There are ways of defining your worst start to the season. For Pep Guardiola, it could be the statistical, the table showing Manchester City with 12 points, at least four fewer than he had mustered after eight games of every previous campaign. Or it could be the reality of defeat to Tottenham and the growing possibility that, for the first time since a frazzled figure quit Barcelona and lost the La Liga crown in 2012, Jose Mourinho will finish above him.
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Whichever, Tottenham 2 Manchester City 0 was scarcely the way to celebrate a new contract. Guardiola has signed up for two more years; the early evidence is that he will not regain the title in what had been the final few months of his old deal.
Guardiola is sufficiently aware of the criticisms of him to know that some will only deem the rest of his reign a genuine success if he wins the Champions League. It is, too, perhaps the reason why he remains as his personal quest for a third managerial crown stretches towards a decade. His 2011 win, when Barcelona were arguably the greatest club side ever, felt ever further away when Lyon eliminated City in August and Guardiola, not for the first time, overthought things.
And yet when City languish in the wrong half of the Premier League, the notion of conquering the continent feels fanciful. The vagaries of knockout football mean it can be unfair to judge purely on Champions League progress but the broader challenge for Guardiola is to do something he has never given himself the time to before: to build a second great side for the same club. To renew, replenish, rejuvenate.
City’s ideal scenario is that it is reflected in European glory. But if it is not, but there is a second domestic treble, another 98- or 100-point season, it would nevertheless be a feat.
Because that level feels a long way away. Guardiola may have a defence to build upon, with Aymeric Laporte and Ruben Dias shaping up as a terrific centre-back partnership, Kyle Walker retaining his recovery pace in his thirties and Joao Cancelo shaping up as the best of his left-backs, even if there is no doubt Guardiola would prefer a left-footer.
But further forward, City both lack the cohesion they used to possess, and which has rendered each of Guardiola’s best sides so seductive, and much of the personnel. Look at his finest midfield and forward line in England and four of the six key components are gone or going: the sold Leroy Sane, the departed David Silva and the ageing duo of Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero, who may be in their final year. A side who were noted for their collectivism can now look a one-man team, overly reliant on Kevin de Bruyne for inspiration. When Aguero is out, they feel too dependent on Raheem Sterling for goals.
The problem with finding successors for those four is, in part, that they were so good and combined so well. Those standards render them harder to replace. Bernardo Silva had one outstanding season. Phil Foden and Ferran Torres have huge promise. Riyad Mahrez has his moments. But Gabriel Jesus can have groundhog seasons and Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan do not protect the defence in the way Fernandinho did. City can lack chemistry and consistency. This season they have lacked goals.
Perhaps Lionel Messi will be the one-stop solution, the answer to all City’s ills. Perhaps not, and not merely because they would find it harder to press with pace if he joined. He represents a complication, however, as City would require radically different plans if Guardiola’s extended deal facilitates a reunion. Whether or not it does, it necessitates excellence in both coaching and recruitment to fashion a second stellar side.
And a man who specialised in the special is unaccustomed to transition. Guardiola has had a solitary season of it in his managerial career, his debut year at City. That was the prelude to pre-eminence. The intrigue of his extended stay is that this might be; but it might not. Is it the transition back to greatness or from greatness into something worse, something less?
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