Here he comes – Pep Guardiola – the manager Manchester City planned to have in place for the last four years. From the moment the former Barcelona executives Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain arrived at Eastlands in 2012, this was the end goal. Guardiola – the biggest signing in the club’s history – is no less a coup for the bench than Lionel Messi would be for the field.
He is the best manager in the world, possesses a clear vision that has transformed football utterly and – unlike his ideological inspirations like Marcelo Bielsa and Juanma Lillo – actually has a proven track record when it comes to winning trophies.
City is like nothing Pep’s ever faced before. His job at Barcelona was a case of restoring one of Europe’s best clubs to their perch; not only did he do that but gave them their most successful period in history. At Bayern, again, he took on a club steeped in national and continental success. He met – if not exceeded – the expectations there.
The Abu Dhabi owners need Pep to write the first chapter in the book of what they expect to be their dynastic success. They have had titles before but this is different. It is about a grand plan, a new way of working and a template for future generations of City managers and players to follow. Pep must build the club with his own hands over the course of a three-year contract.
His more immediate objectives are to make sure City punch their weight in the Premier League this season. Finishing fourth was nothing short of scandalous for a club of their wealth. City found it hard – beyond the first five games of the season – to build any sort of momentum and never once hit that methodical dominance that a Guardiola team works so hard to achieve.
The club’s status ahead of the season might be described then as a “work in progress”. Key players took part in the European Championship and the Copa Centenario, meaning Pep Guardiola has not enjoyed as extensive a pre-season with his full squad as he might have liked. Pre-season matches to date – against Bayern, Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal as well as a behind-closed-doors affair against St Johnstone – have not been sufficient to see the new manager’s style implemented fully with only hints of what he would like his players to do being apparent.
Guardiola will have good match practice against Steaua Bucharest in the Champions League qualifiers next week – precious competitive match practice that his title rivals won’t have – but before all that he must negotiate David Moyes and Sunderland on the opening weekend of the season.
Fitness issues mean he will be planning a line-up without new signing Ilkay Gundogan while doubts persist over captain Vincent Kompany. Not only might Kompany sit out the season’s opener through injury but his place in any first-choice Guardiola team might yet be called into question down the line. Guardiola will fundamentally alter the way City play. That is already evident in the manner in which the goalkeepers have been instructed to look after the ball instead of punting it upfield and the way the centre-backs split to the edge of the area every time City gain possession from deep.
Guardiola will be expecting his defenders to be comfortable enough on the ball to play meaningful passes from their sector as well as in midfield and there is no certainty that Kompany can do it. There have been errors as a remodelled backline comes to grips with the boss’s demands; Tosin Adarabioyo and Willy Caballero have provided evidence that City must adapt fast to being comfortable on the ball in their own half. Hence, John Stones has been prised from Everton and will set the standard for the new way City play from the back.
There are pressing issues in the full-back positions too where Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy and Aleksandr Kolarov could all conceivably be improved upon. A move for Hector Bellerin came to nothing while Angelino could yet be promoted to left-back contention.
It is a poor indictment both on the recruitment of Begiristain and the underwhelming nature of the players’ performances last season that Guardiola’s preferred XI would probably feature as many as five new signings and more if he could get them. As it stands, Stones and Leroy Sane should go straight in the team while Oleksandr Zinchenko and South Americans Gabriel Jesus and Marlos Moreno are more for the future. It will take time for the best of Pep and his new players to materialise.
Gundogan – when fit – will be a vital component in Guardiola’s midfield. There is still no guarantee on what formation the new manager will settle upon – if any – but ball retention in the midfield will be a huge part of any system he comes to implement.
Nolito can provide alternatives in two or three different attacking positions but might not have the overall quality to be a star in this team. The front line will be packed with talent regardless. Sane is among the best prospects in European football while Raheem Sterling is in need of guidance but remains a thrilling winger. Sergio Aguero will of course be depended upon for goals but he will frustrate his manager if he cannot stay fit for prolonged spells. Last season’s big signing Kevin de Bruyne will be the glue to hold it all together.
That means David Silva – arguably the greatest player in City’s history – is not yet assured of an important role in the team. Yaya Toure and the aforementioned Kompany could also be among the group signed early in the reign of the Abu Dhabi Investment Group who might also fall down the pecking order. Eliaquim Mangala, Wilfried Bony and Samir Nasri were all left out of the Champions League squad list and have been instructed to find new clubs. Big changes are coming.