Defining period awaits a Man City side now in transition

Pep Guardiola has a new assistant and Uefa ban could lead to De Bruyne’s departure

When Arsenal are welcomed to an empty Etihad Stadium on Wednesday the Pep Guardiola era at Manchester City enters four weeks that could prove to be both seismic and defining.

Lose against an Arsenal side managed by Guardiola's former assistant Mikel Arteta and Liverpool can dethrone City by winning at Everton on Sunday. Lose an appeal against their two-year Champions League ban when the verdict is announced in the first half of next month and Guardiola may lose his best player, Kevin De Bruyne – and others.

Factor in Guardiola having a new assistant, Juanma Lillo, in place, and the club's all-time top scorer, Sergio Agüero, turning 32 at the start of this month – plus the departure of a football genius, David Silva, when the season finally ends – and the sense is of the supreme side of the past two years becoming one in transition.

The loss of De Bruyne could be a game-changer. In words that surely chilled Guardiola and all City supporters, the Belgian playmaker suggested in May that if the court of arbitration for sport upholds the ban in full he will seek a transfer, adding that if it is reduced to one year he still “might see” about his future.


The fading of David Silva in recent seasons has barely registered because of De Bruyne’s excellence. This is a midfielder with 16 league assists who needs four more to equal Thierry Henry’s record total, as he aims to head the chart for a fourth time.

Should De Bruyne decide to go it could represent an unwanted triple-whammy. Guardiola would lose his star player; soul-searching from other lead acts regarding a Champions League-free zone until 2022-23 may occur, and a De Bruyne-less City would be even less appealing for players the manager wants to attract.

Lillo’s appointment also intrigues. When Guardiola hired Arteta in the summer of 2016 he put in place a 34-year-old who had just retired from playing, with 11 years in English football on his CV. He knew its players, managers, coaches, stadiums and media: in short, the complete culture, and so he could start instantly passing priceless knowledge on to Guardiola.

As the just-departed Arsenal captain, Arteta also had the respect of a City dressing room bursting with A-list talent headed by De Bruyne, Silva and Agüero. And, perhaps as crucially, Arteta became trusted by the squad, proving a confidant and key conduit to Guardiola, whose style of man-management can be aloof.

Just as fundamental was the Arteta’s willingness to be more than a sounding board: instead, he was the sole member of the coaching staff who offered a firm opinion on any tactical or strategic matter, even if this ran counter to his boss.

All of this underlines how vital Arteta was to Guardiola and to City claiming six of the past seven domestic trophies, a sequence that included a record-breaking 100-point 2017-18 title win, and last season’s 98-point triumph as the club became the first for a decade to seal consecutive crowns.

In Lillo, Guardiola may have made as shrewd a choice. The 54-year-old coached the City manager towards the end of his playing career, at Dorados de Sinaloa in Mexico, and Guardiola considers as his mentor a man who at 29 was La Liga’s youngest manager and who has held 19 previous coaching roles.

But given the packed schedule City are about to embark upon – 10 league games plus at least one match in the FA Cup and one Champions League outing – and his zero knowledge of working in England, whether Lillo can be as valuable as Arteta, in the short or long term, remains to be seen.

Before the season was suspended City were in fine form: losing only one of their last six matches while winning the rest, including an impressive 2-1 Champions League last-16 opening leg victory at Real Madrid. Yet the sole reverse was in the last of these games: a concerning 2-0 defeat at Manchester United in which they were oddly toothless and Guardiola lacked his usual in-game answers to the home team's rapid attacking.

The manager has Leroy Sané available again for the first time since August following a serious knee injury and the Germany forward may be one of the now-allowed nine replacements as Guardiola seeks – via victory against Arsenal – to ensure Liverpool need two more wins to become champions. If City are, though, defeated on Wednesday, the symbolism of going down to a team managed by his protege will be unwanted and the worst possible restart following the season pause.

Whatever the result, the title is all but gone. As the striker Gabriel Jesus says: "It is a tough moment in the Premier League – very difficult for us to win, but we still have two more trophies to fight for."

These are the attempt to retain the FA Cup and the tilt at Champions League success for a first time. Much depends on the Cas appeal. Liverpool’s 25-point lead suggests they can dominate domestically and two years out of the continent’s premier club competition would cast this term’s bid as City’s last realistic chance for the next half a decade given the catch-up surely caused from a prolonged absence from it.

This may also initiate an existential moment for Guardiola. He has stated he will honour his contract whatever Cas decides. But it runs only to the close of next season: suddenly that does not feel too far away. - Guardian