Pep Guardiola was destined to manage Manchester City. He may not have known it a decade ago, but plans were in place for him to one day furiously gesticulate on the touchline at Eastlands.
Not long after the Abu Dhabi United Group bought the club in 2008, they began to instill a singular philosophy that would pave the way for the eventual arrival of Guardiola. In 2012, the plan to snare the best best coach in the world became overt when former Barcelona vice president Ferran Soriano arrived to become CEO of Manchester City. A month later, Pep’s former Barca teammate Txiki Begiristain was brought in as Director of Football.
At that time, Pep was not available for Premier League duties, but the club installed managers who would play the beautiful Johan Cruyff-esque soccer that the owners desired. A balanced squad of playmakers and defensive enforcers was assembled in the mold of a Guardiola team.
In February 2016, City finally got their man. The relationship started slowly — Pep admits he would have been fired by previous clubs for only delivering a third-place finish in his freshman season — but the owners’ patience paid off as the most impressive squad in Premier League history found its rhythm.
The City team of 2017-18, which earned a record-breaking 100 points, was phenomenal. The following season, Pep’s charges were just as devastating, even without star player Kevin De Bruyne for much of the campaign. The mettle they showed to close out the 2018-19 season with 14 straight wins hadn’t been seen in the Premier League since Sir Alex Ferguson hung up his hairdryer.
Pundits and fans alike suggested that Pep was on the cusp of a long-lasting dynasty. He had unlimited resources, an impeccably coached squad and the momentum to keep devastating the opposition.
Pep and Manchester City were a match made in heaven.
But that is no longer the case.
Most fans will need no reminding that City currently find themselves 14 points behind league leaders Liverpool. They have lost four league games already (as many all of last season) and conceded 19 goals across 16 games (just four less than their 2018-19 total).
City’s 32 points represent Pep’s worst start to a season in his entire managerial career. After the unexpected home loss to Manchester United last weekend, Guardiola made a surprising claim about his team’s current stature.
“That is the level we face, against Liverpool, United, Barcelona, Madrid, Juventus,” he said. “They are the teams we have to face and the reality is maybe we are not able now to compete with them.”
Yes, you read that correctly. The team that accumulated 198 points across its previous two league seasons can no longer compete with its rivals. With an almost $696 million net spend since his arrival, Guardiola has splashed more cash than any of the teams he claims he can no longer keep up with.
Given the resources, squad and wealth of managerial experience, this should be the best team that Pep has ever assembled. And yet, it is a shadow of the City team from two seasons ago.
And it appears that the blame for this downturn lays squarely on the shoulders of the Catalan.
The biggest issue right now is almost certainly the lack of depth at center back, caused by a summer of shortsighted transfer business.
When Vincent Kompany departed the club at the end of last season, no attempt was made to bring in high-quality coverage for his position. When Aymeric Laporte suffered a long-term injury and John Stones also picked up a niggle, the unfavored Nicolas Otamendi was the only fit senior center back on the books.
How could a club of City’s means allow this to happen?
Perhaps it was arrogance. Perhaps it was a cocky belief that they would not be hampered by injuries. Or perhaps it was down to Pep’s predilection to focus on the areas of the team that are most important to his style of play: fullbacks and defensive midfield.
Yet more fullbacks arrived in the form of Joao Cancelo and Angelino over the summer, while a potential Fernandinho successor was purchased in the form or Rodri. The Spaniard has been forced to quickly adapt to the style of a team who have far more possession of the ball than his previous employers Atletico Madrid.
Due to the injuries, Fernandinho has been playing in the back, instead of the defensive screening role which has been paramount to City’s success.
Unfortunately, Fernandinho is only one person, so he is being sorely missed in the position to which he is best suited — and in which his understudy Rodri is unquestionably inferior.
The folly of letting Harry Maguire head to the other side of Manchester is being exposed. Pulling out of the race for Virgil Van Dijk — something we saw documented on the Amazon “All Or Nothing” docuseries — has proven to be a fatal mistake in this season’s title race. (Just imagine the balance of power between City and Liverpool right now if the Dutchman had gone to the Etihad instead.)
Pep is also guilty of failing to properly bring through youth prospects. Promising central defenders such as Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Eric Garcia have been given only fleeting glances during a season where teams like United and Chelsea have successfully leaned on their academy prospects.
To have so little faith in youth betrays the Barcelona-Cruyff philosophy that Pep holds so dear. The fact that Jadon Sancho was forced to leave the club in order to find first-team minutes speaks to the fact that the City Academy is not being treated like La Masia at Barcelona.
Furthermore, some recent individual performances have been well below par. Benjamin Mendy is simply not at the standard he displayed before his injury setbacks. The aging David Silva, in his final City campaign, should probably have less game time. And Angelino was terrorized by Daniel James for much of the Manchester derby, while the fresh-and-able Cancelo sat on the bench.
It may simply be that Guardiola has asked too much of his players. His notoriously intense style is bound to take its toll on a squad. There is undoubtedly a reason why he has not stayed in a coaching job longer than four seasons. His effectiveness offers diminishing returns as he squeezes every last drop of energy from his charges.
The project may have been built in Pep’s image, but it appears that the Catalan’s tenure has reached its maturity.
So it’s time for City to start planning for life after Pep Guardiola. The fact that his wife and daughter moved back to Spain in September suggests the coach may already be putting a departure plan in motion.
The idea of returning to the club where he enjoyed his greatest success may be tempting. Ernesto Valverde isn’t winning any popularity contests at the Camp Nou and Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu has made it clear he would welcome his return at any point.
City knew they would one day be faced with the task of replacing the manager they had coveted so dearly. It is now clear they need to address that task sooner than they may have hoped.
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