For all the talk of fabulous tactics and that fiery desire to win, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola believes it’s an ability to “smell” what’s going on with his teams that is his greatest asset as a football manager.
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During news conferences, he routinely holds his fingers up to his nose to demonstrate that it’s not something that can be measured or calculated, but rather something in the air. A feeling or a thought. A sixth sense, even.
What, then, are Manchester City cooking up this season and is all well in the kitchen? Guardiola will hold a news conference on Friday with City on a run of three defeats from their last six games and facing accusations from the Premier League that the club have committed more than 100 breaches of financial rules which could, in theory, result in expulsion from the competition. Right now, not everything at the Etihad Stadium is smelling of roses.
In the wake of the Premier League’s stunning statement on Monday, players and staff were gathered together and assured that it was “business as usual” with the focus remaining on overhauling Arsenal at the top of the Premier League table and winning both the FA Cup and the Champions League.
But this hasn’t been a usual City season. The point at which they normally put their foot down and blitz the title race with a string of wins has come and gone. Key players have suffered dips in form and even Guardiola has, at times, appeared to be fraying at the edges.
The upshot is that despite everything going on in the boardroom and problems to solve on the pitch, the campaign could still end with City lifting the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League to replicate a feat only ever achieved once before in England, by Manchester United in 1999. It’s just that, at the moment, it seems a long way off.
City have declared their intention to defend themselves vigorously against the Premier League — not least with their appointment of £5,000-an-hour lawyer Lord Pannick KC — but recently there has been little of the same energy on the pitch. The performance in Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur had none of the zip and fizz of a typical Guardiola team and afterwards the City manager was left to complain about the time it took to travel from Manchester to London. It was delivered in a way that suggested even he knew it wasn’t a valid excuse.
The bulk of this City team have won four Premier League titles in the last five years, but we are in uncharted territory in terms of the Guardiola effect on players. The 52-year-old is known to be incredibly intense with an acute attention to detail, qualities which have helped him win 27 major trophies across Europe. It’s also hard work for the players; speaking to ESPN in August, Bernardo Silva admitted the whole experience can be tough going when he said: “Sometimes it’s very tiring and stressful, I won’t deny it.”
Silva is one of eight squad members who have been part of each of Guardiola’s title-winning teams at City alongside Ederson, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden.
Guardiola managed Barcelona for four years between 2008 and 2012 and then spent three years at Bayern Munich between 2013 and 2016. He’s into his seventh season at City and the core of the squad have been exposed to his methods — and madness — more than any other group. If working with Guardiola is as taxing as Silva says then it would be little surprise if there is some mental and physical tiredness.
It has been noteworthy, too, that since the World Cup, Guardiola has questioned some of his players’ “body language” in training and, after coming back from 2-0 down to beat Tottenham 4-2 at home last month, he said “didn’t recognize his team.”
Despite the threat of Premier League sanctions, City are continuing with plans to refresh the squad in the summer. It’s likely to mean signing a left-back after the January departure of Joao Cancelo to Bayern and placing themselves among the clubs vying for Jude Bellingham if, as expected, he decides to leave Borussia Dortmund. It’s possible that both Silva and Gundogan could leave.
For now, though, the injection of energy will have to come from the players already there. Around September time, when City were winning and Erling Haaland was banging in goal after goal, there was a feeling around the Etihad Campus that the biggest issue they would have to contend with this season was Guardiola’s contract. He signed a two-year extension in November, but rather than cement stability at the club, signs of vulnerability have crept in.
It was very unlike Guardiola’s City that, given a chance to make up ground in the title race when Arsenal lost at Everton, they couldn’t take advantage and were beaten at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Maybe the Premier League charges will trigger the fire Guardiola has been searching for since the World Cup. Maybe it will be the trip to the Emirates to face Arsenal on Wednesday that ends up stirring something.
After signing his new contract just a couple of months ago, Guardiola said it was the sense — the “smell” — that his players still had the hunger to keep winning which convinced him to put pen to paper. After a turbulent few weeks, you wonder what he’s telling him now.