Pep Guardiola and the heat death of football.
There’s little comfort in knowing how something will end. A commonly asked party or road trip question is whether you’d want to know when and how you’ll die. Answers may forever differ, but the important part, however obvious, is the before. Everyone knows they’ll one day be gone. Whether we deal with this reality or how we do so is, in short, the history of the world, but what most are focused on is the in-between: Who we’ll fall in love with, what we’ll achieve, what we’ll discover.
The same kind of process-focused journey can be ascribed to anything within our material realm. Though physicists differ on the exact conclusion of the universe, they know with relative certainty that it too will end. The confines of existence will heat to the point of singularity, mass itself will invert, a crunch, a rip, a bounce. One fell swoop and everything that has ever been will reach the point of no return. But it too highlights that which comes before. The species and systems within it forever synthesizing towards ultimate efficiency.
This synthesis is something we’re all generally familiar with. From planes, trains, and automobiles to the ease of daily life, examples of things around us becoming more efficient are ubiquitous. Football is no different. Like any professional sport, the modern era appears to be dominated by a confluence of everything that stood out before. Professional athletes are no longer merely talented individuals that found their way into professional institutions, just as clubs aren’t communal organizations that look to represent a geographic area through some unique form, style, or identity. Athletes are practically groomed from birth and clubs are businesses intent on turning whatever uniqueness existed when the gravitational pull was different into revenue.
Though an unrelenting evolution is ever-present, the direction of some things is far from set in stone. Planetary systems, for example, have little choice in the matter as the nature of their mass dictates their shape, path, and place within the universe. No greater influencing factor has reason or means to change that, but something as relatively insignificant as football is more malleable. Once a beacon of community, football’s more recent demented skew towards monetary synthesis has yielded an unfortunate bag of results.
To say that we are now devoid of any value in terms of footballing progress is untrue, but that’s only because technical progress has found itself going hand in hand with monetary gain. Manchester City’s domestic haul is the perfect example of the unrelenting process turned up to a million. Bolstered by the ethically dubious means of an oil-rich nation-state seeking to use football as a washing machine of public perception, City football group combined one of the best managers in the world with resources that matched his prior achievements. In three seasons at Manchester City, Pep Guardiola has led an exceptionally talented squad to unprecedented success in a league that distinguishes itself from the singularly or dually financially dominated competitions of the continent through a more ‘democratically’ hexadic competition.
It’s no surprise, ethically bankrupt investors aside, that their success this season has come and gone without applause. Not only are the means of their success built upon the blood and suffering of a purposely invisible populous, but the very nature of their domineering play is difficult to narrativize. The faceless machine whirring of an ultimately efficient unit ripping 90% of their opponents limb from limb isn’t as romantic a story as a mötely crew of misfits banding together in defiance against the odds. The Golden State Warriors, for example, are devoid of any apparent ethical quandaries, yet share a similar connotation of having ruined competition through the assimilation of power.
Whether it’s Sheikh Mansour or Kevin Durant, the blame will always be leveled at some figure, but their actions within the sporting world are a product of where competition will always go. This isn’t to say Mansour and Durant are in any way moral equals- the horrors committed by Mansour’s reign are irreconcilable, and Durant’s decision is a positive step for labor power- but what football, more than any other sport, is currently undergoing, is its final synthesis. The lopsided distribution of talent and resources is what institutions that exist to compete will look like when almost entirely unchecked. Given the opportunity, they will try and buy all the good players, win every single game, and actively conspire to undermine their opponents. Some teams have reached this hyper-competition through an IV of steroidal investment, while others have elaborated upon a pre-existing position of power and modernized their money-making ventures to keep up- only to still needed cash injections.
But the synthesis of sport doesn’t stop with club’s off the field practices. The characterization of Liverpool as a pressing side, for example, though in some sense true, is more an attempt to differentiate teams that are striving towards the same ideal form. Manchester City are a pressing side as well, a more active one than Liverpool actually- at least according to PPDA- but their pressing, like any side that sees a majority of the ball, is a defensive measure to safeguard against the perils of holding so much of it. Liverpool may have used pressing to a slightly different end in the past, but as they’ve worked their way up the table, their ability to employ a tactic that requires a lack of possession has been increasingly limited.
The improvement of Liverpool’s points total this season has come as a result of becoming more like Manchester City. Pep himself applauded their improvement in positional play, and while they still maintained unconventional methods of space creation, their purchase of a goalkeeper and defender whose most sought after attributes have more to do with proactivity on the ball says something. This season, they overperformed their expected points total by nearly fourteen. Every elite team might have some level of justifiable overperformance due to player and managerial quality, but fourteen is no small feat. To suggest their marriage of rebellious style and imperial domination has reached its ceiling isn’t out of pocket.
