It seems there may just be a little more substance to the claim that the Premiership is the toughest League in Europe after all.
Pep Guardiola, fresh from constructing what many profess to be the greatest club side in recent memory – Barcelona circa 2009 – and leading Bayern Munich to another inevitable Bundesliga, his arrival at Manchester City was meant to signal the herald of a new era of domination at The Etihad.
With seemingly bottomless funds to acquire the cream of Europe’s talent, and a manager that had crushed all comers who foolishly stood in his way in Spain, Germany and the rest of the continent, it was the portents of doom for the rest of the Premier League.
No one told them though.
As of this current moment, Manchester City stand not at the zenith of the competition they were supposed to win, but eight points away from the top.
This sees Pep Guardiola in uncharted territory, as he not only struggles to keep his side’s credentials as title contenders, but also to ensure a vital Champions League spot for next season. The fallout from City not achieving a top four spot should be earth shattering, but the underlying fact of the matter is that this is not the perfect storm that sometimes befalls an unwitting manager.
It is entirely his own doing.
Pep joining City was the worst kept secret in football, and the club announcing his acquisition during the previous season whilst Manuel Pellegrini was still at the helm was a bad PR exercise and harmful to the team when there was still much to play for.
It did mean that Guardiola could identify targets before he took the wheel at The Etihad, and that would give him ample time to construct a side that could play the style he wanted. The possession-based football which had garnered so much adulation and silverware.
Guardiola utilised City’s powerful chequebook and signed John Stones, Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus, Ilkay Gundogan, Claudio Bravo and Nolito to the tune of just over £170m. He also felt he had seen enough of England goalkeeper Joe Hart to judge that he was incapable of playing out from the back to a sufficient standard, and loaned Hart to Torino.
The only defensive signing he made was John Stones – for nearly £50m. This was the same Stones who the season before had been left out of the Everton side due to poor form. Stones had only played two full seasons at the top level, so a £50m fee was a bit steep even if Stones had shown glimpses of real potential.
With City’s backline creaking in Pellegrini’s last season before being replaced by Pep, the new manager’s first error was overlooking the one weakness that could derail his grand plan before he could fully implement it.
Vincent Kompany, the lynchpin of City’s two title wins, had played less than half of their games in 2015-16. His injuries were totting up and showed no signs of being rectified, so an experienced head in the centre of defence was required to help Stones tow the line. Another centre-back, Eliaquim Mangala, was allowed to leave on loan to Valencia, as defensive troops thinned yet further.
This left Nicolas Otamendi and Stones as their first choice pairing. The aging Pablo Zabaleta was still effective but was far below the level he had set himself previously, and Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna were solid, but also were not at the level they had shown in years gone by. Then there was Aleksander Kolarov, who could take a mean free kick but defensively was not the most watertight in a positional sense.
These were the men who would be charged with providing the solid foundation on which Pep’s mesmerising football would sit on. Then there was Claudio Bravo.
The keeper who had played under Pep at Barca could spark attacks with his passing from his box, and was drafted in as first choice in place of Joe Hart – a tried and tested Premier League keeper who had shared the golden glove award in the season before.
It is a move which has backfired terribly. Claudio Bravo has looked anything but assured in the frenetic pace of the Premiership, and this change of speed has seen his normally cool dealings with the ball morph into bouts of hot panic amongst the City faithful.
Despite these errors of judgement by Guardiola, it seemed as if the side had enough about them – especially in attack – as by the end of September, they were without loss in the league and sat above their rivals. It led to the media waxing lyrical about the manager and declare an early end to league proceedings, as Guardiola had began in ominous fashion and would surely continue in the same fashion that he had done in Spain and Germany?
Many great football icons and minds have said that it is easy to win when you’re already winning, but getting back on the horse is a far more difficult job once you’ve been dumped unceremoniously on your backside. A true test of mettle would be how Guardiola and his men would deal with a loss.
The month of October saw City fall to tottenham, draw with Everton, get humped by Barca, draw with Southampton and lose to Man United before ending the month with a face-saving win at West Brom. One loss had snowballed into five games without a win. Pep was feeling the heat and it appeared as if teams had figured out that City were still a side in transit. They were trying to play in the manner that their manager wished, but the Premier League does not allow for a recovery period or a term of adjustment. It kicks you when you’re down and taunts you for trying to get back up.
