For Manchester City, it feels as though the announcement that Pep Guardiola will take charge in the summer is the culmination of a four-year process. From the moment Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano arrived as director of football and chief executive respectively, their aim was to appoint the man with whom they had achieved such success at Barcelona.
While Manchester United flounder in the post-Ferguson world, with a manager – Louis van Gaal – who was the most sought-after in the world 20 years ago and an expensive and largely incomprehensible transfer policy, City can congratulate themselves on their long-term planning. Or at least they can if it works. A four-year battle to get a manager to sign a three-year contract will have been worth it if it establishes City as part of the European elite, whether through consistent success or because of the style of football they play – or, ideally, both. And Guardiola, at the very least, will guarantee interesting football with his radical tactical approach and meticulous manipulation of his side from the touchline.
But there is something more. In their statement when Robert Mancini was ousted in 2013 – and we now know that there had been talks between the club and Guardiola before that – City spoke of their desire for a “holistic approach”. That remains the goal and that is why so much money has been spent on the academy. In his book Goal – the Ball Doesn’t Go in By Chance, Soriano talks of the importance of a club having an overarching philosophy.
On the most practical footballing level, that means having youth players learning a style of play that is practised by the first team, facilitating their progress through the ranks. It was partly because of his perceived willingness to promote youth (and his rival’s perceived unwillingness) that Guardiola was appointed ahead of Jose Mourinho to the Barcelona job in 2008. When it works, when a great generation emerges together as happened at Barca, a mutual understanding honed over years means that the level reached is arguably higher than anything that can be achieved by off-the-shelf purchases.
The danger is that the environment becomes so rarefied that outsiders struggle to adapt, something that happened most obviously with Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Barca. Guardiola, though, has shown at Bayern that he is capable of adapting the purist passing style he oversaw at Barca; although he has won less at Bayern he has probably proved himself a more rounded coach. It might also be asked quite how a personality as driven and domineering as Guardiola’s fits into Soriano’s holistic vision. His demand for control has been a major issue at Bayern, with constant spats with various club functionaries, most notably the doctors. City is a club with fewer established interests than Bayern but if their planning is as careful as it appears, it makes no sense to fall under a cult of personality.
For all City’s fine talk of holism, many of their recent signings have not worked. Eight of the players who started against Napoli in City’s first ever Champions League game in September 2011 are still first-team regulars – and that is despite a net spend of 235-million pounds. Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne have settled rather better than many and probably have a place in the medium-term future but this still seems some way off being a Guardiola squad.
At Barca he had Xavi and at Bayern he has Philipp Lahm, dominant figures blessed with profound football intelligence. There is no obvious equivalent at City nor even a player with the sort of understanding of space demonstrated by David Alaba or Thomas Muller. Sergio Aguero, quick, mobile and deadly, presumably will have a role, as will David Silva with his incisiveness. Vincent Kompany, once his calf heals, will be valuable for his leadership as much as anything else. A better passer alongside him in the heart of the defence may be necessary.
Guardiola ended up selling Yaya Toure when he was at Barca and the Ivorian is older and slower now. Toure’s future at City may have been in doubt anyway this summer; with Guardiola’s arrival it seems likely he will leave – particularly after his agent Dimitri Seluk questioned Guardiola’s abilities last month. Fernandinho may fit a Guardiola model; Fernando and Fabian Delph probably will not. The centre of midfield looks an obvious place for investment.
The move is important not only for City but also for Guardiola’s legacy. By going to Bayern, a club that had won the treble under Jupp Heynckes in the season before his arrival, Guardiola was taking over a dominant force.
That is not to say that he does not deserve credit for his successes at Bayern, particularly given the sophisticated and thrilling nature of some of the football they have played under him, but equally if Bayern do not win the Champions League this season there would be a sense that his three seasons there had fallen short.
Even if Guardiola does bring the Champions League, the thought will always be that success at Bayern could have been achieved by far lesser managers. Bayern’s dominance – and the latest Deloitte report into football finance shows their revenues for 2014-15 were 69% higher than the next wealthiest German side, Borussia Dortmund – has slightly masked the rebuilding job Guardiola had to do when he succeeded Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona in 2008. Managing City is a far greater examination; there are far fewer guarantees of success. It may be true that, with the backing of Sheikh Mansour, City have greater resources to draw on than any other Premier League club, but in terms of revenue they lag behind United with three other English sides in the top nine.
When Van Gaal described the Premier League as a “rat race”, this is what he meant. This season has suggested that the middle-classes have risen (17 of the 30 sides with the highest revenues in the world in 2014-15 are in the Premier League) and that may make the league even more relentless than before.
The biggest question is whether Guardiola can sustain the intensity of his football over a full English season. That is a concern not only for players asked to press, but also, given his ferocity on the touchline, for Guardiola. – Guardian News & Media 2016