Pep Guardiola has turned City into one of the most ruthless and aesthetically pleasing teams in the history of English soccer, the goals plentiful and often works of art.
Records have tumbled – the run of 18 straight wins in the league being one of them – and more could follow in the coming weeks as City bids to finish the season with more points, goal and wins than any other team in a single top-flight campaign.
All good things must come to an end, though. And, unless he veers from his previous career strategy, the end might be in sight for Guardiola at Etihad Stadium.
The Spaniard has one year left on his contract with City and has given no indication, either way, about his future. However, he was at Barcelona for four years – one too many, as it turned out – and Bayern Munich for three years. That seems to be his way – short, sharp bursts in charge and then leave for a new project before he gets too burnt out and his intensity starts to affect not just himself but his players.
City captain Vincent Kompany has spoken of creating a dynasty at the club but it’s clear that won’t happen under Guardiola, who has often wondered out loud how Alex Ferguson (Manchester United) and Arsene Wenger (Arsenal) managed to stay so long at one.
City supporters have been spoiled every three or four days by the pretty passing patterns woven of Guardiola’s team and they might have just one year left of it.
Can it get any better than this? Guardiola himself said last week that repeating this season’s achievements would be “impossible”.
Is it only downhill from having, in many people’s view, the world’s best coach? Potentially, even if City’s hierarchy has a succession plan in place. It might involve Guardiola’s assistant, Mikel Arteta.
Guardiola will sit down with his bosses in the offseason and discuss what lies ahead for him and a squad whose average age at the start of this season was 24. If next season really is to be his last at City, certain things will be occupying his thoughts.
THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
It’s been nearly seven years since Guardiola last won European soccer’s greatest prize, too long a wait for a coach supposedly at the top of his profession. Five straight failures, at Bayern and City, are starting to eat away at him and he recently acknowledged that his teams’ tendency to collapse under pressure was a worry.
Guardiola is not one to compromise on his principles but it is clear his tactics need to change in the latter stages of the Champions League, because his teams are getting picked off too easily. Maybe it involves dispensing with a playmaker to field an extra holding midfielder, or ensuring his full backs are less attacking so that his defense retains a better shape.
He won’t like the thought of reining in his attacking philosophy but it might be necessary for certain games or at certain times during games.
City has only gotten past the Champions League quarterfinals once since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover in 2008. It’s a paltry return on the Abu Dhabi hierarchy’s investment.
City has spent about $550 million on new players in Guardiola’s two seasons in charge, leaving some to argue that the team’s achievements boil down to pure hard cash as much as the Spaniard’s methods.
Whatever the reason, City will likely hit the transfer market hard again in the offseason and target one or two big signings to complement an already deep and star-studded squad.
Central midfield is the most pressing concern, with Fernandinho needing a back-up or a foil in his important role as the anchorman behind playmakers Kevin De Bruyneand David Silva.
Guardiola might also want a left back to act as back-up to Benjamin Mendy, who has been injured for most of this season, and/or a left-sided attacker as an alternative to Leroy Sane.
“The club made an investment on players and that is the difference,” Guardiola said over the weekend. “We are here and it is only possible because we have these incredible players in terms of mentality, and everything I said they tried to follow.”
In light of Neymar’s game-changing move to Paris Saint-Germain and widespread knowledge of City’s financial power, the signings won’t come cheap.
RETAINING THE TITLE
Guardiola has mastered the art of winning domestic trophies, and City will be the overwhelming favorite to retain the Premier League title – a feat the club has never achieved.
“We can’t just stop at one Premier League title if we go on,” City defender Kyle Walker said. “It needs to be a number of years before we can be regarded as one of the top teams ever to have played in the league.”
In fact, no team has won back-to-back Premier Leagues since Man United in 2008 and ’09, highlighting its difficulty.
City will be new target, with clubs having had a full season to wise up to Guardiola’s style. Liverpool perhaps laid the blueprint in the Champions League quarterfinal victory over City this month, pressing high and hitting on the transition. Few have the luxury of Liverpool’s clinical forward line of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, though.
No doubt Guardiola will have a few new tricks for next season to keep his players – and his opponents – on their toes. But expect one thing: statistics like scoring nearly three goals per game, having nearly 90 percent passing accuracy and averaging 72.7 percent possession are likely to continue.
He dislikes media conferences as it is, but being continually asked about his City future – which will no doubt be the case until he makes his mind up – will hardly make them more appealing.
Guardiola will have to weigh up his concerns about burn-out and getting stale, whether he thinks City will continue to back him financially and through trust in his methods – the answer is surely “yes” on both fronts – and if he has other offers on the table.
Kompany said after winning the league that there is so much more potential to be unlocked in the blue half of Manchester.
City fans will hope Guardiola is the coach that does so.