BY AGENCY REPORTER
A year ago, Pep Guardiola arrived at a pivotal moment with Manchester City. It was a crossroads he had experienced before.
Towards the end of his tenure with Barcelona, the Spaniard found himself in something of a quandary.
Barca had won 14 trophies in his four seasons in charge, becoming the best club side in the world. But he felt cracks were beginning to show.
He spoke to Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafael Benitez and asked them for their views on how to handle such a situation. Renew the squad or leave?
Both men were unequivocal in their advice. Stick to your beliefs, stay and renew the squad. Ferguson, a master of that approach, summed it up succinctly: “Recycle your squad, or before you know it you’ll find they have recycled you.”
Not for the first time Guardiola chose to disregard the advice given to him.
By the end of the 2011-12 season – his fourth at the club – an exhausted and thoroughly frustrated Guardiola realised he could no longer get what was needed from players who for so long had hung on his every word.
Enough was enough and, to the shock of everyone at Barcelona, he walked away to recharge his batteries with a one-year sabbatical in the United States.
Suitably refreshed, he returned a year later to take the reins at Bayern Munich but, despite three Bundesliga titles and two German Cups during his three-season spell at the club, he felt the movers and shakers did not fully understand what he was trying to do.
But, with the Covid-19-ravaged 2019-20 season concluded and the Premier League title transferred to Liverpool, Guardiola had a decision to make about his contract.
And at that point the words of Benitez and Ferguson made a lot more sense than they had done almost a decade earlier.
As it transpired, Guardiola signed a new contract and the mutual faith of both parties has been rewarded with a third Premier League title across his five years with City.
The deal, if he so wishes, could keep him at City for seven years, a sure sign there was never any sense the Spaniard was beginning to overstay his welcome.
From his perspective, he never remotely considered any of the overtures from Paris St-Germain. Nor will he ever go to the French club, not least because the Abu Dhabi owners of City would consider a move to a Qatar-owned club like PSG as nothing short of treachery.
City never forced him to accept an offer that was negotiated in fewer than 24 hours but had been on the table for the previous few months.
In fact, all they asked of Guardiola was that if he decided to leave, the club should be given plenty of notice.
The key moment in that period came on a trip Guardiola took to the Maldives in October to meet up with City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak, who convinced him to stay.
“We have to keep going,” Guardiola was told. “We will keep winning, we will do what is required to continue competing at this level. You have to stay.”
The consistency of the message from his bosses, plus the fact he is comfortable and surrounded by people he trusts, did the rest of the job.
His agreement to continue with the club obliged them to think about renewing the squad.
At the end of last season and the beginning of the current one it became clear that changes were needed.
Immediate steps were taken, notably with the arrival of winger Ferran Torres and defender Ruben Dias. The Portuguese has been a hugely positive influence off the pitch, encouraging others but also demanding a lot of those around him on it, not just the defenders but also his team’s attackers (helped by the absence of fan noise).
The initial idea was just four or five from the ‘old guard’ would be deemed irreplaceable, although the re-evaluation of certain players like Joao Cancelo and John Stones, and how the market has been affected by the pandemic, made it apparent the assessment of who could be sold needed to be more rigorous than had previously been thought.
While the squad underwent minor renewal, it was the methods that received the biggest overhaul.
A 1-1 draw with West Brom on 15 December, with City sixth in the table, forced a deep reflection on the situation. The feeling was the team was bored, uninterested, lethargic and generally short of the enthusiasm required.
Clearly the lack of a proper break and the absence of mental freshness were having an impact and were exacerbating the situation.
Guardiola, drawing on his previous experiences at Barcelona and Bayern, started to think maybe his pupils were tired of hearing his words and opened the door so they could have greater contact with his assistant coaches, rather than with him directly.
After exhaustive analysis with his coaching team and honest chats with his second in command, Juan Manuel Lillo – someone who has become more of a mentor than a conventional assistant coach – Guardiola decided to return to the essence of his team’s game.
