Kevin Kilbane: Strain on Guardiola is unimaginable amid trophy chase and financial doping allegations

Man City’s victory at Arsenal overwhelmed all on-pitch narratives, even PSG’s Champions League collapse

Discombobulating week for football, created by the winter World Cup and Manchester City versus Arsenal being rescheduled from last September due to the death of Queen Elizabeth.

Never thought I’d write that intro.

There was so much action crammed into four days that Manchester United drawing 2-2 with Barcelona in a thriller at Camp Nou slipped under the radar.

Even the knockout stages of the Champions League were glossed over, despite a shockingly poor showing from Paris Saint-Germain, who lost 1-0 at home to Bayern Munich as Neymar outwalked Lionel Messi, forcing an injured Kylian Mbappé to come off the bench to almost save the Qatari-owned club.


Or you missed all that, watching Milan beat Tottenham at the San Siro.

I’d bet good money that Wednesday’s Champions League ties, including Chelsea losing at Dortmund, flew clean over most heads as the football universe was captivated by events in north London.

Apparently, Erling Haaland makes Man City a worse team statistically speaking, but his 26th goal in 22 Premier League appearances just altered the title race. Haaland made it 3-1 to City against Arsenal at the Emirates stadium after İlkay Gündoğan slid the ball down an inside channel for Kevin De Bruyne to cut back for the Norwegian striker.

We are witnessing the greatest team in the history of the English game just as the legitimacy of City’s six titles since 2012 is questioned by the Premier League charging the Abu Dhabi-owned club with more than 100 breaches of financial rules from 2009 to 2018.

Not many people were concerned about this as Gündoğan, De Bruyne and Haaland – who cost a combined transfer fee of at least €170 million – shredded the Gunners. The game also confirmed an interesting reality: the Premier League title race trumps the Champions League round of 16 every day of the week.

The Arsenal squad has fractured since beating Man United 3-2 on January 22nd. Knocked out of the FA Cup by City, caught cold by Everton and drawing at home to Brentford before a pulsating defeat to City on Wednesday leaves them level with the champions on 51 points but miles behind on goal difference.

The smart money piles on to City now while Arsenal must consolidate second place as Man United sneak up on the rails.

Arsenal have a game in hand and a winnable run of seven matches until they go to Anfield on April 8th, so all is not lost but the student Mikel Arteta ran smack into his old master Pep Guardiola and a far superior squad.

Pep seemed shaken this week, but he is far from dulled.

Another glaring reality in the modern game is the unimaginable pressure heaped on the strongest of characters. Guardiola felt compelled to apologise to Steven Gerrard this week after he mentioned ‘The Slip’ while defending City from the most serious of accusations (because the ownership is mute) days after Jürgen Klopp refused to answer a question from a journalist who didn’t write the article Klopp was annoyed about.

Pep and Klopp both appeared to be cracking up, that is until City and Liverpool players did the business for their embattled managers (by the way, there was a Merseyside derby on Monday night).

This City era will be studied and replicated for as long as humans drill for oil. The manner of victory on Wednesday shines brighter than any other narrative. With and without Haaland, they are the ultimate club side.

It’s amazing to watch City these past five years and it’s all down to Pep’s methodology. Sergio Agüero revealed that Guardiola used to drop him for being a kilo overweight. At Barcelona, Thierry Henry was pulled at half-time for wandering across the pitch to link up with Messi.

Nobody is bigger than the Spaniard’s system. That’s what makes it so fascinating to see Haaland used in a team that previously destroyed opponents by using a false nine. The 22-year-old is the truest nine we’ve ever seen.

But amid this hectic week, as Pep and Klopp regained their composure, I remembered key questions from doing my coaching badges. How do you get an interview? How do you get a job in said interview? How will you project yourself? How do you keep the job when you get it?

The stress of managing in the Premier League takes an enormous toll. Nobody is spared. Klopp’s way has been studied religiously over the past 15 years. Look how he protects his players no matter what happens, see his aggression on the sideline and how he celebrates every goal like it’s a cup final winner.

Give me Eddie Howe’s persona any day. Howe never gets too high or too low, just holds the middle ground while moving on to the next game.

Klopp, like Pep, has been a transformational figure in the modern game. He may have had hair transplants, his teeth whitened, laser surgery on his eyes, all to look younger, but the strain on his face is undeniable.

I cannot fathom how Guardiola, or any manager for that matter, can keep a title race afloat, win that elusive Champions League trophy and deal on a weekly basis with questions about Man City allegedly operating the biggest financial doping scheme in the history of professional sport.

If proven to be true, it would surpass the systematic state-sponsored doping committed by East Germany and most recently the Russians. It would be bigger than Lance Armstrong/US Postal Service being stripped of seven consecutive Tour de France titles.

It would be bigger than football. How is one man expected to cope with such heat? Even Pep.