Pep Guardiola’s first season in England has come to an end. The Spaniard has been given no easy ride by the British media during his Premier League induction, facing constant questioning over his decisions, the form of his side, the future of key players and the unreasonable but expected comparisons to his exemplary record in Spain and Germany.
The arrival of Guardiola, alongside that of Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp, was heralded as a coup for the Premier League. In a single summer, three of the biggest names in management had been given the opportunity to test their wits in the ‘world’s greatest league’. At least that was the narrative.
As it turns out, most spectators would agree that the 16/17 season, despite achieving the competition’s second highest goal tally since the current format’s induction, has been lacklustre. Regardless of this, there will be neutrals, die-hards and pundits alike chuckling to themselves with misplaced self-righteousness that they were right all along – the Premier League is best and Guardiola is a fraud.
That’s the same Guardiola who won three successive titles in Spain, three successive titles in Germany, conquered Europe twice and had claimed silverware in each of his managerial seasons, until he joined Manchester City.
There are other stats, too, which may be used to support the claim that Guardiola has failed in England. For the first time in his managerial career he went six matches without a win, a 4-0 loss to Everton became his biggest domestic defeat and a win percentage of just under 59 is his lowest at any club – all hail the Premier League, right?
Except, despite commenting that he would have been sacked with the same performance at his previous clubs, he arrived at the Etihad knowing it was the beginning of a longer-term project.
Guardiola was handed the task of revitalising a squad that had not significantly improved since securing that first title in 2012, and has kept the same spine since. In fact, of the XI that featured most often for the club this season, five were title winners back in 2012, six if you include Vincent Kompany, who only misses out through injury.
Continuity is not necessarily a bad thing. City have kept the core of a team who have won two league titles, giving them a winning mentality lacking in some of their rivals and providing Guardiola something to build around. Yet, with the full-backs, in particular, this season has highlighted the need of a refresh. Gael Clichy, Aleksander Kolarov, Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna are all over thirty.
The most frequently used central midfield pairing of Fernandinho and Yaya Toure is also entering its twilight years, at 32 and 34 years old respectively. Toure has recently stated his desire to retire at Manchester City, but even if his wish is granted, the team must prepare for a future without the Ivorian. The same applies to Vincent Kompany, now 31, who only managed 15 appearances this campaign and has become increasingly injury prone.
It has already been confirmed that Zabaleta will leave the club after nine years, leaving space for at least one new full-back in the side. There are a number of other players who appear to be out of favour, including Nolito, who arrived just last summer, and Jesus Navas, who has been mostly limited to substitute appearances and struggling to fill in at wing back.
Considering the evident transition, which is still ongoing at the Etihad, the Citizens’ finish of third should be seen as an encouraging result. The team, like its manager, have received few plaudits for their work, and although their form against the top eight was poor (3 wins from 14), they lost just once against lower sides.
Sergio Aguero had another impressive season, with of 20 goals from 31 matches, yet still missed out on the PFA team of the year, as did each of his teammates.
Arguably the most promising aspect of Guardiola’s first season was the arrival of Gabriel Jesus who eventually joined the side in January, scoring seven and assisting four from just 10 matches. Unfortunately for the club, his initial good form was halted by injury, but anyone associated with City should be excited by the prospect of an Aguero/Jesus partnership next year.
Another important player set to return is Ilkay Gundogan, who missed most of his first year at the Etihad through injury but had started brightly and usually impressed with Dortmund before his move. The 26-year-old will be in the starting XI when fit, easing some of the ageing Toure’s workload and improving the side’s competitiveness against other top sides.
Guardiola will be given sufficient funds to resolve the team’s defensive frailties which have hampered his side so far. He may also look for a new number one, having not settled on either Claudio Bravo or Willy Caballero, both of whom continue to cost the side points when selected.
If those issues can be fixed during the summer, City will have a great chance of closing the gap to Chelsea which stood at a disappointing 15 points on the final table. The return of Gundogan, a full season of Gabriel Jesus and the possibility of keeping Kompany fit would give new life to the spine of a great side.
It is time to see if Guardiola’s ‘failure’ was a mere blip.
Featured image: all rights reserved by Christine Sanjaya