“Often, when I don’t know something, I act in front of the players as if I do,” admits Pep Guardiola in Amazon’s All or Nothing: Manchester City. It’s a candid confession that ostensibly sets the tone for the fascinating series, one that takes us behind the scenes of the Premier League football club.
That very phrase is something of a rarity: the Premier League is not one for flinging open its doors to reveal its inner workings and secret conflicts. It prefers to leave tabloid newspapers rampantly speculating and drumming up rivalries between teams and managers, stoking fires that may or may not blaze in real life. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that within hours of the show’s premiere on Amazon Prime Video, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has popped up to pip Pep to the post in the media, sniping up at his Mancunian competitor for what is and isn’t included in the show. Publicity is great for these top flight teams, but only as long as they can kick it, control it and spin it into the net.
Amazon’s All or Nothing franchise has prided itself on its warts-and-all access to teams, and a landmark partnership with the NFL has given the world a unique insight into the goings-on in America’s footballing world. On home soil, it’s easier for British viewers to spot the papered-over cracks in the documentary, as details are omitted or overlooked to produce something overtly favourable and positive. Guardiola has insisted that Amazon had final say over the cut, not Man City Football Club, but even if that’s the case, there’s still the problem of clearing permissions with other teams; United, for example, opposed filming at the Manchester derby that might have seen City take home the season trophy late in the season, which means some hyped aspects of the build-up and aftermath aren’t addressed. (Ditto, any exploration of the club’s wealthy owners.)
Even with that trade-off, though, All or Nothing manages to mine this pitch for more intrigue, tension and insight than Netflix’s similar docuseries, First Team: Juventus. The eight-part series charts the entire 2017/2018 season, from the rush to bag big name transfers last September to balancing manpower and energy between the league and FA and Carabao Cups halfway through the year to closing out the end of a record-breaking season. When players such as new signing Benjamin Mendy winds up injured, we also follow his recovery; when others are recovering and training, we join them in a freezing chamber and get a taste of the club’s intensive hypoxia rooms for restricting oxygen levels and elevating heart rates. We even see Vincent Kompany watching matches at home with his father-in-law, who’s a die-hard Man U fan.
There’s an overriding sense of teamwork throughout the club, as we get the inevitable post-match shots of the players chanting the Kevin De Bruyne song and singing “Championes, Championes, Ole, Ole, Ole!”. But there’s also time for the club’s kit man, canteen workers and more; in the club’s new changing rooms, fittingly, a line from Tony Walsh’s This Is the Place (a poem penned in the aftermath of the May 2017 Manchester Arena bombing) runs around the ceiling: “Some are born here, some drawn here, but we all call it home.”
A glimpse of those words only emphasises the series’ main weakness, which is its overdone voiceover. Narrated with class by Sir Ben Kingsley, even his imperious timbre can’t redeem a script that’s so targeted at general viewers and non-footie fans that it’s patronising at worst and cheesy at best. “Guardiola versus Mourinho. Possession versus defence. Attacking football vs. ‘Park the Bus’,” he intones, almost like someone who hasn’t watched football before.
Fortunately, there’s one constant who makes up for the show’s shortcomings: Pep Guardiola. The MVP of the documentary, he’s an electrifying, magnetic figure to see in action, as he jumps, skips, shouts and gesticulates his way around the changing rooms and touchline. Even with the slickly edited, and bombastically scored, match sequences, Guardiola is the main reason to tune in, as fires off words at a borderline incomprehensible speed, a man so passionate about his sport that he barely stops to see if any of it makes sense.
He’s not afraid to speak cruelly to his players – “‘We are tired’? Fuck you,” he spits at them, when warning of complacency during the latter half of the season – and rants at them when they don’t play the style of football he wants them to. But he’s also a man of meticulous detail, and that’s perhaps the most striking take-home message of the documentary: we see him and his analysts scrutinising opponents to work out how to strategise against them, from breaking through Jürgen Klopp’s defence to passing and retaining possession at every opportunity.
Guardiola is a disciple of his former boss Johan Cruyff and that fanatical philosophy is contagious, as he praises, then swears, exalts, then admonishes, encourages, then ferociously moves magnets around a board. Most telling of all, though, is that when it comes to the final season’s victory celebrations, he finds the time to allow David Silva (who is absent, having just become a father) to record a video message to the rest of the team, holding his newborn child. The result is undoubtedly a broadly positive portrayal of Manchester City, and an effective piece of publicity for them, but it’s one that still teaches us a lot of things we didn’t know about the Premier League club. We may not always understand Pep’s behaviour, but the overriding impression is of a man who knows exactly what he’s doing.
All or Nothing: Manchester City is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.