The greatest trick Pep Guardiola ever pulled was to convince the world that club DNA exists. Football changed when Guardiola was appointed Barcelona manager in 2008. It’s not just that the world’s eyes were opened to the full potential of possession football or that goals a game shot up in the knockout stages of the Champions League – although both did happen – but that a model was presented of how things could be.
Here was a coach with no first-team experience who immediately offloaded two big-name foreign stars in Ronaldinho and Deco and, in his first season, won the Champions League, La Liga and the Copa del Rey with a side featuring seven players who had come through the same youth ranks that had produced him. It was successful, it was beautiful and it was cheap: what club executive wouldn’t want to follow the model?
Obviously some wouldn’t. Some executives are more concerned by branding and marketing, by the thought of bestriding the boardrooms of the world as a signer of big names, by the prospect of being hailed as a genius by the sort of fans who live for the dopamine hit of the market rather than the actual winning of games.
But for those who actually prioritise the sport, the message seemed obvious: clubs need to be more like Barcelona. Clubs need to have a method and a philosophy, taught through their academies and then applied in the first team, easing the step up from the youth ranks. It saves money on transfers. Home-produced talent is likely to be more loyal and fans more forgiving of any mistakes. And the sort of coherence that characterised that Barcelona side is perhaps only produced by years of learning a system and playing together.
Manchester City’s owners, after the early splurge, were smart enough to recognise that and to create for Guardiola, even before he arrived, a club built to the Barcelona model, complete with two senior former Barcelona directors.
Which makes it all the more baffling that Barcelona themselves have abandoned those principles. They are €1.3bn (£1.1bn) in debt but have, in Gavi, Pedri and Ansu Fati, plus Sergiño Dest and Riqui Puig, the core of a young squad that could have tided them through while they resolved their financial issues. This could have been sold to fans as a three-year build, Joan Laporta putting right the mess left by his predecessor as president, Josep Bartomeu. They even have, in Xavi, a coach who was developed at their La Masia academy and embodies the club’s values.
If they had won anything it would have seemed a great romantic story. If they had won nothing, well, development takes time. Missing out on the Champions League and the revenue it brings was surely never a realistic concern. Yet instead Barça have opted to buy big, bringing in Raphinha and Robert Lewandowski, mortgaging their future seemingly in the belief that their best course of action is to primp themselves up, ignore the balance sheet and hope a super league arrives sooner rather than later.
Even Barcelona can be lured away from their DNA. But in truth, most clubs don’t have a DNA, or at least not in the way the term is usually deployed. DNA is the excuse used to give a former player of limited experience the manager’s job in the hope that because he “knows the club” he will somehow be able to conjure Guardiola-style success. It’s why Chelsea appointed Frank Lampard, why Manchester United appointed Ole Gunnar Solskjær, why Juventus appointed Andrea Pirlo.
DNA is also the excuse used by fans to turn on managers they don’t like, often Sam Allardyce. But Louis van Gaal was accused of not respecting the Manchester United way, Steve Bruce of failing to grasp the soul of Newcastle, Marco Silva of not being right for Everton. For the most part, though, the self-perceived stylistic identities of clubs are indistinguishable: everybody likes to think of themselves as playing attacking football. What’s the alternative? “Well, we just couldn’t accept expansive Coach X at our club because of our tradition of attritional joylessness.”
But DNA, other than for Ajax and Barcelona (which, of course, adopted the Ajax model thanks to the influence of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff), tends to be bunkum. The most successful managers, the true greats of the English game, are those who have ripped up a club’s pre-existing self-image and created something new: Herbert Chapman, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Don Revie, Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger …
The Liverpool boot room offers a rare counterexample, knowledge and method being passed from Shankly to Bob Paisley to Joe Fagan to Kenny Dalglish, but that was lost from the mid-80s. Although Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool also press, it would be a major stretch to trace any significant continuity between his side and that of three decades earlier. And it may be that City, having set up a Barça-style model, look to maintain that approach after Guardiola has gone – even if the financial benefits of home-produced players are less relevant to them than more traditionally funded clubs.
But just because DNA is, for most clubs, a myth doesn’t mean that having a clearly defined philosophy is senseless. City were mocked for speaking of looking for a more “holistic” approach when they sacked Roberto Mancini, but of course it makes sense if the manager, recruitment, scouting and youth development are all working with the same style of football in mind – provided the model is flexible enough to evolve as football evolves.
That’s why Todd Boehly has said he wants Chelsea to be more like Liverpool, whose efficiency with transfers has been one of the main reasons they have been able to keep pace with City in recent years.
And it works lower down the scale: Swansea, for instance, punched above their financial weight under Roberto Martínez, Paulo Sousa, Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup before the arrival of new investors and a change of approach.
Perhaps in time that coherence of approach can, as it did with Ajax, become something integral to the club’s identity. But the idea that clubs, beyond a very select few, have some hard-wired style of play, some predisposition to a particular way of doing things, is largely self-mythology.
July 24, 2022 at 02:18PM Jonathan Wilson