Manchester City’s 3-1 loss to Lyon means that Pep Guardiola has crashed out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage in each of his four campaigns in the competition with City, spending £703 million in the process. This from the man who was brought in to conquer Europe with City and give owner Sheikh Mansour the title he so desperately craves. It may seem absurd to say it, but could it be time for City to part ways with Guardiola?
There is no denying the way that Guardiola has transformed City and, arguably, the English game. When he first came to England his style was written off as impossible to implement in England. Many said you can’t play the tika-taka way; it’s too fast in England, it’s too physical. In the first season it was tough. He adopted a squad who were not used to playing this way and some big calls were made, namely instantly replacing number one ‘keeper Joe Hart with Claudio Bravo. City finished the season with no trophies, making this the first trophy-less season of Guardiola’s managerial career, and finished 3rd in the league. However, the building blocks were put in place.
The 2017/18 season City were imperious domestically. They completed a domestic double and reached 100 points in the Premier League, scoring 106 goals in the process. Ederson had come in to replace the ageing Bravo and Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy brought pace and dynamism to the full-back areas, although Olexandr Zinchenko and Fabian Delph deputised for Mendy for the majority of the season due to his injury struggles. The only blip in their season; a quarter-final exit to Liverpool in the Champions League. A great season undoubtedly, but the holy grail not even close to being lifted.
2018/19 saw City conquer domestically again, this time completing a domestic treble. They were to meet another domestic rival in the Champions League quarter-final in Tottenham. Same outcome. A pattern emerging. A fine domestic season once more saw City receive plaudits but the desire for European success was growing.
The format of the Champions League this year, a one-legged knockout tournament, meant many tipped City for the trophy. They could not be stung by the away goals rule which had haunted them against Monaco and Spurs previously. Their squad depth meant they could manage the dense schedule. Many saw Bayern Munich as the only threat to their first Champions League trophy. Guardiola refused to be drawn into this prior to the game against Lyon on Saturday night stating that they had to get past the French club first and that they should not be underestimated. But by trying to counter Lyon’s formation, did Guardiola give them too much respect? With a team of City’s ability, should he not have trusted his side to win the game playing to their strengths? In losing 3-1, it appears Pep may have overthought a big game once again.
Guardiola is known to have a tendency to try and outwit his opposing manager in big games. Perhaps throw a curveball with his formation or the players selected so that the opposition cannot have prepared for it. However, was matching Lyon’s 3-5-2 formation necessary? By doing this Guardiola left out the creativity of Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva, David Silva and Phil Foden, and it showed. City struggled to score against a Lyon side that finished 7th in France, although their league season was ended early. Many will blame Sterling for his open goal miss, and it was an inexplicable miss, but City should not have been 2-1 down in the 85th minute in this game.
This loss means that City have only won one trophy this season, the Carabao Cup, commonly thought of as the lesser of all the trophies available. They were favourites to win the FA Cup and lost in the semi-final to an Arsenal side managed by Pep’s apprentice, Mikel Arteta. They were league favourites at the start of the season and weren’t able to lay a glove on Liverpool to defend their crown. They were favourites to win the Champions League, with Bayern seen as the only threat, and they crashed out to Lyon. With all things considered, many will see this season as a huge failure for Guardiola.
It is important to reiterate what Pep has done for City. The style of play is perhaps the greatest the Premier League has ever seen. He has taken players such as Raheem Sterling to new heights, scoring goals for fun. Despite this, there are blots against his name. He was brought in to bring the Champions League trophy to the Etihad. He has won the majority of trophies available domestically, but his predecessors Manuel Pelligrini and Roberto Mancini also won domestic titles and they didn’t spend as much in the process. In Pelligrini’s final season, City narrowly lost in the Champions League semi-finals to Real Madrid. City replaced him because they wanted to win the competition and yet Guardiola hasn’t reached the same stage in the competition after four attempts. In fact, Guardiola hasn’t won the competition since 2011. Nine years of managing three of the world’s biggest clubs and a nine year drought from the biggest club trophy of them all.
The biggest shock of last summer regarding Manchester City was their failure to replace outgoing club legend and captain Vincent Kompany. A man of Kompany’s stature at the club would always have been very tough to replace but to not replace him at all was incredibly naive. Perhaps it was not for want of trying but City appeared satisfied that they could challenge without finding a replacement for the Belgian. Aymeric Laporte’s injury could not have been predicted but the blow could have been softened had City had the depth. Due to a lack of faith in both John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi, Fernandinho dropped to centre-back. Eric García featured towards the end of the season also.
It is no doubt that it has been defensive frailties that have cost City this season and the defeat to Lyon exposed this further. How can a side that have spent £374 million on defenders since Guardiola arrived be so porous at the back?
As the saying goes, all good things come to an end. Could this be the end of City and Guardiola? Will the board at City continue to throw money at Guardiola to win the Champions League or will they grow tired of the lack of results in Europe? This was undoubtedly City’s greatest chance so far of lifting the trophy and to not have done so will hurt all at City in the coming months. They will be relieved that their appeal over their two-season European ban was successful so they will get another crack at the whip next season but will they learn from their mistakes. Can the football mastermind that is Pep Guardiola resist the urge to tamper with his side which, when it pays off makes him look so brilliant, but when it doesn’t causes so much scrutiny. Will Guardiola get the chance to dust himself down and try again? He has said himself that his methods push his players to the limit and burn players out after a few seasons and perhaps this point has come at City.
There is also the question of whether Guardiola has the appetite to start the quest for European glory at City once again and the real possibility that he could walk away from the challenge. The wait for City to win the Champions League goes on and domestic glory alone may not be enough anymore, something that ten years ago would have sounded so far from reality for the blue side of Manchester but is now a very real situation.