PEP GOES PAP (KICKOFF MAGAZINE, FEBRUARY 2017)

PEP Guardiola is gatvol. And he's not just gatvol of England, or uppity City players, or ankle-biting journalists, or barbaric English referees who allow opposition strikers to torture poor Claudio Bravo by looking at him funny. 

 

No. Pep is gatvol of the whole business, it seems. He's over his job. That's a puzzling development, because he remains the undisputed world leader in the murky science of building devastating and stylish football teams. If a Nobel football medal existed, Pep would have it stashed in his waistcoat. Plus he makes silly money, and brings elegant Spanish women to orgasm simply by walking past them. So what's not to like? 

 

Plenty, it seems. If you saw that toe-curlingly awkward interview he gave to the BBC after City's win over Burnley in early January, you saw a man stuck in a cold circle of hell. A man who is bored, stressed, angry and depressed – all at once. That's not a title-winning combination. 

 

One possible explanation for Pep's malaise is the loss of ambition that exceptional success sometimes brings. In any high-pressure job, the anguish of the daily grind must be counterbalanced by the lure of the prospective rewards, be they emotional and financial. For Pep, that balance may be wonky. He's won too much won, too young. 

 

But he could also be thinking his time is up, given the rising tempo of football's game of thrones. Once upon a time, the great coaches would dominate their domestic competitions for spells of a decade or longer. Helenio Herrera ruled Italy and Europe in the sixties. Bob Paisley ruled England in the seventies and early eighties. Giovanni Trapattoni did the same in Italy during the same period. Alex Ferguson bossed English football for nearly three decades, despite conceding windows of power to Arsene Wenger and then Jose Mourinho during that reign. 

 

The Scotsman's feat of endurance glory will likely never be repeated – partly because Ferguson wielded a vanishingly rare mixture of drive, adaptability and insight, and partly because the pace of innovation and investment at the game's pinnacle has accelerated beyond the endurance of an older man. 

 

Elite coaching is now a young man's business. And Pep, still youngish at 47, is the best exemplar of that trend. He won the Champions League in his first season of top-flight coaching at 38. It was only his second season of professional coaching. And he kept on winning – through the disruptive radicalism of his tactical vision, and the stubborn, youthful zeal with which he applied it. 

 

Yes, let's not forget that Pep was given a team of superstars back in 2008, who already won cups for breakfast. He got the same deal at Bayern Munich. No surprise, then, that the yawning holes in this City squad -- exposed by a brutally open league that's far more financially equitable than the Bundesliga or La Liga – are pissing Pep off. 

 

But the real problem is that his precious innovations have since been emulated and countered by other great minds. Pep can still do a lot of damage with his evolving tiki-taka blueprint: radically offensive wingbacks (either one or both), an obsessive retention of possession as a defensive as well as offensive mode, and intense high pressing after losing possession in the opposition half. 

 

But other young coaches are snapping at his heels. Jurgen Klopp has upped the ante with a riskier, more aggressive model: relentless high pressing allied with uncompromisingly direct counter-attacks. Pep also has much to fear in Antonio Conte's flexible, player-specific approach. The Chelsea manager's liberation of Eden Hazard through the surprise mid-season switch to a 3-4-3 formation -- with wingback Marcos Alonso providing high cover for the wandering Belgian wizard -- illustrates the power of NOT having an aesthetic ideology, an article of faith, as Pep does. 

 

Plus, any given tactical revolution is inseparable from its frontline geurrillas. Pep is not the same Pep without the services of Dani Alves or Xavi Hernandez, not to mention Leo Messi. His mystique is leaking. No wonder he's annoyed.

 

Pep has admittedly openly that he won't be coaching much longer – and certainly not into his sixties. And you have to respect his willingness to leave the stage when you're no longer the star. Many ageing Arsenal fans dream of the day Arsene Wenger does that. 

 

As one of those Gooners, I'm all for respecting one's elders, but football is not life -- it has its own brutal logic. Scoreboards and league tables have a way of disproving widely accepted notions, and one of those is the notion of the “wisdom” of experience. 

 

Is Wenger still as “wise” as he once was, if you measure his wisdom by Arsenal's results? No chance. The edge he once possessed is now no longer his: Wenger's transfer strategies and talent-spotting insights are now universally deployed – and widely improved on. 

 

As someone who has just stumbled past 40 – the membrane of middle-age – I like to believe I'm getting wiser as I get older, at least in some ways. For example, I no longer get into pointless arguments, because time has panel-beaten my youthful ego into peaceful humility. Hence I'm a much happier bastard than I was – as a result I'd make a useless football coach. 

 

Coaches of Pep's calibre believe they can only be happy when they're winning. But they forget that the real source of their sadness is losing. And if you're not playing, you can't lose. 

 

My advice to Pep: quit right now, take another sabbatical, play golf, refuse to come back. His name would then stay gloriously untainted by failure or underachievement. Great coaches almost never leave at the top. 

 

This is his chance -- but he will probably miss it.