Opinion: Pep Guardiola’s all time XI

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 14.14.02

Pep Guardiola is the man at the forefront of the Manchester City side that is quite literally tearing up the record books and re-writing them.

The Catalan is seen by a large majority of football fans as the best coach in world football, having brought success to Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester City.

You could be the best manager in the world, but you need good players to carry out your ideas on the pitch, like a craftsman needs good tools to succeed in a job.

Guardiola has never been short of that – he has always had the best players in the world to help his successes. But, who are the best?

At Barcelona, Guardiola built a team that is recognized as one of the best club sides of all time, and possibly the greatest of recent history. Building on a rich footballing philosophy passed down from Johan Cruyff and reconstructed by Guardiola and co, Barcelona had some of the best players in the world with a talented pool of homegrown players such as Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Valdes.

Following winning two Champions League titles, Pep decided he had taken Barcelona as far as he could, as well as got bored of the politics of the club, so left. A year later, he joined Bayern Munich, where he monopolized the Bundesliga, winning seven trophies in three years.

In early 2016, Manchester City appointed Guardiola as their boss. Since then, he has won two trophies in two years, including a 100 point haul in the Premier League, breaking all sorts of records in the process.

If there were to be a hypothetical ‘Best XI’ of all the players Guardiola has managed, who would make it? Would any of Guardiola’s current crop at City make it?

Let’s find out…

Pep’s tried and trusted 4-1-4-1 formation is his most used setup, so that is what we have chose for our fantasy XI.

Goalkeeper – Manuel Neuer  

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 14.09.21

This wasn’t the straightforward decision it may seem from the outset – Victor Valdes is very underrated in popular media for one reason or another. However, Neuer would surely get the nod in a Guardiola XI. When the Catalan coach arrived in England in 2016 one of the biggest headlines was that he wanted away with Joe Hart, instead to buy a ‘Guardiola goalkeeper’: a ‘keeper as adequate with his feet as he is with his hands.

The 2014 World Cup winner is just that. Whilst one of the best shot stoppers we have seen this century, arguably the best goalkeeper of the past decade or so, he is perfectly capable with the ball at his feet and has popularized the ‘sweeper keeper’ role that is so prominent on the continent now.

City’s current number one, Ederson, surely looks up to Neuer as an inspirational figure he can learn from.

Manuel Neuer represents a no brainer decision for the goalkeeper spot, being potentially the most complete ‘keeper of the past decade or so.

Right Back – Dani Alves  

Dani Alves, now of PSG, represents potentially the best right back of this generation, embodying all the needed characteristics of the ‘modern full back’.

The money Guardiola spent on full backs in 2017 was no coincidence, as full backs are central to his system. He likes fast, attacking full backs that are comfortable to tuck inside and play as auxiliary midfielders to pack the middle when ordered to do so.

Alves is everything Guardiola wants in a full back. Signed from Sevilla in 2008, the Brazilian revolutionized wing back play at club level in a similar way his Brazilian counterparts Cafu and Roberto Carlos did at international football at the 2002 World Cup.

Just as we see with Walker and Mendy now at City, Alves was given responsibility as a buccaneering right-back in name but a winger in style, often playing higher than the midfielders as he helped to break down stubborn outfits.

Centre Back – Gerard Pique

Oft cited as a teachers pet of Guardiola’s school of thought, Gerard Pique is probably the biggest individual success story for Pep.

Brought back to his boyhood club just as Guardiola took charge, Gerard Pique developed a formidable pairing with Carles Puyol at the heart of the Barcelona defence and blossomed into one of the best defenders in the world.

Leaving Manchester United after making just 12 appearances in four years, Guardiola nurtured Pique from a benchwarmer at Old Trafford to a pivotal part of the team who won the ‘sixtuple’ at Barcelona, as well as international triumphs with Spain.

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 14.11.35

Centre Back – Carles Puyol (C)

 The captain of all of Barcelona’s success is a guaranteed feature in this side. The centre-back, known for his iconic long curls, spent all of his career at Barcelona, after graduating from La Masia.

