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Following Manchester City’s defeat to Monaco in the Champions League, all eyes were focused on Pep Guardiola.
This is a manager who had won 21 trophies in his last seven years of management – an average of three per season. This is also a man who revolutionised football with his Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams, who came to England with hopes of doing the same at City.
However, the 3-1 defeat in Monte Carlo created some unwanted history for the Spaniard, as he failed to make the last eight of the Champions League for the first time. His side also became the first to score five goals in a first leg tie and still be eliminated. The knives were officially being sharpened.
Some will rightly point out that his team selection was too attack-minded, especially with a two-goal lead, but Guardiola has made it clear that he will not change his philosophy for anybody. Others will argue that asking his defenders to pass out from the back invites pressure, but it’s how he wants his side to build and understands that mistakes will happen.
His insistence on playing a certain way has not gone down well in some quarters, but it’s easy to forget that this is his first season in English football and patchy form is inevitable. Squad building takes time and Pep is doing it his way.
INHERITING A TROUBLED SQUAD
What’s worth noting is how disjointed the squad he initially inherited was. City's buying policy had been flawed to such an extent in recent years that up until the summer, they still relied heavily on the backbone of their 2012 title winning side – namely Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero. Around that key group others have underwhelmed, and problems had even started to arise with those players.
Manchester City have again made Leonardo Bonucci (29) a £50m target to strengthen their defence and replace Vincent Kompany. [Daily Star]
— City Chief (@City_Chief) March 18, 2017
Joe Hart was deemed surplus to requirements. Kompany was approaching 30 and suffering from acute calf problems. Yaya Toure turned 33 in May and even David Silva had somehow crept up on 31 and struggled to shake off persistent ankle problems.
In defence, the ever-reliable Bacary Sagna was 34 and coming towards the end of his Premier League career, while Pablo Zabaleta (32), Gael Clichy (31) and Aleksandar Kolarov (30) offered little in terms of energy and attacking verve.
This was a City team that has been allowed to grow too old, with poor signings simply exacerbating the problem.
THE FORMULA IS THERE
Despite their inconsistency, it’s easy to forget that we have seen City play well against some of the best teams in Europe.
In Guardiola’s first Manchester Derby, they completely ran the show at Old Trafford and had it not been for a poor mistake by Claudio Bravo, would’ve probably kept a clean sheet. Not long after that, Barcelona came to the Etihad on the back of seven successive wins and couldn’t get close to the likes of Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin de Bruyne, who looked like scoring every time they went forward.
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) November 2, 2016
We’ve also seen them play Arsenal off the park for 45 minutes before coming back from a goal down to win, and put five past West Ham at the London Stadium with another clinical performance. The game plan is there and the formula is there.
Pep is slowly getting his ideas across to the players and on occasion we’ve seen it come together brilliantly. A mixture of intense yet organised pressing, fluidity in attack and smart interplay has worked for the Spaniard before and it will work for him again, but much like Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool, new systems need to be perfected over time.
NEEDS ANOTHER SUMMER TO STAMP HIS AUTHORITY
Guardiola's priority will now be to freshen up and introduce young blood into a stale squad, while also bringing authority to all parts of the pitch. City have revitalised their attacking options by signing the likes of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus over the past two years, with the three looking almost unplayable when selected together this season.
The former Barcelona boss told City TV last month: “We are buying for the long term. That’s why Leroy, Raheem and Gabriel are here. All three are around 20 years old,” which offers an insight into what their summer business will involve.
Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich, has voiced his concerns over a lack of playing time and could come in to play at either right back and central midfield.
With Clichy and Kolarov on the wrong side of 30, Benfica’s Alex Grimaldo or Valencia full-back Jose Gaya could come in and provide pace and energy down the left-hand side. Athletic Club’s Aymeric Laporte also fits the bill at centre half in terms of his technical ability, but also never shies away from competing physically.
The options are there for the 46-year-old who will have his targets identified already.
GIVE HIM TIME
“Projects” of the magnitude Guardiola is attempting – to overhaul a footballing philosophy and turn City into a dominant European force – will not happen overnight. Mourinho has spent in excess of a quarter of a billion dollars to make United worth watching again, and his team is still struggling to finish in the Champions League qualification spots.
Jurgen Klopp has taken two seasons, a few pairs of broken glasses and an improved vertical leap to imprint his ethos on Liverpool. Mauricio Pochettino has brilliantly transformed Spurs' style in a relatively short time, but what have they won? And, of course, Arsene Wenger’s project at Arsenal is at 21 years and counting.
It would be foolishly premature to judge Guardiola on the basis of his inaugural campaign in the Premier League, not that it will stop those guardians of English football who want to knock him off his know-it-all perch. But who's willing to bet that City won't come good by next season, when we see the full-Pep?