For all the riches Manchester City have spent throughout their Abu Dhabi ownership, Pep Guardiola stands out as the club’s most successful signing, but the manager’s arrival seemed to also come with some understanding it wouldn’t last in the long term. Now, as the Catalan’s contract comes up for renewal following his worst career start to a domestic campaign, questions must be asked from both sides whether an extension is the right step to take the club forward.
There can be little doubt Guardiola is the best coach City have ever had. The 49-year-old has lifted six major trophies in his four seasons with the club—the same amount City won in the 40 years prior to his arrival—and helped to develop a ‘winning culture’ at the Etihad Stadium, with help from former Barcelona associates Txiki Begiristain (director) and Ferran Soriano (CEO).
It stands to reason the four-time Premier League champions should do all in their power to retain one of modern soccer’s most successful managers—if not the most successful, allowing for time spent in the profession—for as long as possible. His title record in England is unrivalled since coming to City—unbeaten in their last eight games in all competitions—and there are few teams who wouldn’t greatly benefit from his input.
But as the Citizens languish at mid-table ahead of Sunday’s meeting with titleholders Liverpool, it’s as good a time as ever to wonder whether the grass could be greener under someone else’s guidance. Guardiola has changed City for the better irrespective of how and when his inevitable exit comes about, but an amicable split in 2021 could work out best for all concerned.
The Impossible Dream
Any criticism of the club’s performance must be made with the acceptance City have been ravaged by injuries in numerous areas for the better part of this season so far. First-choice strikers Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus have combined for less than 300 minutes, left-back Benjamin Mendy has kept close contact with the Etihad treatment table, and Aymeric Laporte—arguably the club’s only ‘world-class’ talent in defense—has been limited to just four starts.
Guardiola has been magnanimous in his response to those absences, accepting the supercharged Premier League injury rate following the coronavirus pandemic affects teams in equal proportion, via Simon Bajkowski of the Manchester Evening News:
The more specific response in City’s case is that the club has spent enough over the past decade, and during Guardiola’s reign in particular, to overcome such setbacks.
More often than not, their deep options in attack and midfield have been sufficient to bail them out in every competition except the UEFA Champions League. The ultimate goal even Pep has struggled to complete at the Etihad. But we’ll address that particular hurdle a little later.
City’s sole defeat so far this season was a 5-2 drilling at home to Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City. The result brought to light that over-reliance on certain key figures and the defensive holes that exist despite massive investment in their backline. Rodgers was the latest manager to claim a tactical victory over his counterpart despite a gulf separating the two squads in cost, with Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal and Rudi Garcia’s Lyon the others to have achieved that feat in recent months:
That prompted City to splash another $79.2 million signing Benfica center-back Ruben Dias. This took the club’s total spend on defenders north of $470 million since Guardiola came in. Leicester have roughly the same gross (total) spend on transfers over the same period, while Liverpool have forked out only $125 million on defenders since the summer of 2016—and Jurgen Klopp inherited inferior backline options to those City had when Guardiola was appointed.
It poses the question as to where City’s spending levels out when there are constant riches to be exhausted whenever a problem presents itself.
The club has developed such a reputation for spending that big signings are now anticipated each season, but what does that say of the manager’s ability to impact performance?
City could invest the same numbers regardless of who’s picking the team, but Guardiola bears a heavier burden because of his name and the expectation he’ll make things work better than anyone else could.
To clarify, the club would be foolish to show their shot-caller the door right now, but there’s a practicality in beginning the process to select a successor in time for when his contract expires in June. More than just being cost-effective, City would be taking the initiative in what’s sure to be a difficult task appointing the appropriate successor, with fresh ideas welcome if the club is to crack its chief priority in conquering Europe.
Barcelona and Bayern Munich, two European institutions whose identities far exceed any one manager, have each had major domestic success and won the Champions League since Guardiola left their ranks. The Citizens boast the means to also prove there’s life after his tenure, as well as a small victory to be had in that separation coming on their terms.
The Carabao Cup was slim consolation for City in a 2019-20 season where it became clear early on that Liverpool would end their 30-year wait for the Premier League crown. The Champions League, however, was a different prospect, and their chances were blown after Guardiola’s peculiar selections against Lyon led to City falling in the quarter-finals for a third straight season:
It’s difficult to critique Guardiola’s commitment considering his all-consuming approach is so well-documented, but repeated mistakes in that one competition the club would love to win above all others also demand consequence.
The manager said in September he has not been told by the club that his job is under threat amid talk of a new contract, adding he himself will 'have to deserve' any extension to come, via the Guardian’s Jamie Jackson:
“I would love to stay longer here. It is a place I love to be but I have to deserve. This club achieved standards in the last decade but we have to maintain that and I have to deserve it. I am going to see if I deserve it this season in terms of how the club goes forward and improves.”
Those comments appeared to come with a tinge of acceptance ahead of time. Guardiola is an intense, demanding figure to work under, but it’s hardly the first time he’s seemed almost blasé regarding whether or not his long-term future lies in Manchester:
It’s a healthy mindset to have from a modern coach’s perspective, but those at the Etihad may also be disappointed if they want Guardiola to form a dynasty on par with Arsene Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson, who spent a combined 49 years with Arsenal and Manchester United, respectively. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, City’s recruitment of the Catalan stands as the real masterstroke in their history, but that nagging sense there’s a timer on the relationship brings with it a certain fragility.
Above all, the most pertinent question when discussing Guardiola’s departure is “Who could do better?” To whom do City turn when replacing one of the best coaches the sport has produced? The decision would make little sense without that answered in advance, placing pressure on the club to be as effective appointing a managerial successor as they are when upgrading squad positions.
But there’s also reason to believe City are a different club to the one Guardiola took over in 2016, with new needs and aspirations, just as his own desires and objectives may have changed since then. Managers who come to the Etihad in future will reap the benefits of groundwork he helped build—however long he might remain—and that lasting impact will ultimately be his crowning achievement.