Pep Guardiola the footballer faced his fair share of obstacles. They hardly prevented him from realising his potential – the Spaniard will gladly point to his six La Liga titles and European Cup winner’s medal as proof of a distinguished career – but his was not the smoothest possible path to glory.
Johan Cruyff identified his talents as a teenager and Louis van Gaal bestowed upon him the captain’s armband. Michael Laudrup, Luis Figo, Ronaldo and Hristo Stoichkov were fine and varied teachers to learn from. His emergence was timed perfectly with Barcelona’s renaissance. Yet physicality was a constant issue: he was deemed too slender even at La Masia, and injuries slowly decimated his chances of dominating a game that eventually outgrew him.
“I haven’t changed,” he said in 2004, two years short of an understated retirement. Guardiola had started 69 of a possible 152 La Liga games in his final four Nou Camp seasons, retreating to Serie A, Qatar and Mexico thereafter. “My skills haven’t declined. It’s just that football now is different. I think players like me have become extinct because the game has become more tactical and physical.”
Pep Guardiola the manager has only ever experienced environments conducive to success. Sergio Busquets and Pedro’s respective promotions to the senior team coincided with his arrival; Bayern had just won the Treble when he replaced Jupp Heynckes; Manchester City’s entire set-up pivoted around his eventual appointment. His clubs have quite literally bought so heavily into his philosophy that each signed at least one player on his recommendation before he officially joined: Gerard Pique, Mario Gotze and Raheem Sterling.
That is not to denigrate his remarkable achievements. Guardiola has reinvented, redefined and reimagined aspects of the sport, bending three major European leagues to his will. He has spent exorbitant funds but he has had to work incredibly hard – more so than he ever did as a player – to reach the summit. But the difficulty is in maintaining balance at the peak while all those below seek to unsettle and unnerve you.
Brendan Rodgers was worryingly accurate when comparing management to “trying to build an aircraft while it is flying”; Guardiola’s challenge is to replace the entire engine and cockpit while in cruise control.
Not since multiple operations on his numerous injuries made him doubt even his own relevance as a player has Guardiola been so tested. The work he must perform on City over the next 12 months is no less delicate, invasive and potentially dangerous.
Minor surgery was completed long ago. He replaced Martin Demichelis with John Stones in his first season, then parted with four full-backs of a combined 130 years for a trio aged 76 at a loss of over £120m in his second. Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov were no longer of the requisite standard; Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo were ruthless, cut-throat upgrades. His Claudio Bravo misstep was rectified hastily with Ederson’s arrival.
But that is nothing compared to the major surgery City now need. Four pillars of their modern-day transformation will all likely leave within the next two years: Vincent Kompany, Fernandinho, David Silva and Sergio Aguero is an entire spine that will need to be reconstructed.
The work is already ahead of schedule, with Bernardo Silva proving himself a more-than-worthy successor to his namesake. But Gabriel Jesus has proved the folly of trying to identify an heir apparent to a unique brilliance that still burns bright. Life after David Silva became a little easier to contemplate once he had started his gradual decline, but Jesus is no closer to usurping the ever-improving Aguero than when he first joined in January 2017, and would certainly not be fit to take the throne now.
A record-breaking deal for Atletico Madrid midfielder Rodri represents the latest step in the club’s new journey. Guardiola the player would have been impressed; for Guardiola the manager to consider him a Fernandinho in the making is the highest compliment.
His quotes from 15 years ago bear relevance to this day. “To play just in front of the back four now, you have to be a ball-winner, a tackler, like Patrick Vieira or Edgar Davids,” he said. “If you can pass too, well, that’s a bonus. But the emphasis, as far as central midfield players are concerned, is all on defensive work.” It is a fine, if accidental, summary of Rodri’s strengths.
The most difficult question is posed by Kompany’s departure, and still no answer is forthcoming. City cannot rely on Stones, Aymeric Laporte, Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala as their centre-half options next season. That Fernandinho has been earmarked as third choice in that pecking order speaks volumes. For all their former captain’s foibles, he leaves a chasmic gap both in the dressing room and on the pitch, the sort that not even Harry Maguire’s robust cranium could fill.
Guardiola is no stranger to changings of the guard. He sold Ronaldinho and Deco in his first ever season as a manager, also bidding farewell to 30-somethings in Edmilson, Gianluca Zambrotta and Lillian Thuram, with Pique, Busquets, Pedro and Dani Alves incoming. But this is on a much grander scale with considerably less margin for error.
If Liverpool are City’s biggest threat next season, the champions’ need to replace living legends is a close second. It is the biggest challenge Guardiola has faced in over 30 years as a player or manager.