How Star Wars explains Pep Guardiola
Background image: James Joel, CC BY-ND 2.0
Admittedly, A New Hope was a movie with a predetermined script. But if it hadn't been, and especially following the revelation in Rogue One that the flaw in the Death Star was intentionally engineered by the designer to foil the Empire, it’s worth noting how that wild plan required everything to go exactly right. Okay, not exactly. Luke Skywalker, immersed in the Force like no other before him, was afforded a second run through the gauntlet to hit the tiny exhaust port dead-on after glancing his first effort off the woodwork. Still, the Rebel Alliance were so desperately overmatched that they committed every resource to a crackpot scheme that, let's face it, could have gone wrong in any number of ways.
Now, Pep Guardiola would sooner be cast as Darth Vader than Luke Skywalker, having long ago sold his soul to the dark side of Abu Dhabi oil money. His emperor is Mansour rather than Palpatine and his squad more than a match for any opponent on most days. Regardless, he was equally desperate after failing to conquer the galaxy for fully ten years since leaving Barcelona. That decade of futility explains why Guardiola, unluckily dubbed the Greatest Manager of All Time earlier this season by Robbie Savage, decided to go all in on attacking Chelsea’s well-fortified goal in the Champions League final rather than deploy the usual Sith lord in the defensive midfield.
Throughout the entire campaign, Pep hadn’t written a team sheet that didn’t include at least one of two names, Rodri or Fernandinho. To omit a destroyer to shield the defence was an especially odd choice for this particular manager. He was a defensive midfielder himself during his playing career at the Nou Camp and understood how essential the role was to winning silverware. Nevertheless, he was so certain that Thomas Tuchel intended to park the troop carrier in front of goal that he thought it was worth the gamble to send in a reinforced clone army to overrun the Blues ramparts without a galactic samurai wizard at their back. He trusted the Force and it betrayed him.
While Tuchel’s match strategy was indeed defensive in nature, he still found room in his lineup for a young Jedi or two. Thus, a script of which George Lucas would heartily approve was written. Mason Mount, unmarked on the flank just inside his half, collected a clearance, turned and, with Ilkay Gundogan caught too far up the pitch, found much more space in which to operate than Luke Skywalker in an X-wing fighter. With Thomas Tuchel screaming from the technical area rather than Obi-Wan Kenobi whispering in his ear, Mount promptly split the defence with a perfect through ball to meet Kai Havertz’s diagonal run just before an onrushing Ederson Moraes acould arrive. The German, named after a Star Wars character if anyone ever was, nudged his first touch off Ederson’s bicep, danced around the Brazilian, gathered in the ball and, taking a glance to orient himself, bundled it into goal before Ruben Dias could arrive on the scene. One Death Star destroyed with sixty minutes to spare.
And where was Han Solo during this? In the film, the Millennial Falcon appears out of nowhere to knock Vader off Luke’s back. In the match, Timo Werner, as hard pressed to find a goal as Han was to pay off his debt to Jabba the Hutt, made a decoy run to the touchline, luring away Dias, City’s most important central defender, and leaving Havertz a clear path to goal with only Ederson to beat.
Like the Star Wars franchise, however, the Premier League is neverending. Manchester City will continue to rule and Guardiola will survive this very personal failure, living to fight again another day.
He’ll do so with both Rodri and Fernandinho in the squad for 2021/22. The Brazilian turned 36 at the beginning of the month, however, and, with his contract up, isn’t likely to receive more than a year’s extension. With that and his own folly fresh in mind, one can only imagine that Pep’s first priority in the summer market will be to identify another defensive midfielder he can convert into a Sith capable of taking Fernandinho’s place.
Inter’s Marcelo Brozovic is the obvious choice. The Italian is 28, a newly crowned champion and filled with the experience to provide 24-year-old Rodri with competition when his current mentor finally steps aside. Nor will Transfermarkt’s £36 million valuation deter Emperor Mansour from funding his recruitment, even if a pandemic affected the bottom line. The question is whether Brozovic will be interested? His playing time is certain to be limited at the Etihad next season and he is accustomed to being the man in the centre of the park.
While money is no object, City looked farther afield in 2013 when hunting for a destroyer. They plucked Fernandinho from Shakhtar Donetsk’s ranks for £36 million. They might consider going to the edge of the galaxy again. Boubacar Kamara turned heads at Marseille this season, starting 43 matches, 15 more than the previous campaign. The OM academy product’s market value rose to more than £33 millionas a result.
If experience is paramount, Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny is another possibility. Like Kamara, the Egyptian will be out of contract in June 2022 and upped his game for the Gunners this term. His availability may depend on whether the London club ultimately decide to move on from Mikel Arteta. Guardiola’s former lieutenant placed a surprising amount of trust in the 28-year-old, starting him in 27 of his 41 appearances. If Arteta is out or unlikely to offer Elneny further progress, he may be a solid third option for Guardiola this coming season.
Whoever the Catalan attempts to lure to the City dark side, he will need to convince them that his tactical choice in the Champions League final was a fit of madness never to be repeated. A lesson no one thought needed to be taught has been learned. No matter how much talent is at your disposal, you simply can’t take the Force for granted.