Puyol gets the nod over Jerome Boateng, who was unlucky to miss out, because he was a mainstay in Pep Guardiola’s side that won everything there was to win at club level, not to mention his triumphs with Spain.

Now retired, Puyol managed nearly 600 appearances for Barcelona and will be remembered for his innate leadership traits, as well as his clever style of defending, which overcome the fact he wasn’t the typical defender in the physical sense. 

Left Back – Philipp Lahm

Mr. Versatility himself was another easy decision in this team. In truth, he could have slotted in at right back, defensive midfield or even centre back, if needed. That’s how he was as a player too, the dream player for all coaches.

Guardiola saw Lahm as his most important player, probably as he does Fernandinho at City. He trained the reliable full back to one of the best defensive midfield players in the world, in the role Guardiola calls ‘El Pivote’.

Pep added a new dimension to the already accomplished game of Lahm, helping him captain his country to World Cup glory in 2014, whilst also leading Bayern to domestic success.

His leadership, versatility and tactical nous will make Lahm go down as one of footballs finest.

Defensive midfielder – Sergio Busquets

Dubbed the Octopus of Badia, Sergio Busquets is potentially the most cool defensive midfielder football will ever see. After a year together at Barcelona B, Guardiola promoted Busquets to the first team and no one has questioned that decision since.

For the decade to follow, Busquets has been Barca’s midfield lynch-pin and one of the first names on the team sheet every week.

In a position where the energetic midfield destroyer Fernandinho was a possibility, Busquets gets the nod for the way he manipulates the pitch in a unique manner: he is not quick, but he has one of the best brains in world football, and can pick a pass to the forwards, in an effortless style. His passes are weighted to perfection, almost giving the receiver telepathic instructions of which way to turn with their first touch, due to the crisp nature of the pass from Barca’s brains.

 Central midfielder – Kevin De Bruyne

The Belgian midfield maestro has been unplayable since he settled into his deeper lying role under Guardiola and was the star man that drove City to the title, registering man of the match performances against each of the other top six sides.

De Bruyne roams around the pitch picking passes and has the most assists in the league since joining City. His shooting range is phenomenal, as are his venomous crosses, making him City’s most devastating asset.

Central midfielder – Xavi

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 14.13.22 

Potentially the best midfielder of the generation, Xavi Hernandez is Pep-Ball to a T. The reliable and consistent mover of the ball won a staggering 31 trophies in his career, most notably eight La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues, a World Cup and two European Championships.

He was the man that made the greatest club side of the century tick, as well as a mainstay in the great Spain team that won three tournaments on the bounce.

Assisting Messi for a total of 31 goals, Xavi was the heartbeat of Pep’s fast football that caught the hearts of many football purists around the world, making him a no brainer in this fantasy eleven.

Winger – Lionel Messi

If you ever needed an example for a dictionary definition of ‘no brainer’, here we have one. Lionel Messi slotted into this team without so much as a seconds thought.

Guardiola is often cited as the man who developed Messi to what he is today, teaching him new aspects of his game whilst admitting Messi helped him shape his managerial career.

Whether it be as a false nine, or in the case of this team a winger, Messi is the best player in the world and the best player I have ever seen.

Pre-Guardiola, Messi had devastating running traits and the ability to manipulate the ball and the opponent, but Pep added the end product to his game, turning Messi into the most prolific forward of all time, hitting unprecedented heights.

Striker – Sergio Aguero

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 14.12.49

When Guardiola arrived in England, question marks were asked of Sergio Aguero. Can Aguero function in Pep’s system? Will Pep sign a new striker to replace him? Will Jesus keep him out of the team?

Manchester City’s record goal scorer has answered those questions, and then some. The Argentine striker now has a higher strike rate than Robert Lewandowski when Pep was at Bayern, and David Villa at Barca.

Having undergone a knee operation at the tail end of last season, Aguero looks as sharp as ever and will have his sights set on more records as he climbs up the list of Premier League all time top scorers.

Winger – Franck Ribery

Regarded by many as the greatest non-German to represent the red of Bayern Munich, Franck Ribery was unstoppable when fully fit and in form at Bayern.

