Pep Guardiola is by almost any measure the most influential football coach in the world right now.
A barely adequate list of his alterations to the current footballing status quo might run something like this:
• He regularly manufactures great football teams and great football players.
• He’s loved by most of the media and receives almost constant coverage from it as a result.
• He’s changed the way that most of his rivals play via the gentle force of his own excellence.
• He’s reinvigorated the “managers wearing sweater-vests on the touchline” genre, after years of incremental decline.
There is, in short, no area of football that remains entirely cordoned-off from this suave, smart, casually-bearded Spaniard.
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But the real measure of Pep’s influence is what happens in his absence, the notion of which was brought up during the Bundesliga’s winter break, when he announced that he wouldn’t be signing up to manage Bayern Munich for another year, and would instead be moving to England (likely to Manchester City, though don’t tell Manuel Pellegrini).
The long and short of it is that when Pep leaves, he’s missed. Three years ago, when he left Barcelona, having won everything there was to win there—multiple times and in the most comprehensive manner we’re ever likely to see—the Catalan club entered a very clear Post-Pep era.
For proof, you could look at the noticeable decline in performances or the noticeable decline in results. But what stood out more was the decline in confidence, as everything that went on at Barca for the next three seasons seemed to be compared (unfavourably) to how Pep would have done it. Only when the European Cup was captured in a whole new way last May did everything that that club did really stop being refracted through a Pep-based lens.
Now, of course, Bayern Munich will be faced with—and has already begun thinking about—how to deal with his upcoming absence. His replacement, Carlo Ancelotti, has already been hurriedly hired, a sign of entirely reasonable caution about the future, and the questions about what his team will look like without him have already started to be asked.
But there’s a broader impact in play here. Pep’s influence is so great these days that his absence will not only be felt by his latest club, but also by his latest league. The Bundesliga is about to go Post-Pep, and along with the question of how it will respond to that later, there is also the question of how it will respond now. How does the Bundesliga respond to the simple fact of knowing that Guardiola is about to leave Bayern?
Surely the answer is that the second half of this season is entirely framed by that fact. Or, more directly, surely as soon as Pep Guardiola announced that he would leave Bayern, the second half of this season became one extended opportunity for the clubs just below it to fire warning shots, relating to what will happen once the leaving actually occurs.
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The next few months now serve, in effect, as a chance to suggest that the transition between Guardiola and Ancelotti cannot afford to be sloppy; as a chance for the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Schalke, Hertha Berlin and Borussia Mönchengladbach to suggest that they are good enough to capitalize, should Bayern be complacent in any way.
This opportunity would present itself, to some extent, to whoever was the outgoing coach at the dominant club in the division—transitions are always difficult for clubs looking to hold onto large parts of what the manager they are leaving behind brought to them. But with a revolutionary manager such as Guardiola—such an extreme figure, with such an extreme way of working, with such an extreme amount of league-based success—the potential for some kind of slip is entirely greater than with most coaches. Jurgen Klopp left a powerful legacy at Dortmund, but he also left room for improvement; if Guardiola wins the European Cup this season with Bayern, down might be the only way to go.
And so the process of worrying Bayern about its Post-Pep future begins. Any time another club goes on a big run of wins, any time Bayern loses, or even any time the potential for either of those two things appears it will be framed in terms of an upcoming Post-Pep Bundesliga, where it might just not be inevitable that Bayern will win comfortably whatever happens; it’ll be described with an air of “what if” rather than a “nah, Pep’s got this covered.”
That’s the power of Pep Gaurdiola. His absence is more present than most manager’s presents, even before it’s happened.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter