Pep Guardiola’s right-hand man has blasted those who have branded Manchester City's season as disaster as "jealous" or blind.
Manel Estiarte, who has been Guardiola’s personal assistant for nearly 10 years, has dismissed those who wrote off City’s 2016-17 campaign in a wide-ranging interview.
Estiarte believes that at times last season City played just as well as Barcelona and Bayern Munich at their best.
And while he acknowledges that results have not been as good as expected, he has hit out at the detractors who have branded Guardiola a failure and have questioned his efficacy in English football.
“They can say what they want,” he told ara.cat. “Maybe they say that out of jealousy or because they don’t understand or because they have a bandage over their eyes.
“Do you know why it’s not a disaster? Because those of us that are lucky to be on the inside realise that the players are absolutely convinced of this metamorphosis of the game, however it ends. The players know that this is a different type of football, a new type, and one that we enjoy. Of course we want to win, and if you don’t win you are disappointed, but how natural it is when you see it day to day, in the players, the staff, in training, it allows us to say that it’s going well.”
Estiarte has been a crucial member of Guardiola’s staff over the years and has helped the coach make some of his biggest managerial decisions.
The former water polo player, who won Olympic gold for Spain in 1994, does not have a coaching role but has acted as Guardiola’s eyes and ears behind the scenes at Barca, Bayern and now City, and he says the Blues are starting to play Johan Cruyff-like football.
“I prefer to look at the fact that this season there have been very good moments in games that you can compare to the teams that we all think about: the best Barca and the best Bayern,” he added.
“There would be a list of 10 or 15 games that we have played at a very high level independently of whether the result has gone for us or not. I prefer that. I wasn’t expecting to play so many games at that level in the first year, although it is true that in terms of titles and results we could have been much closer.
“It’s the same as always: there will be people pro-Guardiola and people anti-Guardiola and they will interpret it as they like. But I talk about football: we have played attacking football, with possession, creating chances and controlling the game, which is very Pep and very Johan [Cruyff].
“It’s a different game, one which they’d never even dreamed about here [in England]. It could be the start of something. It’s true that we have lacked consistency and decisiveness in the boxes. But it’s also evident that because of injuries or bans we have missed players in key moments. For example we have not had [Vincent] Kompany, [Ikay] Gundogan or Gabriel Jesus for practically the whole year. That’s 25% of the line-up. We’ve also had the topic of the refereeing, but I don’t want to make excuses.”
Guardiola has been particularly exasperated by refereeing standards in the Premier League this season, though he been careful to avoid FA censure by refusing to discuss specifics in public.
It is understood, however, that he has been scathing of referees in private, and has particularly bemoaned their willingness to permit challenges that would be regarded as fouls anywhere else in Europe.
That is a topic which has been picked up on by Estiarte, who suggests English referees are much more strict when they officiate in European competition.
“The English referees, when they referee in Europe, do it one way, and when they referee in the Premier League they do it another,” he insists. “It’s not a criticism, but the English referee [Martin Atkinson] who refereed Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid in the Champions League gave three fouls in the first minute and a half. In England this is impossible.
“You have to adapt, as the goalkeepers can be touched inside the area, and the referees allow more contact. Hopefully the pros and cons will be the same for all teams at the end of the season.”
Estiarte, however, insists he and the rest of Guardiola’s team have been made to feel at home in Manchester by City’s most influential decision makers.
Estiarte has previously worked with director of football Txiki Begiristain and CEO Ferran Soriano at Barcelona, and he has praised their role in helping take City forward.
And there was also special praise for chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak, who sources have indicated has struck up a superb working relationship with Guardiola in recent months.
“It’s a club that gives you the best possible conditions,” he continued. “Not just economic conditions. I’m talking about work, about relationships, about sincerity, about honesty. The fact that your sporting director is Txiki Begiristain, the CEO is Ferran Soriano, and the boss is Khaldoon is a spectacular chain of command.
“Khaldoon worries about everything, he wants to know everything, but he doesn’t interfere in anything. He just tells you, “What can I do to help you?”. Ferran also worries about everything, and more. He wants to know everything and more, but he doesn’t interfere in anything either. He just wants to help, and the same goes for Txiki.
“We feel at home, 1400km away from home. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have our debates in this chain of command. We come up against different points of view and mentalities, that’s clear, like in Germany. We are learning how they work in England, we analyse it, we accept it and we do it together. We are not alone.
“[At director level] we are all pulling in the same direction. Ferran manages the club like a business, but with a sporting eye. Beforehand the club had losses and now makes profit, profit, profit. Txiki has his ideas and he protects us. And for Khaldoon the only thing that he wants is to be up-to-date with everything and that you are happy. Of course he also wants to win, but when you lose he’s not angry with you. He supports you and tells you that we will find a solution. And for Pep this has an enormous value.”