In 2013, the French star finished third in the Ballon d’or rankings, claiming later that he felt he deserved to win ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo. That season, Ribery took all the Bundesliga awards, as a team and individually, with Ribery citing politics as the reason Ronaldo tipped him to the illustrious award despite winning no trophies that season.

Under Pep, Ribery often played the ‘false nine’ role made famous by Lionel Messi. Due to this multifunctional characteristic, Ribery gets the nod over his Bayern teammate Arjen Robben, who also excelled under Pep.

Opinion: The reasons for Germany’s downfall and early exit in Russia

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 15.30.00

In England, football supporters around the country rejoiced at the news that spread. “Germany are out of the World Cup”, said the commentator on the television coverage. The country collectively punched the air screaming with joy as South Korea won by two goals to nil to send the tournament giants home. This was the textbook definition of ‘schadenfreude’ – the German word which literally means ‘satisfaction or pleasure at someone else’s misfortune’. This word described the response of much of the watching world.

Why, a non-football fan may ask? Why was everyone so pleased about Germany’s exit? The reason is simple. This is the great Germany. The four time champions of the world, Die Mannschaft. The current holders of the World Cup were out at the first time of asking, in dramatic fashion.

But, this isn’t the first time this has happened. Empires rise and fall in a cyclical nature. In medieval history this was apparent, as it is in an economical outlook of a state – an economic ‘boom’ is almost always followed by an economic recession, due to loosening of monetary policy. The nature is different, but the overarching theme is applicable to sport.

In 2002, the previous winners France crashed out at the group stage. In 2010, Italy did the same. Spain in 2014 and now Germany 2018 added to this list. Coincidence? I think not. This asks serious questions of the best teams in the world and casts doubts on sports psychology methods after victory.

Rewind four years. It was a sunny evening in Belo Horizonte. This was the night the football world fell in love for Germany, as they left hosts Brazil in deep mourning with a 7-1 victory. This was the result of a decade of planning – a revamp that began a decade previous.

In Euro 2004, Rudi Völler’s Germany were knocked out in the group stage. From that moment, German football changed. It was a bit like knocking down an old building and starting from scratch. The DFB built 336 youth training centres across the country for teenagers, and demanded that referees at youth level were not just referees, but scouts.

The blueprint was scrunched up and thrown in the bin. A new one was drawn. Part of this included the rule that no club has a single owner or foreign billionaire in charge (the 49% rule). This meant, the 50% of foreign talent that was in the Bundesliga in 2002 could not remain. German clubs would have to source from their academies due to the lack of money.

Rewards were realised in 2009, when Germany beat England 4-0 to win the European U-21 title. Six members of that team played in the thrashing of Brazil. Whilst Spain and Brazil only had the models of fast football, Germany had a number of tactics at their disposal.

Germany changed things at the bottom, the rewards were felt at the top. Götze’s goal against Argentina with seven minutes remaining of the 2014 World Cup final was that reward.

So, what went drastically wrong in Russia? We take a look at some of the reasons for the German downfall in 2018, both on and off the pitch, and try to conclude some reasons why Germany have gone from the best team in world football to one of the most mocked.

Bayern’s six year dominance

German football was at a peak in the years prior to 2014. Bayern Munich had won the Bundesliga and Pokal for two successive years, they won the 2013 Champions League in an all Bundesliga final with Borussia Dortmund, the hottest managerial property in club football was appointed at Bayern in 2013 – Pep Guardiola. The Catalan breathed fresh air in the Bundesliga, propelling Bayern back to an easy ride to the title.

It was a good time to be a Bayern fan, an equally good time to be a fan of German football in general.

Yet, in 2014, Borussia Dortmund were at the top of their game, under the management of Klopp then Tuchel. Wolfsburg were serious candidates for the title. Bayern had competition. It wasn’t quite level but they had to be on the top of their game.
Four years later, Bayern won the league by 21 points, with Schalke their closest threat in second, but the rest severely off the mark. Third placed Hoffenheim finished 29 points behind the leaders.

