Bursting the Bubble

Last eight years must’ve been boring for Pep – he just took quite a risk.

A wise man always hedges his assets – and Pep Guardiola has just stopped doing that. After seven seasons of success in two gargantuan clubs that were destined to succeed, he picked up the gauntlet and took the Manchester City job. He will join Roberto Martínez, Quique Sanchez Flores and, potentially, Aitor Karanka as a member of the Spanish managerial colony in the Premier League. However, let’s not forget it: by doing this, he is going to put himself under more pressure than he has ever been as a head coach. Not because English top division is bigger than any other competition in the world; not because he’ll be expected to win any trophy his club aspires for – it’s because The Citizens, like no other club, require some serious fixing in pretty much all departments.

Two days have passes since the absolutely shocking defeat the team has suffered at Etihad to the sensational Leicester side. The team abandoned #2 spot in favor of Tottenham and since Arsenal have come back to their winning ways in Bournemouth, City have gone down to the number four position, six points behind Foxes. This is still far from a disaster – but with 13 matches remaining and current leaders having plenty of comfortable fixtures ahead of them, the future isn’t in MC’s hands anymore. A bit brighter prospects await in the Champions League, where Dynamo Kiev should not pose too much of a threat. But what’s next? In it’s current state, the team will not survive a clash with five out of seven favorites to go through to the Quarterfinals – and only reaching the Round of 8 is certainly below the expectations of Sheikh Mansour.

What’s worse, after being paid for approximately £230 million in transfer fees alone, the players seem out of of depth already. They’ve attempted 22 shots at Kasper Schmeichel’s goal, but only four of those forced the reaction from the Danish goalkeeper. They would keep the ball for about 57 minutes – and yet, the first truly outstanding chances they’d create came in the dying minutes, when they’d finally start to take the advantage of Leicester’s heavy legs. At 0-2 and with the entire second half to come, Manuel Pellegrini decided that the best way to rescue points in this game would be to put in a 19-years old striker and a defensive midfielder, who has clearly lost his bid for the first-team football earlier this season. And after that, Bersant Celina was in. Desperation would be the word here.

Regardless of the investments so far, there’s a lot of rebuilding to be done in this team – and for several reasons. First of all, players like Bacary Sagna (32), Pablo Zabaleta (31) and Yaya Touré (32) are only going to play worse brand of football than they did this season. This applies the most to Big Yaya. Let’s face it: the man who used to run the show for his team and netted ridiculous 20 league goals during the 2013/14 campaign is not coming back. This fact alone leaves a considerable chink in his team’s armor. Since squad players like Fabian Delph and Fernando are unlikely to step up, the millionaires from Etihad will urgently need a new central midfielder this summer. Who will it be, will most likely depend on Guardiola’s personal preference – but a mistake here could cost his new club dearly.

Unfortunately for Pep, the renovation cannot stop there. Another issue to tackle for the Spaniard will be City’s persistent dependence on skill, form and, most importantly, the health of Vincent Kompany. This season, the Belgian has played only nine full games – and seven of those resulted with the clean sheets. However, once Kompany picked up a calf problem, a 1-4 catastrophe against Liverpool happened. It’s now February and Citizens have played thirteen games without their most valuable centre-back, securing just four clean sheets in the process. Two goals conceded at Emirates; two at Upton Park; three, last weekend, against a direct rival to the title… How far can a team go if it’s defensive record depends mostly on one player who’s injury-prone?

Alongside with those problems, there come other questions. For instance: is possible for Guardiola to bring the best out of Iheanacho so that he becomes a legitimate alternative to Agüero? Is there still room in the squad for perpetually unimpressive Samir Nasri and goalscoringly inept Jesús Navas? Where is Raheem Sterling’s development going after a season in which, so far, he’s contributed to only seven goals in 23 appearances? Does the most gifted played in squad, Kevin De Bruyne, really belong on the wing? What to make out of Wilfried Bony’s contribution – let him go, allow him to rot in on the bench or find him a new role comparable to the one Mario Mandžukić used to have in Bayern? And also – how much of a burden the upcoming EURO 2016 will be to the players’ fitness?

 

Of course at the moment, the biggest mystery is new coaching style Pep shall implement at Etihad. So far, he’s been marketing himself as a persistent innovator and an inspirational man-manager – but the reality behind the closed doors of training grounds has been quite different from that. On his path, Guardiola has left a couple of bridges burnt down to the ground. Him teaching Samuel Eto’o the proper behavior of a centre-forward or totally alienating Zlatan Ibrahimović in Barcelona – those were just a little snippets of his managerial dark side. In Bayern, the cameras were quick to capture his anger at Arturo Vidal’s positioning while building play from the back. Is this level of attention to details really the factor which will turn the Premier League into Man City’s playground? Or will it only create conflicts?

