Alex Ferguson once noted that the lifespan of a football team is roughly four seasons, after which it needs refreshing, and if anyone should know, he should know. As such, it’s no great surprise to see Manchester City faltering over the last few weeks; Pep Guardiola is now into his fifth year as their manager, and the demands he places on his players are more intense than most.
This is not to say that City are not still a good team; they absolutely are, and their top level remains an extremely high one. But their average levels and bottom levels are far lower than before – generally speaking, the teams who win things are the teams who excel in those areas – and they no longer have as many players able to redeem poor performances in an explosion of individual brilliance.
Nor can City’s apparent malaise be explained by the unique circumstances in which they find themselves. That is not to say they are having no effect, just that they ought to be having less effect. The absence of crowds ought to favour the better teams because they are less reliant on external impetus to override an imbalance in quality; even among those better teams, that same sterility suits those who are more technical; and the quicker turnaround-times cause fewer problems for those with the greatest strength in depth, and whose players spend most of their time on the ball, rather than chasing it. And yet…
Manchester City's Spanish manager Pep Guardiola gestures on the touchline
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Managing to evolve teams while continuing to win was a key aspect of Ferguson’s particular genius, facilitated by his eye for a player and unparalleled grasp of what makes people tick. Guardiola, though, is a different type of manager and a different type of man, extracting the maximum from some astonishingly brilliant players, the majority of whom predated him at the clubs where they were together.
The first question that needs answering is whether Guardiola has the desire for the process. He left Barcelona after four seasons, when the greatest club side of all-time reached its natural end – though the stress of having José Mourinho in his hair was a central part of his exhaustion, and his time in England has not been like that. But he also left Bayern Munich after four years, so it is not hard to imagine him fancying a new challenge, or a return home.
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Conversely, it’s just as easy to imagine him feeling settled at City. The club waited years for him to arrive, in the meantime preparing the environment they knew that he wanted and recruiting players they knew suited his style. They will not easily forsake that, a point illustrated by the £120m or so they gave him to spend in this summer’s transfer window, on top of which, there are very few jobs in world football that Guardiola will find appealing.
In which case the question shifts to whether he has the will to build a team to whether he has the skill to build a team. At Barcelona, he inherited a damaged squad, but one which nevertheless included Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Yaya Toure, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi; to paraphrase Ryan Giggs, “He’d have took it”. Though he then added Dani Alves and David Villa, followed by Javier Mascherano a year later, these were not purchases that demanded a great deal of insight, and they stand out because they worked; the expensive acquisitions of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez, Dmytro Chygrynski, Alexander Hleb, Martin Caceres and Keirrison did not. And in that time, the only player to arrive in what might be termed a clever transfer was Gerard Pique – and he was available only because Manchester United had a once in a lifetime central defensive partnership ahead of him with Wes Brown, another fine and homegrown player, backing it up. Albeit he did oversee the promotion of Sergio Busquets, Pedro and Thiago Alcantara from the youth system.
At Bayern Munich, Guardiola’s record in the transfer market was much better, though the ability to pick off the best players in the Bundesliga while using the cachet of a venerable footballing power are not advantages available to him at City, who are also hamstrung by financial fair play rules. And more than that, it may also be that finding players to give what he has received from Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, is beyond him, not because of anything to do with him, but because it is beyond anyone, because it is impossible.
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But Guardiola’s purchases since arriving in Manchester do not suggest that he is the man to make the best possible job of it. He is on his second goalkeeper, and regardless of Ederson’s Hoddlesque long passing, there are doubts about his ability to prevent the ball from entering his net. Guardiola has bought three right-backs, the best of whom, Kyle Walker, is now 30; three left-backs, none of whom are much use; and four centre-backs, to still have a suspect defence. It is true that all Guardiola teams have suspect defences, which they protect keeping the ball away from the opposition and down the other end. In Europe, this has only worked when he had the greatest midfield ever and the greatest player ever, but domestically, in his 10 seasons as a manager, he has only failed to win the title on three occasions.
For the first time, though, there are doubts about his teams going forward. At City, he has generally deployed two attacking midfielders with Fernandinho behind, chasing up and down and side to side, while administering Guardiola’s beloved tactical fouls, generally avoiding punishment. Though he is still good, he is not quite the force he once was and is beginning to collect niggles, while Rodri, his successor, is a pleasant passer but not as dynamic, athletic or inspirational.
Similarly, Kevin de Bruyne, still the best player in the Premier League, is also beginning to struggle with injuries, and David Silva has of course moved on. Eighteen months ago, this did not look especially problematic, as he was past his best and Bernardo Silva seemed as similar to him as it was possible to be. Except he has fallen out of favour in recent times and has been used on the wing more often than in midfield, which has meant more game time for Ilkay Gundogan, a nice player but not one likely to make the difference between failure and success.
Raheem Sterling of Manchester City celebrates with Bernardo Silva of Manchester City after he scores his sides 5th goal during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Newcastle United at Etihad Stadium on July 08, 2020 in Manchester, England.
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City also have problems in attack. Leroy Sane, a brilliant payer in his own right, has also left a gap because of his left-footedness, maintaining width on his side of the pitch to stretch opponents, helping create a landslide of back-post tap-ins for Raheem Sterling, coming in off the other flank. It is true that Ferran Torres is a talent, but he is another right footer, so will not give City the same scope, and his presence might force Sterling to play from the left, where he is less effective.
Perhaps most of all, though, the problem that City have is Aguero. Strikers like him – who score regularly and when you most need them to – are rare, but he is indubitably on the way down. Like Fernandinho, he is still good, but is no longer the force of nature that he once was, and his injuries are mounting up – we learnt today that he will be out for a fortnight or so at the very least – which makes it pointless to design a system with him in mind, because there is every chance he will be unavailable to play in it. Guardiola has already tried to replace him once, with Gabriel Jesus – and what does that tell us about his judgment? – but Aguero was too good to ignore. Now, there are no obvious replacements to buy, and though Jesus is a good player, he is also as bad a player as one could legitimately expect a team of City’s exchequer to have in that position.
On the other hand, City have bought Ruben Dias, and Aymeric Laporte will soon be fit. If the former turns out to be good, and if the latter has recovered well from injury and improves, Guardiola has a partnership that will last him the next five years, at least. If Rodri can develop into the controlling midfielder he was bought to be, he will form the third point of a triangle that will be extremely difficult for opponents to penetrate. If Bernardo can regain the form he showed the season before last, City will not lack for midfield creativity. If Ferran Torres is as good as Guardiola thinks he is, if Liam Delap and one or two others can assert themselves, and if De Bruyne can stay fit, then City are well on the way to completing the rebuild. Granted, that is a lot of ifs, but none of them are particularly big ifs, and that is without having mentioned Phil Foden, who is no sort of if whatsoever, just a magical player who will develop into one of the world’s best.
So whilst it may not be premature to say that this particular City team – the one which won consecutive league titles in record-breaking style – are finished, and if that turns out to be the case it is also easy to see Guardiola departing in the summer, it is also just as easy to foresee a season of transition in which they add further trophies nevertheless, with a rejuvenated manager cementing a new vision ready for next season.