Pep Guardiola's style speaks to new reality for managers: they must look as good as their tactics
Editor's Note: David Rudin has covered football for the Guardian, Howler Magazine and StatsBomb and written about fashion and design for Kill Screen and Racked. He also kept a running online chronicle of Pep Guardiola's various looks when not writing for the Montreal Gazette.
Pep Guardiola has built a reputation for making complicated things look easy, dating back to his playing days as a slight but influential midfielder. In February, he lifted the Carabao Cup with his Manchester City squad: a fourth trophy in under three seasons, the first part of a possible quadruple.
That final at Wembley was messy. So too was Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri, but Guardiola remained casually resplendent in skinny trousers and a sweater. Based on his outfit, he might as well have spent the afternoon doing graphic design in his studio.
The primary job of a football manager is to instill a singular idea of how his club operates. It's tactical -- managers determine how the team should play and get players to execute that vision -- but as the club's public face, they also need to look the part. In that capacity, the way they speak -- and the way they dress -- matters.
Football fans may still think of Guardiola as a debonair clothes horse, but he abandoned suits long ago. He now favours an austere, largely colourless uniform: medium gray, round-neck sweaters over white shirts, skinny trousers hemmed at the ankle with a pair of sneakers, a look that's more Silicon Valley than soccer sideline.
Sometimes, the sweaters are darker or he maybe even pushes to a v-neck, but the staples are always there. When Guardiola wore a yellow sweater for a Feb. 22 news conference, it was the first -- and, to date, only -- time in 2019 he'd worn a colour other than Manchester City blue while doing his job as their manager.
Last fall, Guardiola was photographed next to Burnley's Sean Dyche. Pep's sweater sleeve fell naturally above his watch; meanwhile, the sleeve of Dyche's unbuttoned suit extended past the cuff of his shirt. Their clothes told the story of who they are and what they stand for, but Dyche's outfits, while less snazzy than Guardiola's, merit equal consideration.
It is too often assumed that managers like Dyche exist in a world without fashion, but this approach wrongly conflates fashion with style. You may not be interested in fashion, to paraphrase Trotsky or Miranda Priestly, but fashion is interested in you.
Fashion, at least for Dyche, means boxy, rigidly structured suits. The width of his shirt collars and tie knots dates to the last millennium. Dyche never projects softness -- his standard look is "bouncer at a middling nightclub" -- and he isn't a horrible dresser. He just eschews what Italian courtier Baldassare Castiglione termed sprezzatura: a casual effortlessness. So too does his team.
Burnley is inflexible and effortful. In that way, Dyche's clothes express the central idea of the club and his management style as clearly as Guardiola's.
Dyche is the latest incarnation of a venerable football figure: the resolutely unstylish manager. He is usually defensively minded and often older: the kind of person an owner may not dream of hiring, yet often needs. He gets the job done. Tracksuit maven Tony Pulis and perma-rumpled Sam Allardyce have mastered this routine. "Relegation specialist" and "promotion specialist" are lucrative but unsexy roles, and they dress for the part.
The studious rejection of stylish clothes isn't exclusive to British set-piece merchants. Idealists like Marcelo Bielsa and Sarri favour tracksuits just as much as the arch-pragmatist Pulis; their outfits seem to signal that they are too busy thinking about tactics and lineups to worry about such trifling concerns as clothes. Therefore, they'll make do with whatever's on sale at the club shop.
This is a different interpretation of the "philosopher king" role than the one favoured by Guardiola, a Bielsa disciple. Like grunge, Bielsa's anti-fashion is its own kind of fashion statement, and across the crowded field of football management, fashion often provides a useful visual shorthand for bigger ideas.
Zinedine Zidane, who modelled before his first appointment as Real Madrid manager, embodies the galactico idea in his black suits and ties. Stars, his attire suggests, are not like us. His impossible elegance is in stark contrast with Diego Simeone's black-on-black-on-black outfits; the Atletico manager's John Wick-esque vibes neatly encapsulate his aggro, high-body-count approach to football.
At the international level, Joachim Low's casual shirts and sweaters became a symbol for Germany's generational renewal; he brought style to a traditionally rigid national team both on and off the pitch. Football's insatiable appetite for narratives needs this kind of imagery.
In crass terms, managerial fashion is really personal branding as managers have responded to the overall shortening of their tenures by transforming themselves into commodities.
Former England manager Fabio Capello's glasses went on sale in England shortly after he took the job. Gareth Southgate, the current England manager, became a viral sensation by wearing a waistcoat in Russia last summer. Even if they're sincerely made, managers have an incentive to play up their fashion choices. A garment is never just a garment anymore; it must be their signature every bit as much as their favorite formation or style of play.
Much as clothes can offer a convenient expression of a manager's strengths, they can also represent his foibles. Nothing encapsulated the decline of Arsène Wenger's Arsenal as well as the formerly suave manager struggling with the zipper on his puffy coat. A better metaphor for his difficulty grasping a more practical style of play could not have been fabricated.
Equally, Steve McLaren is associated with the umbrella he employed while Croatia ended England's Euro qualification hopes in 2008. The accessory was too perfect an avatar of failure to be ignored, which is why he's still known, over a decade later, as the "wally with the brolly."
In a similar way, the gilet Tim Sherwood religiously wore as Tottenham manager neatly encapsulated the sense that he was a preening charlatan. (When he later started wearing coats at Aston Villa, Sherwood joked that the club store had "run out of gilets.") Fashion choices, especially in defeat, can turn managers into memes.
Sherwood's viral infamy is indicative of the sartorial gantlet that young managers must navigate. They know clubs are looking for the next big thing and are therefore inspired to dress accordingly, but Sherwood ran afoul of the unwritten rule that managers shouldn't brand themselves too overtly. It was unseemly.
Even widely respected Hoffenheim manager Julian Nagelsmann has run into a version of this problem. The 31-year-old was chided as part of a "new breed of coaches [who] are also fashionistas-in-waiting" when he faced Guardiola in this year's Champions League. He wore a quilted black jacket over a fire-truck red cardigan over a black shirt and tie with grey trousers and black sneakers. It was a lot, especially next to Guardiola's habitual uniform.
Managerial fashion, like most of modern football, is fraught with inequality. Managers face different challenges depending on their ages and backgrounds. The gaps between the haves and the have-nots keep growing but managers cannot opt out of these challenges. They're all playing an unfair game. As ever, Guardiola is winning.