It certainly wasn’t the first time this season the idea had been floated, but Manchester City’s 2-0 defeat at Tottenham last weekend sparked a fresh wave of chatter that the Pep Guardiola era is drawing to a close.
It’s easy to see why. Guardiola has never spent more than four years at a club, burning out at Bayern Munich in three and describing his time at Barcelona as “an eternity”. So as City wind down in his fourth season – intensity dropping, results sliding – it makes sense to assume history will repeat itself.
City have failed to win one-third of their Premier League games this season and 13 matches across all competitions. Forget about how far they are from Liverpool; they are on course for a lower points tally than in Guardiola’s debut 2016/17 campaign in England.
In May that season he admitted similar shortcoming at a “big club” would mean “I’m sacked. I’m out. Sure. Definitely.”
Then there’s the visible decline on the pitch. The team is moving with less assurance, losing their ruthlessness, failing to stay alert for a full 90 minutes. It’s also an ageing squad. David Silva, Sergio Aguero, and Fernandinho are the wrong side of 30. Kevin de Bruyne, Kyle Walker, Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan will all celebrate their 30th birthdays at some point next season. It’s rumoured that Benjamin Mendy, Nicolas Otamendi, Claudio Bravo, Leroy Sane, John Stones and Joao Cancelo will all be on the transfer list this summer.
That definitely sounds like the end of an era.
But there is good reason to believe City will, in fact, come roaring back next season to challenge for the 2020/21 league title under Guardiola.
For starters, there is at least one more year to squeeze out of City’s core players and Guardiola isn’t going anywhere. He has honoured every previous contract as a manager and has repeatedly assured supporters he won’t be leaving in the summer.
That’s a very promising start, because nobody knows the team better than Pep, making him the right person to oversee such a busy transfer window. The club will no doubt be ready to spend big on four or five players, offering the refreshment City have badly lacked this season. The more urgent post-transfer window concerns of other clubs blocked our view from a similar situation in Manchester. City have made only three notable signings in the last two years: Mahrez, Rodri and Cancelo.
New recruits are secondary to reigniting the fire of the current crop, but here, too, there is cause for optimism. Playing for Guardiola is fun. His passion is infectious. The players don’t burn out, only he does – committing too much of himself to the role. Neither the Bayern nor the Barcelona squads wanted him to leave, having collected 88 (from 34 games) and 91 points respectively in his final years.
City have fallen away this season but that can be explained by the limbo in which they find themselves, unable to catch Liverpool and untroubled by rivals for a top-four finish. Finding motivation won’t be a problem once the league table resets to zero.
And tactically there is little need to worry, the unlucky defeat at Tottenham being the perfect example. City played well, created numerous chances, but simply lacked the cutting edge that will surely come back when objectives become clearer in 2020/21.
What’s more, if the rhythms of attack are a little stilted, somewhat less varied than last year, it’s just the knock-on effect of missing a top centre-back. Sign a world-class partner for Aymeric Laporte and the pieces will fall back into place.
City’s main vulnerability this campaign has been getting caught on the break, where Fernandinho’s midfield absence has weakened the protective screen and some calamitous defending from Stones and Otamendi allowed the likes of Wolves, Norwich, and Newcastle to end their title challenge by Christmas.
Going forward, City’s problems stem from David Silva’s declining influence. Without him dictating the tempo from the left of centre, De Bruyne is drawn further to the right to link with Mahrez, in turn destabilising the team’s control of central attacking midfield – the most fertile space for creativity in a Guardiola side.
Silva’s form is partly explained by the absence of a piercing left winger (Leroy Sane) drawing players away from him, and also by Guardiola’s need to shore up midfield while Fernandinho plays at centre-half. Either De Bruyne drops deeper to form a two or Gundogan and Rodri play side by side.
And so a new centre-back can trigger a reverse domino effect: Fernandinho can move back to midfield, re-opening the possibility of tandem number tens in front of him. Bernardo Silva is surely ready to play the role of his namesake, slotting De Bruyne back into a regular advanced position while City rebuild the wall behind their playmakers.
That’s not to say there isn’t significant work to be done in the transfer market, but City are only a couple of small steps away from rediscovering their verve. And if Guardiola has the passion to carry on – if he wants to prove the doubters wrong and topple Liverpool – you had better believe his players will come on board.
This is still a world-class manager with a world-class team. It isn’t over until Guardiola decides it is.
Alex Keble is on Twitter