Since then, City have dropped points a further five times, and yet the media have pointed at the fact that the Spaniard is still coming to terms with a new country, a new league, a new squad. What has been overlooked is his financial outlay, his terrible planning in terms of transfers, and his indignant refusal to switch tactics.
Pep has had ample cash to rectify the shortcomings he now faces in his team’s defence. He instead opted to go with what he already had at his disposal, aside from John Stones. There would always be a period when Stones’ lack of experience would cost him, and with a lack of cover and Pep seemingly unable to choose a settled back four, it has seen performances littered with errors.
Then we have the fact that the side he inherited is more than capable of winning the league. The man he replaced at The Etihad – Pellegrini – had to put up with the fact he was embarrasingly replaced as boss before his last season had ended and yet he still took his side to the top four. They have riches in their side that would walk into the majority of teams across the continent.
The media’s refusal to unleash these criticism’s that they would have no hesitation to fling at his rivals has seen a rise of ignorance toward Guardiola’s failings. The man who was apparently infallible is now overseeing a team which is not performing at their best – and has not done since September. They have lost to big teams and small, and in Europe they may have progressed to the latter stages again, but isn’t this the least that should be expected?
Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp. These managers have made a rod for their own back by their continued standards. If they slip, then to varying degrees they will face the heat from the flashing bulbs and myriad of questions from the paparazzi. By an extension of their own excellence, they now have to answer to all and sundry when there is even the tiniest of slips.
Pep Guardiola oversaw football from the gods at the Nou Camp, and maintained the superiority that Bayern had cultivated in Germany. With each of these sides though, he was picking up a team which was already crafted. He has never built a side from the ground up, or even had to patch up a squad that was severely wounded.
He has been allowed to concentrate solely on tactics as he has taken over a team which already comprised all of the parts needed. At Barca, Frank Rijkaard had won La Liga twice and the European Cup. The Dutchman had overhauled an underachieving side with a subtle blend of youth and new signings, and the trophies that were netted were a signal of the work that Rijkaard had done. When Guardiola took over, the side he inherited were already present. He obviously made some changes and took them to the next level, but fundamentally, the foundations were already there.
When he arrived at Munich, he was handed a side that had just won a treble of German Cup, Bundesliga and the Champions League!
At City, he had a team that needed a little TLC, but he was still given a team that was worthy of contending for honours. He wasn’t exactly given a team that needed a radical overhaul.
He has never been at a post that required him to change a side, or to even patch it up. All the sides he has managed have had a sqwuad that is more than capable of cutting it at the top. This City side is the nearest he has come to performing all the tasks that every manager at every other club has to contend with, and he is showing his relative lack of experience.
The Premier League is another factor in the equation which sees Pep struggle. In Spain, he had to contend with the giants of Real Madrid, but other than their perennial rivals, they had precious little in the way of obstacles to stop them on their way to La Liga. Similarly in Germany, it is another two horse race.
In the Premiership, it may have been the same case a few years back, but in the last ten or so years, there have been at least three or four sides at the beginning of each campaign that could have potentially gone on to win the competition. This season, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, tottenham and United will all be in the mix for the top four. All viable opponents which stand in the way of not only the title, but enabling City to sit at the top table in Europe.
His recent press conferences have seen the Spanish boss become rankled with questions that Wenger, Klopp, Mourinho and the rest are old hands at batting away. These queries are not exactly barbed, but yet the clipped responses and bristling words that Guardiola have thrown back are classic signs that the man is on the back foot.
Pep will get the time he needs to oversee the changes he needs to make in order for City to play in the fashion which saw Pep’s Barca rule Europe, but in the meantime, his stubbornness to change his tactics as his men struggle to adapt has seen other teams take advantage. Change is good, but more often than not, it needs to be done incrementally. Just ask David Moyes.
Guardiola is still a top manager, but for the first time he has work to do. The time and funds he needs will be provided to him, but if he refuses to adapt his tactics and continues to ignore the gaps in his defence, then time and money will matter little.
The crown on Pep’s bald head is slipping. Welcome to the Premier League.