Also: what is going to happen on the pitch? After all, Guardiola has spent the last two years losing the Champions League semifinals and relentlessly experimenting new playstyles in the league, which his club has been dominating regardless of tactical nuances they would present. Those tweaks involved switching between at least five different formations, reducing the number of defenders on the pitch, creating new playing positions for well-established players from the scratch and rotating the team so that no footballer feels overconfident about his position of under-appreciated by too much of the bench time. In short: this time next year, we may witness David Silva as a deep-lying playmaker or Alex Kolarov as a centre-back. In either case: don’t act surprised.

Still, the main feature of Pep’s arrival to England should be the special attention he pays to the passing department. Although his ideas are complex, his main credo has always been “If we have the ball, they can’t score against us; if they can’t score against us, we don’t need as many defenders because we will win the possession back long before they reach the space behind our lines”. That’s how both Barcelona and Bayern were operating in the past; that’s also how City are likely to be proceeding from the next season onward. The utter commitment to mastering the ball, combined with the idea of harassing their opponents right from the front is something Guardiola will be unlikely to turn his back on. One does not give up easily what works best for him.

 

However, the question is: how cooperative will the City’s executives be? Because Pep will need signings to make his ideas come true. And it won’t necessarily be the most marketable or most spectacular signings possible: last time he went to the transfer market, he secured the services of a post-injury playmaker Thiago Alcântara as well as the signature of 33-years old Xabi Alonso. Those were the two pivotal players to Guardiola’s success in Germany; two deep-lying playmakers with a ridiculous passing range, great ability to evade pressure and relatively low media profile. At the moment, there are few – if any – footballers like them in the world. They are currently not for sale for any kind of money; alas, the new boss at Ethiad will need one of their kind.

The rumor mill is already full of names. Young Gladbach midfielder, Mahmoud Dahoud, could be on the cards. This 20-years old Syrian has been in a great form this season and last weekend, he ran the show against Werder Bremen, contributing an assist, 2 dribbles, 3 key passes and 4 shots. Another wonderful prospect would be Borussia Dortmund sensation, Julian Weigl. With a 92% pass accuracy in Bundesliga this season and a well-established place in Thomas Tuchel’s team, the German surely looks like a footballer whom Pep could take with himself only to take him to another level afterwards. If the Abu Dhabi Sheikhs want to build an actual dynasty, they should consider those lads – and not the big names (Pogba, Ramsey, even Busquets) the media are nonsensically chewing on.

All things considered, even a complete City overhaul is not out of question. Baring Hart, Kompany, Otamendi, Silva, Sterling, De Bruyne and Agüero, their players have been either disappointing or, at best, mediocre compared to the funds spent on them. A new manager, combined with the owners’ bottomless pits of money and fans’ understandable frustrations this season could all combine into a truly record-breaking spending spree. After all, the only alternative is teaching the old dogs new tricks. But can anyone imagine Yaya Touré running in circles with ball like Xavi did or Raheem Sterling fitting in the false-nine role the way Leo Messi used to under Pep? Yeah – it’s all beggar belief.

Five goals, two assists; can Sterling ever be transformed into Douglas Costa?

Don’t be fooled: this is, without a doubt, the most difficult managerial experience Pep has got himself into. He will be rebuilding the teams’ playstyle while battling it out in the most physically demanding league in the world – all while understanding that he has to lift the Champions League trophy in two, maximum three years. Those are the practical costs of a £300.000 wage and getting to work with your former accomplices Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, labeled ‘the people who are able to sign any footballer on the planet’. This is an environment in which anything below the first place will be called a disappointment. And although Pep is familiar with such situation: this time, the foundations for a complete success are far weaker than they used to be in Barcelona and Munich.

That being said, at least some success is much more likely than going out of the job with empty hands. Aside from Spurs and Arsenal, the Premier League lacks truly demanding sides that could threaten a fully fit, Pep-centered Man City (assuming, of course, that Leicester will fall back to the obscurity next season). A domestic title combined with a cup run should be enough for Guardiola to survive his maiden season in Great Britain regardless of the Champions League results. But after that? To make a progress, the guy from Catalonia will have to directly contest the supremacy of his former employers. Without the buying power. Without the sense of superiority. From the position of an underdog who needs to prove it’s prowess in the game and game only.

How interesting will it be: watching this plan as it falls apart?

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