What has happened to Pep Guardiola's City project?
Manchester City manager needs goals, a younger squad and a happier media face
Pep Guardiola is facing the toughest challenge of his managerial career. Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters
Did City fail with their recruitment?
A big question mark hovers over the Pep Guardiola-Txiki Begiristain axis in this area. Begiristain is the sporting director and he does more than merely sign off his head coach’s demands. He has substantial influence in transfer strategy, though Guardiola must accept ultimate responsibility for the errors so far.
These can be summed up as the bombing out of Joe Hart for Claudio Bravo, a baffling failure to overhaul the back four, and a seriously ageing squad. When City announced Guardiola as their next manager, it was the culmination of a four-year chase. This was ample time to assess requirements, which were a left-back, a right-back, at least one central defender and an injection of youth.
Yet by September 1st only one centre-back, John Stones, had been bought, leaving the rearguard an accident waiting to happen in most matches. Add in Guardiola deeming Hart to be poorer than Bravo. The Chilean has just not been good enough at stopping the ball from going in, which is a goalkeeper’s main job.
Is it time to change the tactics?
Guardiola is to be applauded for his belief in scintillating pass-and-move play and queried for his determination never to tinker with it. Manuel Pellegrini, his predecessor, was criticised for a tactical inflexibility and maintaining the mantra he would never change. The Guardiola Way created his breathtaking Barcelona side and supremely successful Bayern Munich team. No one would expect a U-turn from him but is an adjustment here and there not worth consideration? This could be all it takes to turn a 4-0 defeat at Everton into a win for City. First half good, second half bad was the consensus from Goodison Park as Guardiola bemoaned the side’s inability to make several chances count: “I would like to know why [it keeps happening].”
It seems a worrying admission: the man in charge is unsure why the headline problem of failing to convert is stuck on repeat. The answer seems simple: those charged with supporting 18-goal man Sergio Agüero need to up their scoring return. Raheem Sterling has five league strikes. Nolito and Kelechi Iheanacho each have four. Yaya Touré has three. And Kevin De Bruyne has two. Of this list only Sterling and De Bruyne have been first-choice all term: seven from them in total is not good enough. City’s 41 goals is the lowest of the top five teams. And at the other end of the team, the 26 conceded is the highest of the top seven.
Could Guardiola be handling the media better?
There have been some interesting offerings in this arena from Guardiola. Included here are clumsy responses, a curt attitude on occasion, and a particularly puzzling performance following the 2-1 victory over Burnley two weeks ago. The latter had him informing a reporter, “You are the journalist, not me,” when asked if Fernandinho should have been sent off, and Guardiola later had to apologise to the BBC and Sky for equally awkward interviews. When City won their opening 10 matches with bewitching football, Guardiola was rightly praised. There was no tough questioning then because all was rosy. When this changed, dealing with the media was bound to be less enjoyable. This is just the way it is so entering briefings in defensive mode was counter-productive. Everyone admires a coach who can speak well when he has problems and is really not minded to. It is also a litmus test of where any manager is on the control chart.
Is his vision of his City project still intact?
The sight of Guardiola slumped in his seat at Goodison Park offered a snapshot of a man who seems to have lost his way for the moment. So, too, the team, who stunk the place out in the second half of the 4-0 mauling at Everton. These defeats happen to every manager and every side. This is Guardiola’s City, though. What happened to the sleek Rolls Royce of a City that purred through those 10 consecutive victories and which befuddled opponents with full-backs who moved inside to midfield? What happened to Stones as the ball-playing centre-back wizard charged with starting attacks?
Can Guardiola really continue to “not coach tackles [as] I just want to create chances” when his side have just been humiliated 4-0? What are the players thinking? Do they still believe?
Guardiola now has a full week of training to try to address all of this before the small matter of entertaining a Tottenham side currently in rampant form.
Can City bounce back against Tottenham?
Guardiola is just over half a season into his tenure so has 17 matches to start moving City back up the table from fifth. His team have four league matches until they travel to Monaco on February 21st for a Champions League last-16 encounter. Win all of these and the picture is far brighter, the bounce will return to Guardiola’s step, and the defeat at Everton may be viewed as a vital turning point in the side’s fortunes. City are only two points behind Arsenal in fourth and three behind third-placed Liverpool: this is not yet last-chance saloon territory.
Yet the reverse of all of this is true. Fail to bounce back from Sunday’s dark defeat with victory on Saturday and the volume around Guardiola will be considerably increased. The opponents at the Etihad Stadium are not the easiest. Tottenham are in second place, enjoyed their own 4-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion at the weekend, and Mauricio Pochettino has his players performing precisely as he wishes. In October’s reverse fixture City were taught a lesson in a 2-0 defeat that was their first in the league after that fine start.
Saturday will be a considerable test of Guardiola. We are about to find out if he is up to it.