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Arriving in England in the summer of 2016 Pep Guardiola was firmly established as one of, if not the, best coaches in the World.
At Barcelona he conquered everything that lay in his wake, winning a staggering 14 trophies from the 19 competitions the club entered and making a lasting impression on modern football through the concept of Tiki Taka.
At Bayern Munich, the Spaniard may not have enjoyed the same European success, but three consecutive League titles, along with a record breaking 19 match winning streak ensured Guardiola’s reputation remained firmly intact.
Likewise, his tactical reinventions, one of which included shifting veteran wing-back Philip Lahm into a holding midfield role, enhanced his reputation for excitement and dynamism.
However, all through his first season in England there were question marks about whether he would be able to cut it in the toughest League in the world. Failing to win a single trophy in his first season, those questions gained traction and there was a strengthening suggestion that perhaps Guardiola wasn’t all he was cracked up to be.
But then this season happened and Manchester City blitzed the Premier League playing some of the best football the competition has ever seen. Guardiola set a Premier League record for consecutive wins, at 18, beating that of his Barcelona side, 16, but just falling short of his all-time record, set with Barcelona.
And alongside City’s incredible performances has been a richly deserved showering of praise from all corners of the footballing world for Mr Pep Guardiola, who it turns out, is in fact all he is cracked up to be – and more.
From Aguero’s adapted roll, to the evolution of De Bruyne into the League’s best player, to making Sterling every bit a £50m pound man, to turning Otamendi into a defender, Guardiola’s impact has been felt in every nook and cranny of the City squad.
But perhaps nowhere has it been felt more keenly than between the sticks. In three simple steps Guardiola demonstrated the awareness, ambition and bottle that mark him out as a truly great manager. Here they are.
Expose a club legend
When Guardiola arrived at the Etihad he took on a squad at the end of its cycle and in need of rejuvenation. Defensively too many players were past their best, Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov were all starting to look a little bit jaded, whilst Vincent Kompany’s injury woes had reduced one of the League’s best to a bit part player.
In midfield, the anchor of the whole machine, Yaya Toure was also approaching retirement age and he was doing so without much grace. From lung busting runs and sublime finishes a couple of seasons previously, post birthday-cake-gate Toure had seemingly semi-retired from football, happy to wander around the pitch, not really doing much except collecting his weekly paycheck.
Therefore, it would have come as a great relief that at least he had a top-quality goalkeeper who he could rely on in Joe Hart. A two-time Premier League winner, Hart was a part of the club’s identity, a link between fans and players and England’s undisputed number one to boot.
With so many question marks over his City squad, and goalkeeper the most notoriously difficult position to get right, Guardiola must have heaved a heavy sigh of relief that that particular task had already been taken care of.
Well, not exactly. Almost immediately Guardiola set about dethroning Joe Hart from his City throne, making it very clear that he wanted a change between the sticks.
Unsurprisingly many questioned his decision. Who was this jumped up foreigner, coming over here and taking hard earned jobs from British blokes? Did he not realise Joe Hart was one of the best goalkeepers in England who, now that he could work with Guardiola was going to become one of the best in the world?
Clearly Guardiola did not realise that and quite right too because having left City on loan, Hart got exposed as a massive fraud.
Poor performances during his year-long spell in Italy, including a 22-game run without a clean sheet, didn’t have the desired effect of sticking it to Guardiola. Instead, they proved that the Spaniard had the foresight and self-confidence to take on a club icon and win.
Following his spell in Italy Hart has returned to the Premier League where he is now backup to Adrian at relegation battling West Ham, as to whether he will be England’s number 1 at the World Cup, only Gareth Southgate knows.
Bring in someone who fits his philosophy
So, Guardiola had proven himself: Joe Hart was not a goalkeeper who could be expected to perform at the level that City’s new boss expected. But that was only half the battle, he needed a replacement and for that replacement he looked to raid his former club, Barcelona.
With a £15m move for Claudio Bravo, an integral member of Luis Enrique’s treble winning side, Guardiola brought in a keeper much more comfortable with the ball at his feet.
With designs of total football, Bravo fit the bill as a top European goalkeeper, proven at the very highest level, with the technicality to boot. Fans waited in eager anticipation for the masterclass that Bravo was guaranteed to display.
Unfortunately, that masterclass never materialised. Guardiola had certainly moved closer to his ideal goalkeeper, but unfortunately he had replaced a goal keeper who couldn’t use his feet, with one who seemingly couldn’t use his hands.
By February Bravo boasted a meagre 11.1% save percentage, while at one point he had let in an impressive 16 goals from the last 24 shots he had faced.
And so, although it was difficult to argue that Guardiola had gotten it wrong in replacing Joe Hart. Equally, it was very obvious that he hadn’t gotten it right in bringing in Claudio Bravo.
Bring in someone who fits his philosophy and can keep goal
Thus, Guardiola proved that he has enough bottle to win the League and have enough left over to donate to Tottenham. Just a season after brining in a new number 1, Guardiola returned to the market and brought in a new number 1.
Arriving from Benfica, Ederson was more of an unknown quantity, than the Chilean before him. At just 23 he was young for a goalkeeper and despite those in the know clearly rating the Brazilian, he was largely unknown to most of the footballing world.
But what an impact the Brazilian has made. Not only is he an even better distributor of the ball than Bravo, he has made a number of superb saves, particularly impressive considering the concentration required to stay alert when your side has total control of the game for 80 minutes plus.
Furthermore, Ederson is a warrior, evidenced early in the season when, rushing out of his box to head away the ball, he collided with Sadio Mane’s foot.
To have had the cojones to throw himself into that challenge was enough to earn him the eternal respect of ‘old schoolers’ everywhere, but Ederson went one step further and, armed with a gruesome wound, took to the field in the very next game.
Starting out as a left-back, perhaps it is Ederson’s outfield experience that brings him such an assurance, whether he is batting away shots from 6 yards out, charging down balls 45 yards from his goal, or splaying field long passes up to his strikers, but either way, Guardiola has found the foundation to his City success for years to come.
Many will argue, and in many ways rightly so, that Guardiola has an unfair advantage and that any manager with the financial backing and support that the Spaniard enjoys would see an upturn in their results and their stature.
But what sets Guardiola apart is not the money spent, it is the way in which he was able to see through the trophies and the popularity of Joe Hart and to recognise a keeper on the edge of a pretty sharp decline.
What sets Guardiola apart is recognising that in order to carry out the revolution he had planned for his new side, he needed a revolution in his goalkeeping style. And what sets Guardiola apart is that having made his first move, and having gotten that move wrong, he did not persevere for the sake of pride, he went back into the market and he got it right.
In Ederson City have a keeper who could absolutely become the best in the world and for all of the many master strokes which Guardiola has made in his short time in Manchester, none has been as impressive, or as telling as this.
Written by Scott Pope
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