Of course, that isn’t to say they can’t improve, but improvement looks like Guardiola, Tuchel, or even Sarri. Liverpool’s upward trajectory as a side stylistically different from City has likely run its course. Though many are more than ready to believe that their dominance is almost entirely down to the price paid for its players, the style of play Guardiola enacts has proven to be the most natural for teams with the majority of a league’s resources. The five across the front, the overloads to isolations in wide areas, the varied runs into the box on the blind side- all of it may be multiplicatively effective because of the quality of the players doing it, but within the confines of the game we know as football, it’s effectiveness has yet to be surpassed. Klopp’s Reds may want to hang on to the lovable identity of a “heavy metal football” team- a term even Klopp has regretted using- but as they get better, the more untrue it becomes.
In the same way Burnley or Newcastle’s limited resources require them to form a tight block and fear venturing out against the majority of their opponents, the tier containing Liverpool, City, Bayern, Barcelona, and the like are economically determined to play a specific style of attacking football. The black of hole of success relentlessly sucks talent towards the top. How close one can stay to the gravitational center depends on adaptive quality. The mark of a good manager is not a subscription to the paper thin morality fans have superimposed on a team’s willingness or ability to hang on to the ball, but one that has an appropriate response to their environment.
Mauricio Pochettino, for example, is striving towards a Guardiola-esque positional efficiency at Tottenham but started upon the same road as Klopp. As teams not yet pre-emptively superior to their opposition when they arrived, both managers set out to implement a risky tactic, that when combined with quality, dedicated players, yields more ambitious outcomes. Pressing heavily with a squad of gems and dirt, both teams climbed their way up the league- refining their approach as they ascended. Now, both consistent competitors within the top four of the Premier League, the team that spent more money on players with the ability to aid them in their increasingly lofty approach ascended faster. Both men are good coaches who adapted accordingly. The difference in time of improvement and how they went about doing so is down to the time-altering substance of money. A similarly related equation is that of Thomas Tuchel.
Blessed with quality, circumstance, and ability, the German’s first season at Paris Saint Germain saw him surpass Manchester City’s attacking output, and rival Guardiola’s third iteration defensively. Is Tuchel a more gifted manager than any of the aforementioned? Perhaps. But the quality he’s been given is what allows his talent to materialize. What then separates Guardiola from any other is his consistency. The principles of his play have been the same since he took charge at Barcelona. Player quality has fluctuated from position to position, as has circumstance, but the nature of his success, outside of him and his coaching staff’s ability to implement and motivate, lies within an understanding of how the game works on a conceptual level.
Robbing credit from a Guardiola, Tuchel, or any top coach with the resources to materialize the perfection of their footballing vision is harsh. The level of performance Pep has maintained with the rarest of resources is by no means automatic, and Guardiola’s record, current and past, is evidence of that. Unlike historically successful teams of specific seasons, the footballing world has yet to witness a Guardiola dropoff. Antonio Conte’s Premier League title win, as much as it was a revelation of a side, was a product of a tactical gimmick. The exploitation of an inefficiency that existed within the metaphysical culture of a league. Perhaps Ranieri’s Leicester was too. And that’s to take away nothing from their achievement. The ability to recognize, build, and coach a team to a title through any means is an accomplishment only a molecular percentage of coaches can experience. But the now three terms of unprecedented success as other tacticians and motivators have come and gone should be evidence enough of his understanding.
The question as to whether Guardiola’s level of play would be possible without the resources given is obvious- it wouldn’t. And neither would the football. What we need ask ourselves is whether it’s worth it. The sublime achievement of what comes with the discovery and use of nuclear fission is as much about sheer, uncontextualized progress as it is the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There will always be a myriad of angles from which to appreciate the accomplishments of exceptional individuals. Visionaries who push the envelope of what is possible deserve their plaudits. But when the nature of competition has destroyed the fairytale of uniqueness, the pleasure of process, the randomness of life itself sped up to a million, propelled by the sacrifice of an unseen majority, the horizon disappears.
The final stages of football’s global monopoly will play out over the next few years and the game, if it isn’t already there, will be a choice between left and right Twix. Minor differences may always differentiate the very best teams in the world with an elaboration or willing ignorance on the minutiae of said teams providing a blindfold with which a western audience can avoid the gore that powers their entertainment machines. We asked the questions we always thought we wanted the answers to, and now that we’re standing on the edge of eternity, our rocketship completely spent, we learned the answer wasn’t worth it.