Manchester City’s longest-serving manager was a tactical innovator born far from England who pioneered the use of a withdrawn centre-forward. Pep Guardiola will still have a long way to go to match the 13 years the India-born Les McDowall, who won the 1956 FA Cup and devised the Revie plan, spent in charge of City but if he sees out his new contract he will have been there for seven, more than anybody else other than Wilf Wild, who saw the club through the second world war.
Seven years at any club represents a remarkable achievement in the modern game, particularly at one so historically prone to volatility as City and especially so for the 49-year-old Guardiola, whose intensity was supposed to restrict the time he could spend at any one place. That may yet become a problem but equally no club have ever been set up quite so precisely to meet the demands of a manager as City were for Guardiola.
Given how much effort they expended in turning the club into a northern Barcelona, it is perhaps not surprising Guardiola is being given a rare opportunity to build a second great team. There are few second acts in football: the tendency, as Mauricio Pochettino found, is to dispense with the manager once a team fall into decline, rather than affording him the chance to rebuild.
City’s slide has been nothing like as precipitous as Tottenham’s was, and they still finished second last season, but 81 points does represent a significant drop-off from the 98 and 100 they amassed in the previous two seasons (even allowing for the fact Liverpool’s huge lead probably led to a slight loss of focus in the second half of the campaign). But that is a measure of Guardiola’s achievement: in any context other than the immediate one, 81 points would look a very respectable tally.
Still, few managers have managed to create more than one great team, something only partly attributable to football’s impatience.
Only four managers have won the English league title at more than one club. José Mourinho won it in two different spells at Chelsea. Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby created three great sides at the same club in one stint. Harry Catterick, Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Arsène Wenger did it twice. But it is rare.
Until their FA Cup humiliation at Watford in 1970, Shankly found it almost impossibly hard to break up a side he had built, hard to tell players with whom he had enjoyed great success there was no place for them any more. For Guardiola the process of renewal has already begun. Vincent Kompany has left and Sergio Agüero’s contributions are becoming more limited. The arrivals of Rúben Dias and Ferran Torres are a step towards replacing them, although the biggest problem may be finding somebody with the positional awareness and tactical intelligence to replace Fernandinho at the back of midfield.
And then, of course, there is Lionel Messi. Inevitably the news of Guardiola’s two-year contract extension, allied to Messi’s comments that he is “a little tired of always being the problem for everything” at Barcelona, and his wrangle with the Spanish tax authorities, will renew speculation that he could link up with his former manager at City when he becomes available on a free transfer next summer. While there would be undoubted glamour for City in signing Messi, it is hard to believe he would not present them with the same tactical problems he causes Barça.
For all his ability and the goals and assists he as good as guarantees, does he still (he turns 34 in June) have the legs to play in a side based on pressing? At Barcelona, Guardiola was a revolutionary. His pressing, allied to a radical possession game, changed what was understood to be possible in football. But football adapts.
No longer do opponents feel humiliated by having only 40% of the ball and lose discipline as Manchester United did in the Champions League final in 2009. And the nature of pressing has changed: the German school of Jürgen Klopp, Hansi Flick and Julian Nagelsmann has come to supplant the Spanish school (even if Joachim Löw has been left behind). Klopp is the only manager Guardiola has faced on more than five occasions who has a positive record against him.
That suggests the City manager needs at least to adapt to an extent. Within certain parameters, he has been relatively flexible over his career but 12 years is a long time in management. Very few are able to sustain themselves at the very top for more than a decade. The process of constant evolution is too wearing.
That is perhaps a particular problem for Guardiola given his peculiar intensity, which ground down players after three years at Bayern Munich and in his fourth season at Barcelona. That said, the grumbling that was heard from certain players in 2019 was notably quieter in the summer just gone.
With no Champions League success since 2011, there is still unfinished business for Guardiola. The decision of whether to stay was always going to be his. He is, after all, by some margin the most successful manager in City’s history, and even with all the investment they have enjoyed, the seasons of 100 and 98 points remain astonishing.
At a club built for Guardiola, who realistically could possibly have replaced him?
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