It has not been the best of weeks for Pep Guardiola’s “brand,” but the Manchester City manager can at least look forward to an FA Cup semifinal against Arsenal this weekend as a means to redress the balance.
The Barcelona team he created suffered what could be an era-ending Champions League quarterfinal exit at the hands of Juventus on Wednesday (3-0 on aggregate), while 24 hours earlier, the Bayern Munich squad he left behind for Carlo Ancelotti last summer was licking its wounds after their own quarterfinal elimination (6-3 on aggregate) against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Clearly, Guardiola’s connection to both results is diminished by the passing of time and his new loyalties to City, but in both Europe and the Premier League, the winds of change are blowing and the Guardiola approach no longer appears to be the one most likely to dominate world football.
Juventus and Atletico Madrid head into the Champions League semifinals as teams who put the art of defending above the beautiful passing football espoused by Guardiola, while Chelsea remain four points clear at the top of the Premier League, despite their recent wobble, largely because of the defensive strengths engineered by Antonio Conte.
But why is this relevant now? Well, having arrived at City last summer heralded as the greatest coach in the game, a man who lived and breathed success, Sunday’s Wembley clash against Arsenal offers Guardiola his final chance of silverware in his first season at the Etihad.
Going into the game, all the focus is on Arsene Wenger and his future as Arsenal manager. Can the Frenchman salvage something from a disastrous campaign? Will he sign a new contract and stay on beyond the end of the season?
It is all about Wenger, but even if nobody is focusing on Guardiola, you can safely assume that the City manager will be scrutinising himself as he tries to live up to the billing of club chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak, who was unequivocal when asked last June why he had appointed the Spaniard.
“The trophies,” Al Mubarak said. “He has won every single club competition out there, from Champions League to La Liga, the Bundesliga, to the respective cups in both leagues he has played.
“We are getting a proven winner, a passionate man, someone I think will be an incredible asset to Manchester City and I have no doubt that he will transform our team to a whole new level.”
Nobody at City would have imagined that, heading into the final month of Guardiola’s first season, the only trophy still available to their superstar manager would be the FA Cup.
The club’s Champions League campaign ended with a naive round-of-16 exit on away goals after a 6-6 aggregate draw against Monaco, when City’s suicidal defending gifted Leonardo Jardim’s team their passport to the quarterfinals. And the Premier League has been a write-off for months, despite a six-game winning streak at the start of the campaign, because Guardiola has been unable to master his new terrain, making costly mistakes along the way as they sit 11 points off the top in fourth.
Dispensing with goalkeeper Joe Hart was not necessarily the wrong decision, but replacing him with the hopelessly inadequate Claudio Bravo unquestionably was.
Defensively, Guardiola has tinkered repeatedly with formation and personnel, overlooking a fully-fit Vincent Kompany for the second-leg against Monaco when his experience could have been crucial, while the early season stand-off with Yaya Toure that led to the midfielder’s prolonged absence ultimately only hurt the team.
Guardiola has been unfortunate to lose Gabriel Jesus to a long-term injury (a broken metatarsal), but he now owes a debt to the professionalism of Sergio Aguero, with the Argentine returning to the team in Jesus’s absence and scoring 11 goals in 12 games to keep the club in top four and the FA Cup.
Without question, year one of Guardiola’s “project” at City has been a disappointment and that will remain the case even if they go on to win the FA Cup.
Standards are high at the Etihad these days — Manuel Pellegrini was deemed to have under-delivered by winning the League Cup and reaching the Champions League semifinals last season, while his predecessor, Roberto Mancini, was sacked after his City team finished as runners-up in league and cup in 2013.
Guardiola was appointed by City owner Sheikh Mansour not to win the FA Cup and finish fourth, but to turn the club into one capable of winning the Champions League.
However, they look no nearer to doing that under Guardiola than they did under Pellegrini, and it will require some astute transfer deals and rebuilding this summer to change that next season if, as seems likely, City qualify for the Champions League again.
It is ironic that City go into Sunday’s semifinal with Guardiola’s team suffering from the same flaws as those of their opponents, Arsenal.
For too long, Arsene Wenger has failed to correct his team’s defensive deficiencies, opting instead to invest heavily in the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. Guardiola, despite having months to prepare for his move to City, made a similar decision last summer, with much more spent on forwards than defenders (though he did splash out £47 million on one: John Stones).
But the game is changing and Guardiola, nor Wenger for that matter, does not appear ready to move with the times by adopting the more rounded approach of Juventus, Atletico or Chelsea.
Guardiola has time on his side to prove he can adapt his philosophy and make City the dominant force that his bosses require. But if City lose on Sunday, his first year in English football will have been a humbling experience and one that will provide more questions about him than answers.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_