£400 million over two years doesn’t get you a lot these days does it? In the case of Manchester City and Pep Guardiola, it gets you one League Cup and, in due course, one Premier League. And for all the excitement that City have generated this term, you can’t pretend that that is value for money.
By Dave Bowler
One horrific week does not make City a bad team, nor does it make Pep Guardiola an ordinary coach, but as he and his side limp away from the carnage, questions that hadn’t seen the light of day since the end of last term’s trophyless campaign and the beginning of their seemingly triumphal procession in August are rearing their heads once more. Just how good is Guardiola after all?
In pure honours terms, in one season less to date, he’s a League Cup shy of Manuel Pellegrini’s record, though had the Chilean not been undermined by City’s announcement of his departure and the appointment of his successor with more than three months of his final term to go, there’s every likelihood they’d have beaten Leicester to the league. And he did take them to the semi-finals of the Champions League too. That record suddenly doesn’t look so shabby does it?
Guardiola’s City are currently, to a large extent, victims of their own trailblazing this term. Such was their imperious pre-Christmas form that pundits who should have known better were forecasting a quadruple, a virtual impossibility, however good the side. Failure to achieve it was always going to disappoint some. Added to that, the league has been such a foregone conclusion for months that when it is finally clinched, it’ll be a bit, well, meh.
The way to avoid that of course would have been to win it by beating Manchester United. Having lost that opportunity, and from 2-0 up at half-time last Saturday, in the middle of the Liverpool debacle, means that even picking up that giant pot has lost a little of its shine. With that being a formality now, and with City left to watch on as Liverpool plough the European furrow instead, these next five weeks to the end of the season are going to feel a bit lacklustre for their fans.
To suggest City are anything but consistently the best team in England, both to watch and in terms of results, would be wrong. They have been a constant adornment to the Premier League all season and Guardiola has to be commended for the way he has built his side to play.
You could further argue that if the tight refereeing decisions over the two legs had gone their way instead of almost exclusively Liverpool’s – to say nothing of the impact of the shameful attack on their bus going into Anfield which UEFA will not deal with until season’s end – they might be in the last four of the Champions League and still be the darlings of the day. Such is the thin line that you tread at the pinnacle of the game.
But in the now jarringly downbeat dying weeks of the season, as excitement mounts for the other five of the top six clubs in England who all still have finals to chase, what will concern the City hierarchy is the impression that, when things go wrong, when they can’t simply steamroller inferior opposition, their team seem at a loss, as if that shouldn’t be happening, as if it’s against the rules.
A lack of leaders on the pitch is nothing new at so many clubs – it’s been the stick with which critics have beaten Arsene Wenger for a decade now – but is Guardiola giving leadership off it? City’s worry will be their manager’s propensity to fly off the handle, giving the impression of a lack of control.
Antics such as his impassioned critique of Southampton’s football to Nathan Redmond at the end of one tight game are something that could be laughed off when City were in their earlier pomp, but was that evidence of a fundamental flaw in his make up, his reaction to pressure when, almost to the final whistle that night, he had been denied what he saw as a just victory?
Unimportant as that seemed at the time, to then be sent to the stands in a game of such vital importance as the Liverpool one, at a point where his side was very much in the tie, because of his verbal assault on the referee at half-time was ill conceived, immature and very nearly unforgivable. What lead does that give to his team? Never mind the example it sets in terms of UEFA’s beloved “Respect”, those histrionics betray the emotions of a man who doesn’t think his team can win. How can the players be expected to feel otherwise in the face of that?
When the dust settles on the season and the raw emotion of City’s week from hell subsides, they will look back on a great campaign of marvellous football and two trophies, a fantastic season regardless of how much they’ve spent to achieve it. But in those occasional long dark nights of the soul when sleep won’t come, Guardiola – and Sheikh Mansour no doubt too – will be tormented by the week when he was outflanked by Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp. How he responds next term will, most likely, define the rest of his career.