he pick a player as well as he picked a pass? And that is the crux of the matter. Glenn Hoddle, another who acquired cult status as a midfielder, had wonderfully expressive feet, but struggled to communicate with his charges upon his return to Tottenham. English football has long laboured under the assumption that captaincy is the ideal preparation for management. Wholehearted leaders are often less effective in the dugout.

It is different in Spain, but Barca's identity is central to Guardiola's appointment. Without his playing career, his appointment would have been inconceivable. No other major European club has such an inexperienced coach. But at the Nou Camp, where Johan Cruyff captured the imagination as both player and manager, Guardiola has the task of emulating his mentor. Having knitted together the team of the 1990s, now he has to unite the disparate factions in the 21st-century side.

The initial gambit of proclaiming the availability of Deco, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o suggested a newcomer's naivety. AC Milan bought the Brazilian for a cut-price fee, while there were no takers for the Cameroonian. Eto'o remains and, in Thierry Henry's absence, he provided the attacking spearhead against Gijon. With six so far, Eto'o is Barcelona's most reliable goalscorer and, with Cruyff's influence pervading, the 4-3-3 system stays. That means a choice between him and Henry.

Andres Iniesta was moved into the front three on Saturday. That may suggest, in keeping with Guardiola's roots, that another product of Barcelona's youth system will play a pivotal role. Yet at this embryonic stage, judgments can only be made with certainty about his playing career. This is a man who was a symbol of the club. The hope is he will prove a second Cruyff. The danger is that his reputation, established slowly, will be destroyed swiftly.

sports@thenational.ae