Manchester City, under the ownership of Abu Dhabi royals, lured in Pep Guardiola and made him the face of its City Football Group project in 2016. Guardiola reunited with Txiki Begiristain (Director of Football) and Ferran Soriano (CEO) – the trio was instrumental in Barcelona’s success between 2008 and 2012.
The Pre-Guardiola era in City also had its fairytales – two Premier League titles, including the famous added-time euphoria dished out by Sergio Aguero to clinch City’s first English crown in 44 years in 2012.
Guardiola’s appointment was the next big step in creating a long-lasting football legacy that now threatens to dwarf the exploits of its more successful city neigbours.
Guardiola, known for his intense coaching style and attention to detail, has transformed City into an elite football force. With a lavish outlay in the transfer market and backed with the best infrastructure, City and Guardiola have had unprecedented domestic success, sweeping nine major trophies in six years, including four league wins. To put his league dominance into perspective, Guardiola’s record of four titles in his first six seasons in England is only matched by Bob Paisley at Liverpool in the English top-flight since 1888.
The 2021-22 Premier League title-winning season is a testament to Guardiola’s undying faith in his philosophy as City didn’t replace its record goal-scorer Sergio Aguero in the summer and still scored 99 goals. Guardiola, though, did have his own Aguero moment when City overturned a 2-0 deficit against Aston Villa on the final day to seal a 3-2 win and the title.
Guardiola and City have found a perfect adversary in Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and twice the Reds from Merseyside have pushed the Sky Blues till the end – the two sides separated by just a point in the 2018-19 and now the 2021-22 season.
Curiously, during his six seasons in England, Guardiola has not invested in a centre-forward whilst spending €1032.6m in transfers. The goals, though, have not been hard to come by – his team has scored 80, 106, 95, 102, 83 and 99 in the league in six seasons.
In his first three Premier League seasons, Aguero was the club’s top-scorer with 20, 21 and 21 goals. And when the Argentinian’s influence and powers dwindled, the coach adapted his team’s style to still rake in the goals. Winger/forward Raheem Sterling (20 goals), central midfielders Ilkay Gundogan (13) and Kevin de Bruyne (15) led the goal-scoring charts in the next three seasons.
His recruitment of players gives an indication of what Guardiola has been striving for on the pitch. Operating in a high-risk, possession-based, quick passing football with a high defensive line, Guardiola’s teams have been in search of control to effectively carry out their style. City has invested in 11 defensive-minded players (centre-backs, fullbacks and defensive midfielders) for a staggering €526.8m. Six defenders have been brought in for a combined spend of €363.8m.
Control is paramount for Guardiola and his fullbacks often move into the midfield to create an overload. His Cityzens have forever monopolised the ball with an average possession of 67.2% in the last six years. The expenditure in the market and control on the pitch have reaped rewards for City. After conceding 39 goals in the first season, City has since conceded 27, 23, 35, 32 and 26 in the following five.
While Guardiola has cracked the code for league success, continental success has eluded him at City. “The Premier League is difficult [than winning the Champions League]. Winning 38 games is different from winning six or seven,” Guardiola said on the eve of the final matchday of the season.
Guardiola has won the league in 10 of the 13 seasons he has managed in top-flight football across Spain, Germany, and England. His last Champions League win, however, came in 2011.
While City and Guardiola have had squads capable of going the distance, they have consistently been undone by conceding careless goals, paying the price for overthinking and over-tinkering an already working system.
In five of the six knockout eliminations in the Champions League, City conceded two in eight minutes against Monaco, three in 19 against Liverpool, two in three against Tottenham Hotspur, two in eight against Lyon and three in six minutes against Real Madrid. The one against Madrid will hurt the most as City led for 178 minutes over two legs but got undone in the final embers of this year’s semifinal.
For all the control Guardiola seeks to impose, he admitted he and his teams can’t seem to seize the initiative when stacked against intangible elements – momentum and emotions – of a high-octane Champions League game. “You play with emotions; you have to control emotions. At that moment emotions favour Real Madrid. Here, when it was 3-1 at that moment, we were hot, Madrid was down, and I was there. One minute later, a throw-in, [it’s] 3-2. You have momentum, football in this competition is momentum,” Guardiola said after the exit in Madrid.
His risky possession-based approach offers a chance for course correction in the league. A calamitous defeat can be overcome over a 38-game season, but the proposition of a knockout game spells immediate doom.
His repeated failures in the Champions League have caused him to doubt his own abilities. “Maybe I am not good enough to help the team to do it [win the Champions League],” he said in the aftermath of this season’s exit. He won the Champions League twice with Barcelona with three of the best generational talents [Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez] and a squad, with which he cultivated his style of strangling teams into submission with possession and efficiency in front of goal.
In Guardiola’s philosophy, there’s hardly any room for a player with ‘the main character energy’; larger-than-life personalities, who can threaten the system. While he makes an exception for generational talents like Messi or Kevin de Bruyne to operate slightly outside the confines of his system, they were still expected to put in the hard yards off the ball.
Attacking midfielder Jack Grealish, who was bought by City for a British transfer record fee of €117.50M, hasn’t been able to replicate the influence he had at Aston Villa, where he was the biggest chance creator in the league last year. At City, unlike at Villa, Grealish doesn’t get the luxury of hogging onto the ball or isn’t expected to dictate the play. Striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who played under Guardiola in 2010-11, spoke of his uneasy stint at Barcelona. If Guardiola had his way, he would have not sanctioned the signing of Ibrahimovic.
When he came in to bring in a culture reset at Barcelona in 2008, he showed the door to Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto’o, and at Bayern Munich, he forced out Mario Manduzkic, who had scored in the Champions League final the previous season.
In 2018, Begiristain spoke about the difference between working in Barcelona when compared to Man City. “It’s very different from working at Barcelona,” he said. “Here the owners are happy to let us do our work, but they are absolutely professional. At Barcelona, there were so many board members. Politics.”
Before the end of the season, City announced the signing of the sought-after Norwegian striker Erling Haaland, who is believed to have a new-gen Ibrahimovic-esque personality. There are arguments already on whether this union will be fruitful and who will have to adapt to whose style? Guardiola has heard those comments too. “Listen, I hear that he’s not going to adapt to the way we play? So, I would like to ask, ‘How is the way we play?’ And I’m pretty sure they don’t know it,” he shot back.
He added, “He hasn’t come here for two months, three months – he’s come for many years, I hope so. If he needs more time, more time. We’ll try to help him, and I’m pretty sure he’ll try to help us. I don’t have any doubts about that.”
The 21-year-old Haaland is of the right age and talent for Guardiola to work his magic. If Haaland fires, he could prove to be the difference-maker in City and Guardiola’s hunt for Champions League success and complete the missing piece in his City Project.
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