The competition the league had in the years of 2011 to 2014 just no longer exists.

When a national team is made up of a spine of the best team in that country, it often leads to good results on the pitch, but not in the case of Germany 2018. Boateng, Hummels, Neuer, Muller, Sule – the Bayern players looked shadows of their best and severely off the mark in Russia.

The concept of winning has become so normalised for players of the Bavarian club that the first sign of resistance or things not going their way could not be coped with.

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 15.30.29
We see this in the English Premier League – Manchester City went to Anfield on a winning run that stretched back four months, but looked shell-shocked when they went a goal down. The players couldn’t cope as they didn’t know how to respond from not automatically winning.

Thomas Müller was perhaps the most disappointing – the Bayern man looked disinterested and miles away from the young prodigy he was in 2010 and then the exciting raumdeuter (translator of space) that he was in 2014.

Back then, he had the ability to, despite not being the fastest or most technically gifted player in the world, arrive in the right space at the right time to help his side. He looked lost on the pitch in Russia.

This was the case with Germany – the players were not used to not having it all their own way and failed to deliver.

Sentimentality and loyalty

Loyalty in football is the notion of going down the route of ‘tried and trusted’. In some instances, this is beneficial for all parties. In Germany’s instance, it worked the opposite.

Since the 2014 win, Thomas Müller hasn’t been the same player, Semi Khedira has declined, Mario Gomez is now 32.

Yet, Joachim Löw is still heavily reliant on this core group of players.

In the 2017/18 Bundesliga season, aside from the Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, many of the top scorers were German strikers: Nils Petersen (Freiburg; 15 goals), Mark Uth (Hoffenheim, 14 goals, 8 assists), Niclas Füllkrug (Hannover, 14 goals), Kevin Volland (Leverkusen, 14 goals), Sandro Wagner (Bayern/Hoffenheim, 12 goals).

None of the above were selected for the national team in Russia.

In a team that looked lacking in ideas, reliant on Toni Kroos magic to carve chances, Löw did not have one of the fore mentioned at least on his bench as a Plan B. Instead he had Mario Gomez, who managed little over 1000 minutes for VfB Stuttgart in the season just gone.

It has even been suggested that Gomez was picked merely as a cheerleader in the dressing room, given his experience.

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 15.30.35

It is not just the strikers, however. Löw often opted with Semi Khedira in midfield, leaving Juventus-bound Emre Can at home and ignoring the impressive Leon Goretzka, who is joining Bayern in the summer.

Manuel Neuer, the great goalkeeper he is, was given the nod over Marc Andre ter Stegen, who headed to Russia following a double-winning season with Barcelona, where he has been heralded as one of the best goalkeepers in world football. Neuer, on the other hand, had not played competitive football since September 2017.

The point being: Löw was too reliant on his 2014 winning players that he ignored fresher talents. The warning signs were there in Euro 2016, but the fact they were world champions and made a semi-final in France paved over these cracks. Löw heavily relied on Bastian Schweinsteiger, who hadn’t played since February of that year with a knee injury. The then Manchester United player was at fault for the goal in the semi final that ultimately saw Germany crash out at the hands of holders France.

There are better talents out there, but it seems to earn the trust of Jogi Löw is not an easy feat. This cost Germany in Russia.

Jogi Löw’s arrogance and refusal to evolve

The arrogance of the coach and the lack of discipline and urgency from his players cost Germany.

The nature of Löw’s attitude was felt long before the tournament began, and continued both on and off the pitch until their elimination on Wednesday.

It is a surprise that we have got to this point in this article, or probably better described as a rant, without mentioning a certain German prodigy known as Leroy Sané.

The winger who made his name at FC Schalke 04, then announced himself as a world class player at Manchester City, was left out of the squad.

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 15.30.40

Sané was quite literally the poster boy for Germany, after being one of the best players in Manchester City’s breathtaking campaign which saw him win the Young Player of the Year Award for the 2017/18 season.

