In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Pep Guardiola explains why being the best is harder than before and argues that copying others is a big mistake. Watch Norwich vs Man City live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm
Saturday 12 February 2022 17:23, UK
“I have never known this level before,” Pep Guardiola tells Sky Sports. “Of course, there are managers in Germany, Italy and Spain, but in the Premier League, these are the best managers, the elite managers. The quality, the preparation. The level is so high.”
Manchester City's head coach is preparing his team to play Norwich on Saturday. Carrow Road happens to be the only Premier League ground to which he has taken a team and never won a point. "We made a mistake, they were brilliant, and they beat us."
But it is not the identity of the opponents that causes Guardiola to reflect on the quality of the coaching in the Premier League right now. It is a view that has formed over time as new ideas take hold, styles change and the game that many thought they knew evolves.
Perhaps surprisingly, Guardiola is among those learning.
"Compared to when I started at Barcelona, it has gone much, much further. The level has improved a lot. The quality, the methodology, the training sessions, the analysis of what exactly the opponent is going to do and what your team can do to punish them.
"You cannot imagine the hard work that goes in behind the scenes. That is why it is so much more difficult to win games now than when I started 13 or 14 years ago."
Guardiola's own results do not suggest that is the case, but fellow Champions League winners Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez have lost jobs in the Premier League in the past 12 months. There is a sense that the competition among coaches has increased.
"Younger managers such as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, who were players when I became a manager, they are incredibly well prepared. They have a curiosity. They understand a lot. They study the reasons why, offensively and defensively.
"It is partly thanks to the facilities that we have now. The drones, the wide angles, the databases. Many things help to build a picture of who you are as a team and who the opponents are as a team. After that, you can take the decisions as a manager easily."
Manchester City won 2-0 against Brentford on Wednesday, a routine win to the untrained eye. But not to Guardiola. "They went man-to-man up front," he says, wide-eyed, in conversation after Friday's press conference. The game still fascinates him.
"They were pressing high when Ederson had the ball. When you break the lines, they defend so deep and are compact. They allow you out wide but then they defend the channels inside." He pauses. "It is always a joy to win one game in the Premier League."
There is greater tactical variety than before.
Nobody presses quite like Ralph Hasenhuttl's Southampton - the only team to take Premier League points off Manchester City since October. Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United have a style all of their own, running City ragged in a thrilling draw at Elland Road last season.
There is admiration for Graham Potter's work at Brighton, while Bruno Lage, Roy Hodgson and Brendan Rodgers have all won league titles elsewhere in Europe. "There are teams I like to watch who are really good at what they want to do," Guardiola explains.
"The nice thing about the Premier League is that there are five or six different ways to play and, when you do it well, it works. It is not a pattern, teams playing one way all the time. Teams play differently even within a game and you have to solve the problem."
What Guardiola is reluctant to acknowledge is that for all the variety, there is a trend in the Premier League towards the type of football that his success has popularised. In each of his first five full seasons in English football, the number of long passes has decreased.
Meanwhile, the number of completed passes in a team's own half has increased each season. In general, teams are eschewing that more direct approach in favour of a patient build-up. Even the number of shots from outside the penalty area has declined.
"I did not come here to think I was going to change anything," Guardiola insists. "I did not do that in Munich either. I just do what I want. I want to influence my players. That is all. I am not arrogant enough to think I can control anything beyond my team.
"It all depends on the manager. If that manager likes one particular style of play, his team is going to play this way. If many managers like to play with more build-up and with players close together to play short passes then those teams are going to play this way."
That is true. But what he does not want to acknowledge is that many among the next generation want to play that way because of the work he has done. Some are in the job because clubs now favour this way of playing and want to appoint those who can deliver it.
If that is true, Guardiola thinks it is a misunderstanding of why his methods work.
"I remember years ago when teams would win the World Cup, whatever nationality, and afterwards we would all analyse the winner and say this is the tendency that we will see in the next years. Everyone wants to copy the winner. This is a big mistake.
"Football is not copy and paste. I cannot copy another manager who I like and paste it into my team if I do not know what they do. A manager succeeds by doing what they believe in.
"I admire those managers who, when the season starts, you can feel the way they play. Then, when the situation goes down a bit, they stick with what they believe.
"These are the managers who have success. When they start to veer left and right, up and down, depending on the results, that is a bad thing. You are not going to do good that way."
The next evolution in football? His hope is that physicality does not trump everything else. "My wish is that talent and skill will dictate the future of our football, not the managers who say that if you want to be a better player go to the gym and you will play.
"When you have the ability to dribble past two or three players and put the ball in the corner, it is about the quality not going to the gym. Hopefully, the streets of UK, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, everywhere, produce young talents who can show this game is beautiful."
As for the more immediate future, his focus is on Saturday and the next tactical challenge. "I can imagine a little bit what Dean Smith at Norwich could do but in the end I do not know. Maybe they could create something new that could surprise me."
If they win, he will reflect for a day. Lose and it will be longer. "A day and a half. No more." Ultimately, there is only one question that will concern him. "Did my team play the way I wanted them to play? When I watch my team play the way I want them to play I am happy."