Manchester City’s Academy boss Jason Wilcox argues in an exclusive interview with Goal that the Catalan’s influence extends well beyond the Etihad
When Pep Guardiola arrived at Manchester City in 2016, there were plenty of people convinced his style of football wouldn’t work in the Premier League.
Speed, strength and tackling were considered the only ways to win on the proverbial cold, wet night in Stoke – not passing, pressing and risk-taking.
It was always a strange argument, given Guardiola’s Barcelona and Bayern Munich had regularly come to England and dominated Champions League games against Premier League opposition, and his footballing philosophy has ultimately been vindicated by City’s subsequent success.
Indeed, it’s clear now that the Catalan coach hasn’t just transformed City into a major European force; he’s also played a part in England’s appearance in the final of Euro 2020 – the national team’s best performance at a major tournament for 55 years.
Take, for example, the Three Lions’ semi-final victory over Denmark.
Holding on to a 2-1 lead in the dying minutes, there was none of the panic that characterised England displays of the past. Instead, Gareth Southgate’s side saw the game out by completing 53 passes in two-and-a-half minutes as the Wembley crowd roared their approval.
Three City players started the Euro 2020 final against Italy, which is perhaps not surprising considering they have been crowned Premier League champions in three of the last four years.
However, Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Kyle Walker were as impressive as anyone in the tournament, having spent the past four years working under Guardiola and learning his style of high-pressing, possession-orientated football.
And let’s not forget that Phil Foden missed the final through injury, while former City youth-team star Jadon Sancho came off the bench. Guardiola’s brand of football was integral to the development of both youngsters.
It’s a style that is taught from the early age groups at City’s academy, which is bringing through highly technical, intelligent footballers that are well equipped to break through at the Etihad or elsewhere.
“We’ve got a blend between the English style and Spanish style but, ultimately, Pep’s view of the game, which comes from Johan Cruyff, has influenced English football,” City Academy manager Jason Wilcox tells Goal.
“There are adaptations, but there are a lot of teams now who really value this way of playing and who value the importance of the first second of a goal as much as the 30th second.
“The way of scoring, the way of building up from the back and finishing in the final third as a team, and playing with a high line and playing in the opposition half – this way has undoubtedly come from Pep and he’s evolving all the time and we have to try to keep up with him.”
While some may claim it’s a coincidence, there’s been a remarkable correlation between a national team’s success and Guardiola working on a daily basis with the country’s best players.
Spain’s victories at the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championship were built around his Barcelona players, while he was at Bayern when Germany won the 2014 World Cup.
And now England, obviously, are enjoying their best run of results in major tournaments since the era of Sir Alf Ramsey, Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst.
Wilcox is in no doubt that Guardiola deserves some credit for showing the world that his philosophy, which is embraced by every City youth team from the Under-18s and U-23s, can be successful.
“We would never compromise our style and I think what Pep’s done is proved that this style of play can win in any top league across Europe,” Wilcox argues.
“There were a lot of question marks at the start. Everyone was coming out of the woodwork questioning Pep, his tactics and his selections. For me, though, he’s the best manager in the world, and he’s certainly had an influence on our Academy.
“It takes courage and a lot of hard work to play his way. This doesn’t just happen on a Saturday; this is hours and hours and hours of practice, days and months of real hard work on the training pitch. We have to adopt the same level of hard work, consistency and detail in our daily programme.
“Our job in the Academy is slightly different because we’ve got to make sure that we develop players in every way. It’s not just about making sure that we look after their physical growth. We’ve got to make sure that we get our environment right so that it allows them to be expressive and creative.
“Our biggest thing is when you watch a young City team, you will not just see great individual skills, but also an understanding among the players that they must play for the team. That’s something that is really important.”
Wilcox is fiercely proud of the club’s work ethic, stressing that everyone, from the cleaners and chefs to the Elite Development coaches, all make a vital contribution to developing a talented player and individual.
England’s young players have captured the hearts of plenty of fans as much for what they are doing off the field as on it, whether it’s courageously encouraging the diversity they fearlessly believe in, or engaging with the fans and media.
Foden is part of this exciting, young group of role models. He was already a poster boy for the Academy after making the big step from exciting prospect to first-team regular, but his performances on the international stage have made staff even more proud of their biggest success story.
“What the England team have done, the way that they’ve come across and understood their role in society, is influencing young kids who want to be like them,” Wilcox adds.
“The biggest thing with Phil is not the way in which he’s progressed as a player, but the way he conducts himself, the way he speaks to the media and the way he handles himself. He’s grown in every area, yet he still remains this down-to-Earth kid from Stockport. He’s not changed at all.
“That’s the biggest compliment I can give him. We’re as proud of him for his conduct as his football.”