I concede that Sané may not have fit Löw’s system, maybe the same with Sandro Wagner of Bayern, but there is no system in the world that doesn’t allow for the skillset of Leroy Sané even as a super-sub.

Mexico were great, but as Sweden proved, they aren’t the best defensively. The same with South Korea, there was space in behind them. Sané would have been perfect off the bench. We have seen what he has done to the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham and Napoli with his devastating runs inside the fullback.

The omission of Sané can be put down to arrogance, or to prove a point. Sané missed the Confederations Cup of 2017 for an operation, it would seem the German manager punished him for this.

He had chance to put this right in Russia though, but his arrogance got the better of him again. In the first game against Mexico, he decided to ‘rest’ Marco Reus, because Germany “had a lot of games to go”.

Against South Korea, Löw opted again for the out of form Khedira and Özil, along with Leon Goretzka (as in, the central midfielder) on the wing. He was trying to tell the world he was the smart coach with a modern tactical nous. That arrogance ultimately betrayed Germany.

The German national team had even booked their hotel for the days leading up to and after the final on July 15, showing again, arrogance.

On and off the pitch, decisions were made that backfired on Germany big time in Russia.

Players simply not performing

“The hunger is not the same, the desire is not the same”, said Jürgen Klinsmann, following Germany’s exit.

The 1990 World Cup winner admitted the team deserved to go home, who blames the defeat in Russia on complacency.

Against Mexico, Germany were poor whilst Mexico were brilliant. Toni Kroos magic helped them against Sweden in a very lucky way. But the Real Madrid midfielder conceded that a side that cannot score against Korea deserves to go home.

Every game was a festival of ponderously dull football, every pass looked predictable, which is not what €1bn of youth development is supposed to bring.
There was a lack of team spirit, and certainly a lack of leadership.

The German identity was missing on the pitch. Whilst Timo Werner is an exciting young talent that played well at the Confederations Cup, he looked lost of ideas on the pitch.

He showed glimpses as he danced past players against Sweden, but he is not the typical German forward, a typical no.9. Germany lacked a focal point or box threat that they once had – a Klinsmann, a Klose, a Voller, a Gerd Müller.

This is perhaps why it is so surprising that Sandro Wagner was sat at home.

It was all about possession, possession, possession. But like we saw with Spain in the game against Russia, possession means nothing. It is what you do with the ball that is important. Most passes were sideward, with no intent of breaking the lines of opponents.

Be it inept managerial decisions, lack of application on the pitch, or missing the leadership Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Klose brought, Germany were downright dreadful in Russia, and the future is uncertain.

Where from here?

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 15.30.47.png

“Turniermannschaft”: Germany were quite literally supposed to be the ‘tournament team’. Despite their poor preparation friendlies, when the tournament came around, Germany would turn up – Germany always turn up.

Not this time. Germany were knocked out at the group stage for the first time in eighty years.

But it is not disastrous for Germany. They won the U21 European Championships just last summer, to add to the Confederations Cup win for the first team which was fairly second string.

Kimmich, Rudy and Werner were supposed to replace the Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Klose of the previous generation. It wasn’t to be in Russia, but with two years more game time under their respective belts, they can form the crux of a formidable force for years to come.

Jupp Heynckes, Jürgen Klopp and Jürgen Klinsmann are three names that have been mooted in the German press to replace Löw, but the German FA have said that they want Löw to lead the revival.

Yet, a few days on, the German FA have surely already started their plan to put things right before the European Championship campaign begins.

For me, despite the obvious talents of Löw, it is time for a change. There are many good reasons why he should stay on, but there is an unwritten rule of thumb that a failure in a tournament should lead to the sacking.

Should Germany have crashed out against a tough Brazil in the knockout rounds, it may have been different. But to be knocked out in a group with no previous champion, there is no chance he should remain.

But, appointing a new manager won’t automatically bring success. There needs to be a radical rethinking off the pitch – not as radical as the complete restructure of the blueprint of a the early 2000’s, but a change nonetheless.

German media outlets have compared the sorry state of German football to the political landscape in Germany: in need of a change. I am no German politics expert, but in footballing terms – I agree that a change is needed.