When it was announced in January 2016 that for Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola was on his way to Manchester City, the knives immediately came out before he’d even arrived. Phrases like ‘could he do it on a cold, wet night in Stoke,’ became commonplace and the general ‘he won’t cut it in the Premier League’ bounded about like someone offering a packet of sweets in the playground.
Guardiola had played at the highest level. He had managed at the highest level. He had won trophy after trophy, but those had been established sides. Anyone, including dead grandmothers could apparently take those teams to domestic and European glory. But the Premier League is different. It’s not a two horse race. There’s no way Guardiola’s tiki-taka style of football will ever succeed in England. No way in hell.
It is accepted that his first season didn’t go entirely to plan. He inherited an ageing defence that leaked goals like it was going out of fashion, and a goalkeeper who was popular with the fans, but lacked the abilities Guardiola likes to see in a keeper. So when Guardiola sent Joe Hart out on loan, and brought in Claudio Bravo, there was a collective gasp from the pundits and fans alike. How can he treat England’s keeper like that? John Stones arrived from Everton in a deal rumoured to be around £50m but had a torrid first season, and before a competitive ball was kicked, questions were already being asked.
The season started well enough, winning the first six league games and three games in the Champions League. But a 3-3 draw at Celtic in the Champions League identified frailties in the defence, and other teams followed suit and capitalised on them. The blues lost five away games, although they did win on a Saturday afternoon in Stoke!
The blues finished third in Pep’s first season, lost to United in the League Cup, defeated by Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-finals and threw away a 5-3 first leg lead against Monaco, losing 3-1 in the second leg, exiting on the away goals rule. And while opposing fans laughed and called him a fraud, while the pundits told the cameras how disappointed they were with his first season, Pep calmly planned his Premier League assault.
He set about curing the defence, shoring up the midfield and removing those that no longer played a part at the club. Out went the likes of Willy Caballero, Pablo Zabaleta, Aleksander Kolarov, Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy, Jesus Navas, Fernando, Samir Nasri, Wilfried Bony, Nolito and Kelechi iheanacho. They were replaced by Bernardo Silva, Ederson, Kyle Walker, Danilo, Benjamin Mendy, and in January Aymeric Laporte.
Again, he was questioned, but the manager has answered the critics in style. Not only did the new recruits ignite City’s charge, but he also reinvented some of the ‘old guard.’ David Silva was back to his best, Vincent Kompany battled through injury problems to play pivotal roles in big matches and Aguero once again amongst the goals.
But it was players like Raheem Sterling, who was labelled a £50 misfit that caught the eye. Although he still needs to work on his finishing, the winger had his most impressive season to date. Kevin de Bruyne, the assist king has flourished under Guardiola and Fernandinho has been one of the unsung heroes of the squad.
And the reward for a truly remarkable season was winning the League Cup and Premier League.
But Guardiola knows there is still work to be done. Defeat by Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup will be something the Spaniard did not expect to happen, although he should have known away games at lower league opposition is seldom easy. Last season, the blues went to Huddersfield and came away with a 0-0 draw. A 2-0 win at Cardiff in the fourth round in January may have led Guardiola into a false sense of security when his team were drawn against Wigan, our bogey side of recent years. And they would prove it again, winning the tie 1-0 and ending our hopes of an unprecedented domestic treble.
An annual defeat at Anfield was followed by two further losses to the Merseysiders in the Champions League, which shows Guardiola exactly what he needs to do next year, with the blues boss will be determined to make up for those losses.
The Champions League will be his highest priority, that’s what he was brought here to win, and Guardiola will not rest until Europe’s (supposed) elite trophy is sitting in the City trophy cabinet.
His second priority will be to become the first City manager to retain the top flight title. Mercer, Mancini and Pellegrini all failed. Pep will not want to add his name to that list.
And of course, the two domestic cup competitions will also be firmly in his sights. There isn’t a manager around who would not revel in winning football’s oldest club competition. It’s the one competition that sends a chill down the spine whenever your team lifts it. And the League Cup, dubbed by many as the Mickey Mouse Cup, will probably be used by Pep to blood more youngsters alongside the older heads, as he prepares for the future and progress the academy players further, in the way teams like United and Arsenal had done over the years.
But whatever happens next season, no one will forget this one. It will be remembered for a long time and those records are going to take some breaking. What are the chances of City breaking them next season?
And yes, he could do it on a cold, wet night in Stoke!