Jhe greatest trick of Pep Guardiola has been convincing the world that the club’s DNA exists. Football changed when Guardiola was appointed Barcelona coach in 2008. It wasn’t just that the eyes of the world were opened to the full potential of possession football or that goals in a match were turned in the round of 16. Champions League final – although both happened – but a model was presented of how things could be.
Here is a manager with no first-team experience who immediately offloaded two big foreign stars in Ronaldinho and Deco and, in his first season, won the Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey with a seven-man squad that had come through the same ranks of youth that had produced it. It was successful, it was beautiful and it was inexpensive: what club executive wouldn’t want to follow the model?
Of course, some wouldn’t. Some executives are more concerned with branding and marketing, with the idea of invading the world’s boardrooms as big-name signatories, with the prospect of being hailed as a genius by the genre of fans who live for the dopamine hit of the market rather than the actual victory of the games.
But for those who really prioritize sport, the message seemed obvious: clubs need to be more like Barcelona. Clubs must have a method and a philosophy, taught in their academies and then applied in the first team, facilitating the rise of the youth ranks. This saves money on transfers. Home-produced talent is likely to be more loyal and fans more forgiving of mistakes. And the kind of consistency that characterizes this Barcelona side is perhaps only produced by years of learning a system and playing together.
The owners of Manchester City, after the first madness, were smart enough to recognize this and create for Guardiola, even before his arrival, a club built on the Barcelona model, with two former senior Barcelona managers.
Which makes it all the more baffling that Barcelona themselves have abandoned these principles. They are 1.3bn euros (£1.1bn) in debt but have, at Gavi, Pedri and Ansu Fati, as well as Sergiño Dest and Riqui Puig, the core of a young squad that could have help solve their financial problems. It could have been sold to the fans as a three-year build, with Joan Laporta mending the mess left by his predecessor in the presidency, Josep Bartomeu. They even have, in Xavi, a coach who was trained at their La Masia academy and embodies the values of the club.
If they had won anything, it would have seemed like a great romantic story. If they hadn’t won anything, well, development takes time. Missing out on the Champions League and the revenue it brings has certainly never been a realistic concern. Yet instead Barca opted to buy big, bringing in Raphinha and Robert Lewandowski, mortgaging their futures seemingly in the belief that their best course of action is to prepare, ignore the record and hope a super league comes sooner rather than later.
Even Barcelona can be hijacked from their DNA. But in truth, most clubs don’t have DNA, or at least not in the way the term is usually used. DNA is the excuse used to give a former player of limited experience the job of manager in the hope that because he “knows the club” he can somehow stave off the success at La Guardiola. This is 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 against managers they dislike, often Sam Allardyce. But Louis van Gaal has been accused of not being right for Manchester United, Steve Bruce of not having seized the soul of Newcastle, Marco Silva of not being right for Everton. For the most part, however, the clubs’ self-perceived stylistic identities are indistinguishable: everyone likes to think of themselves as playing attacking football. What is the alternative? “Well, we just couldn’t accept the expansive Coach X into our club because of our tradition of joyless attrition.”
But the DNA, with the exception of Ajax and Barcelona (who of course adopted the Ajax model thanks to the influence of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff), tends to be rubbish. . The most successful managers, the true greats of English football, are those who tore apart a club’s pre-existing self-image and created something new: Herbert Chapman, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Don Revie, Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger…
Liverpool’s boot room offers a rare counterexample, knowledge and method having passed from Shankly to Bob Paisley, from Joe Fagan to Kenny Dalglish, but this was lost from the mid-1980s. Jürgen Klopp is also pressing it would be difficult to draw any meaningful continuity between his team and that of three decades earlier. And it may be that City, having established a Barca-style model, will seek to maintain that approach after Guardiola’s departure – 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 having a clearly defined philosophy doesn’t make sense. City were mocked for talking about seeking a more ‘holistic’ approach when they sacked Roberto Mancini, but of course it makes sense if manager, recruitment, scouting and youth development all work 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 transfer efficiency has been a big reason they’ve been able to keep pace with City in recent years.
And it works further down the ladder: Swansea, for example, overshot its financial clout under Roberto Martínez, Paulo Sousa, Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup before new investors arrived and a change in approach.
Perhaps over time this consistency of approach can, as was the case with Ajax, become something integral to the identity of the club. But the idea that clubs beyond a select few have an ingrained style of play, a predisposition to a particular way of doing things, is largely self-mythology.