Like any real master of his craft, Josep “Pep” Guardiola is a man whose reputation precedes him. When he signed on the dotted line at Man City, to many people, it was quite clear what was in store for us. Here came a manager who had previously spent almost £500 million on players during his time with both Bayern Munich and Barcelona now taking charge at a club with a seemingly bottomless pit of money.
Since joining City, Pep’s spending has seen him pass the £1 billion mark. And it will come as no surprise to learn that over half of that spend happened in his time at the Etihad. But these figures don’t quite tell the whole story of Pep’s prowess as the master of football poker.
So, what is it that’s so great about the man that we would liken his dealings to those of a professional poker player? Isn’t he merely the kid in the candy store that we all could be if we had such a massive budget? Well, there are a few more strings to Pep’s bow than a big wallet.
As with his transfer dealings (more on those later), it’s all too easy to pigeonhole Pep’s teams into one style of play. Yes, that’s right, the tiki-taka of his Barcelona days. But to say that his teams play a lot of one-touch possession football does the man a disservice. His tactical nous has been on display ever since he came to these shores and affected the nature of the English game.
This season, he mastered the ultimate poker skill and one that often takes years of practice even to understand fully. And that is the art of adapting your game. For years, we saw Guardiola’s teams play wonderful cavalier football with an infinite number of passes before a sucker punch goal. And while this is still evident in the way City plays today, Guardiola made some not-so-subtle changes to adapt to his opponents.
With opposing managers understanding the threat of De Bruyne, Pep made the quite remarkable decision last season to play him in central midfield alongside David Silva. An unexpected move that many anticipated to stymie the threat of the Belgian, it unlocked a yet-to-be-seen aspect of the player’s game. We saw his most productive season with opposing teams often clueless as to how to nullify his threat.
Then at Anfield this year, he took the unprecedented step of playing cautiously to choke off the counteracting threat that is Liverpool’s front three. It was, of course, in response to the three losses suffered at the hands of Jürgen Klopp’s band or merry men last season. And it was a response that showed an entirely new and unknown side to Pep’s managerial style. Whether we see more evidence of this reserved Pep all depends on the adversities City encounters along the way, particularly in Europe.
As far as buying players go, Pep is onboard with the poker approach. You see, a basic poker strategy is to collect strong cards to build the best possible hand. While some may suggest that Pep is blessed in this regard (see our chart above), the truth is that he is only using the tools at his disposal to build that strong hand.
Ask any manager what their biggest obstacle is, and most will tell you it’s transferring. It’s either a lack of funds or astronomically high fees that leave them unable to even bid for players. Still, can we believe that any manager would work the transfer market as Pep has?
Let’s take Jose Mourinho for example. During his time at Chelsea, the plan of action seemed to be to buy any player that another club showed an interest. It worked in his first stint as manager at Stamford Bridge, but in his second spell, he had mixed success. And his proclivity to spend big earned him little respect at Old Trafford. His method is like spaghetti marketing where you throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.
Then we have David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal: two managers with plenty of money in the transfer kitty who made a complete mess of their tenures at United. And what about Brenden Rodgers at Liverpool? How he spent the Luis Suarez money will forever be a bone of contention among the Anfield faithful.
But when it comes to transfers, Pep proved that his skills at procuring and retaining the best players grant him master poker player status. He identifies a need and waits until the right solution comes along. And when he gets that perfect player, he drops those that he no longer needs without a care in the world. Sorry, Joe Hart.
And last but by no means least is how Pep deals with the media. Now, we’re not going to bring out the tired old poker face analogy, although it does hold true to some degree. The fact is that Pep often loses his cool and rants at journalists and reporters as much as his counterpart at Old Trafford does.
Where Pep’s dealings with the media are like that of a poker player in a high-stakes game is when it comes to misdirection. While he is a passionate manager always ready and willing to speak his mind, this tendency for an honest reply gives him the perfect opportunity for a little white lie or two. Players may be injured, he may rotate, or he may even change tactics. He drops all these seemingly innocuous statements into interviews with the express intention of misdirecting his opponents. Like a master at the casino, Pep bluffs big, and often it comes off.
But will the Spaniard’s skills be enough to see Man City win the second title in as many years? Or will other managers call his bluff as Klopp did so well the last term? If performances so far this season are anything to go by, it should be a fascinating start to the new year with a real three-horse race on the cards. For the neutral fan, we can only hope that both Chelsea and Liverpool maintain their challenge.