“The best team in the world.”
“The greatest Premier League team ever."
“Manchester City can be the new ‘Invincibles’ and go on to win the quadruple.”
“Favourites to win the Champions League.”
One by one the hyperbolic predictions and praise surrounding Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have been shown up as such. The dangers of anointing a group of players and the methods of the manager long before the point of a season when the most serious of silverware is handed out are now writ clear.
City have been exceptional, enthralling, energising, and — in the Premier League — remain on course to set a number of new high watermarks. They have not, however, matched their publicity.
Over the course of a week, a team physically and mentally tired by the demands of Guardiola’s domination football has exited the Champions League to a club that has only qualified for Europe’s premier competition twice in the past seven seasons. A manager who handicapped his team with his own tactical experimentation in the first leg was reduced to blaming referees for a 5-1 aggregate defeat. There was no mention of the fact City had a grand total of three shots on target.
Guardiola has been supported in a fashion never witnessed before in the sport. Such was Abu Dhabi’s desire to place the Spaniard in charge of their football team, City’s owner hired a chief executive and technical director who had worked with the Catalan at Barcelona, and who they believed could persuade him to come to the Premier League.
Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain started investing record transfer fees in players suited to Guardiola’s playing style such as Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling before they even had the coach’s signature on a hugely lucrative contract. They overhauled City’s youth system and constructed new training facilities with Guardiola in mind. And when he finally arrived at the club, Abu Dhabi bankrolled him with the largest investment in playing resources football has ever seen.
Guardiola is about to complete his second season in England. Over the course of those two years, the club has committed €586 million ($725 million) to transfer fees, according to CIES Football Observatory’s academic studies (over 53 percent more than their nearest domestic rival). Add City’s inflating wage bill to that recruitment budget and Guardiola has burned through over £1 billion ($1.4 billion) in just two campaigns.
The return on investment in terms of silverware amounts to one domestic title (albeit won in glorious fashion) and one League Cup. Like Bayern Munich before them, Abu Dhabi hired Guardiola to win the Champions League. Their return in that competition is a first knock-out round loss to AS Monaco and a quarter-final loss to Liverpool.
Quizzed on what has gone wrong for him in the European Cup since he quit Barcelona, Guardiola has taken varying public stances in recent days. One has been to revert to his belief that his possession-obsessed football works because it creates more chances than opponents. “Just try to analyze it game by game,” he said last night. “You see the statistics. OK, I’m sorry, we win this season in statistics.”
Another, following Saturday’s three-goal second-half capitulation to Manchester United in front of an expectant home crowd, was to admit to some soul searching. “I thought many times about that. I drop a lot of times Champions League games for 10, 15 minutes. Barcelona, 71 minutes, 0-0; 90, 3-0. It happened many times. Maybe it’s my fault. I have to think about it but I feel when you dominate and you create chances then you are more closer to winning the games.”
One of Guardiola’s many strengths as a football coach is his willingness to reflect on his weaknesses. One of Guardiola’s weaknesses as a football coach has been a refusal to moderate his core beliefs.
Will he ultimately succeed in using the vast financial and organizational advantage Abu Dhabi has provided him with to deliver City first European Cup? Will he even reach a Champions League final for the first time post-Barca? The answer may lie in whether that Guardiola strength can overcome that weakness.