With forwards Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling in wider positions, more spaces were created inside.
Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne, now free from injury, plus a Cancelo rediscovered as a wing-back who moves into midfield, were able to create a superiority of numbers in the middle of the pitch.
Calmness was applied to attack with more patience and passes and, as Guardiola realised he could no longer rely on Sergio Aguero’s fitness, he became obsessed with working out how to get more bodies into the box. He wanted wingers, midfielders and even full-backs to be a goal threat. That is how
Gundogan started to score regularly and why Foden began delivering stats that were better than those produced by club legend David Silva in his first season in England.
The manager determined that his priority was players who gave fluidity, whose first touch and body positioning allowed the ball to be moved faster. That became a determining factor in his selections for big games.
A side-effect of the new approach was the large number of players in front of the ball, and with it came the problem of how to minimise the threat of possible counter-attacks.
In Guardiola’s first year at City, they conceded five goals on the counter, and they looked weak when they lost the ball. From then on this became one of Guardiola’s obsessions.
For this season he decided there would be a line of four defenders behind the ball, consisting of the two centre-halves, a full-back (normally Cancelo) and a holding midfielder.
This season they have conceded just once from a rapid transition after conceding possession.
Also, Guardiola took on board that sometimes results have to be ground out as well as beautifully crafted and City started playing a different way, less brilliant than in the past but more consistent.
There was a crucial game in December, a 1-0 win against Southampton, which did not produce great football but allowed City to keep up with the big clubs. There was more relief than happiness at the end of that match.
If there was a ‘eureka’ moment it came on 3 January when City, eight points off leaders Liverpool at the time, blew away Chelsea with a 3-1 win.
With City 3-0 up by the 34th minute, everything Guardiola had been working towards was encapsulated in a first-half masterclass.
The 4-1 victory at Anfield in February, played, like at Stamford Bridge, without a classic number nine, meant they had established a successful formula for the big games. It was that structure Guardiola has used to such effect over recent weeks.
Within the context of a pandemic, the lack of rest in a busy calendar, and the need to change the dynamic of a season that had not started well, this can be considered the best example of team-building Guardiola has produced in his career. You only have to look at how difficult it has been for other contenders to keep the consistency necessary to challenge for the title.
Guardiola has moulded players and helped adapt new ones into a squad that is fully designed to suit his requirements – even De Bruyne, signed before the manager’s arrival, was recruited with his knowledge and approval.
He has come out the other side with a Premier League title and Carabao Cup, and could complete a treble when City face Chelsea in the Champions League final on 29 May.
When Guardiola arrived at City he was given a clear brief. Dominate the domestic scene and achieve regular appearances in the semi-final stages of the Champions League.
With three league titles in five years, the domestic dominance is there, and this season was his first Champions League semi-final since arriving, He navigated it superbly, with a 4-1 aggregate victory over Paris St-Germain.
Those who look to diminish his achievements claim success has been achieved by spending a fortune in bringing in some of the best players in the world, a statement that is as true as it is an oversimplification.
Among the Premier League’s known ‘money-spenders’, there is not that much variation in the cost of their squads (City’s most-used XI this season could ultimately cost £499.8m, while Manchester United’s equivalent figure is £504.2m) and the only real difference is Guardiola has maximised and radically improved the assets available to him.
But there is room for more acquisitions.
With Aguero departing at the end of the season and Sterling and others looking like they have misplaced their accuracy in front of goal, far too many opportunities have been wasted.
City have looked enviously at other teams’ strikers and it is something the club will certainly attempt to address in the summer transfer window.
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi continues to be the ultimate dream for the club, although the absolute priority is to bring in a striker for the next five or six years, a youngster of great quality who can convert a higher percentage of the multiple chances this side can create.
Yes, City are one of the 14 teams who have shown interest in Erling Braut Haaland and hope to convince him to join the club.
They are all possibilities as Guardiola continues to lead the biggest rebuild of a team in his career, a group fully moulded on what he dreams of having on the pitch.