Pep Guardiola stands on the brink of history. Not for the first time, of course, given that his first full calendar year in charge of Barcelona brought a record six trophies. At that time, there was an increasingly compelling case that he might be the greatest manager ever. Now, approaching a decade since he last lifted the Champions League, Guardiola might have a different distinction.
He could be the greatest manager in the history of the League Cup. Five years into his reign at Manchester City, the Catalan has still only lost a solitary tie: 1-0 to Manchester United in 2016, when a weakened team featured Pablo Maffeo and Aleix Garcia. Guardiola returns to Old Trafford on Wednesday two victories away from an unprecedented feat.
No one has won the League Cup in four consecutive seasons. Indeed, only three managers – Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough – have won it four times in total. Mourinho will set an outright record with five if Tottenham win at Wembley in April. As a club, Liverpool won it four in a row, the first three under Bob Paisley before he retired.
And that creates a seemingly paradoxical situation. The least important of the major domestic competitions is won by the most decorated of managers. The League Cup may have created more surprises, with third-division Swindon winning it and fourth-tier Bradford reaching the final, but arguably its five greatest managers could be found in a top 10 of the best ever. Between them, Guardiola, Mourinho, Ferguson, Clough and Paisley have the small matter of 11 European Cups, all secured in a 35-year period.
There are different dynamics within that. Ferguson only tasted League Cup glory in one of his first 18 attempts and his pioneering interest in rotation provoked a complaint from an MP in the House of Commons after he selected unknowns such as David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt at Port Vale. His late-career fondness for the competition seemed prompted by Mourinho.
The Portuguese was quick to grasp the first and most winnable competition in the season offered early validation; whereas the traditionalist in Arsene Wenger cared more about the FA Cup and went on to win it seven times, the pragmatist in Mourinho drew less distinction and spotted an opportunity. Some of his team selections felt needlessly strong but a tournament that had been won by Leicester, Blackburn and Middlesbrough in the previous decade then went to Chelsea or United five times in six seasons.
Paisley felt the epitome of a curious dynamic among League Cup-winning managers. Their greatness does not always translate to the FA Cup. Ferguson at least won it five times, but never in his last nine seasons. Mourinho and Guardiola have lifted it once apiece, the latter with a record 6-0 win in the final. But that is one more than Paisley or Clough.
If the latter’s flagship feat was taking a club he inherited in the second division to back-to-back European Cups, his four League Cups give him a strong case to be considered its finest coach. Two came with his all-conquering Nottingham Forest side of the late 1970s, two more with the watchable team he constructed a decade later.
Each arguably found a way to win while arguably prioritising other competitions: Mourinho and Ferguson mastered the art of weakening the team but not enough to lead to defeat, while Clough and Paisley simply sent out the first 11 (Kenny Dalglish and Phil Neal made the full complement of 62 appearances in 1981-82, for instance).
Guardiola has more in common with his peers than his predecessors. His are triumphs of the squad, of Aro Muric and Taylor Harwood-Bellis, of Brahim Diaz and Tosin Adarabioyo, even of Claudio Bravo. But his sides normally get stronger as Wembley gets nearer; sometimes his selection choices feel unfair to opponents. He has perfected a balancing act. The contradiction may be that he has become the definitive League Cup manager, even while being its greatest coach would not define him.
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