“You have to pass the ball with a clear intention. It is not about passing for the sake of it.” Those were the words of Josep Guardiola dismissing the misguided notion that the ‘tiki-taka’ style of football that history, as attached to his great Barcelona team, should define the beauty that he created.
But now Guardiola must make a similar passage of play in his managerial career. His Manchester City side are currently sitting in the shadows of European champions and Premier League leaders Liverpool, and the domination of their rivals has emphasised the need for change at the Etihad Stadium.
Guardiola is coming to the end of his fourth season overseeing this ambitious project, and he has recently confessed that failing to lift the UEFA Champions League will lead to his tenure being defined as a failure. He has complemented his two Premier League titles with domestic trophies, but it is the pressure to succeed over his rivals on the European stage that truly influences the structure of his work.
As a young manager, Guardiola lifted the Champions League trophy twice at the Camp Nou, repeating the success he enjoyed as a player as he inspired the club to their first European Cup at Wembley in 1992. His 14 major honours at Barcelona as a manager shaped the expectancy that now follows his career, and while he achieved domestic success at Bayern Munich, the trophy he craved the most eluded him.
Bayern Munich were European champions when Guardiola arrived refreshed from his self-imposed Manhattan sabbatical in 2013. His three years in the German capital brought three Bundesliga triumphs, but he failed to match the achievement of his predecessor, Jupp Heynckes. It was a culture shock for Guardiola after being so untouchable at Barcelona, but he learnt more from his relative failure than from any period of sustained success.
Experience of success
Guardiola will not turn 50 until next January, but as a veteran of over 1,100 games as a player and manager, his experience and success is largely unmatched. He has a notorious reputation for the intensity and passion for the game that shapes his training sessions and tactical planning, and players that do not completely buy into his philosophy and ideology will not be tolerated, regardless of who they are or what they can produce.
It is that intensity and self-applied pressure that means his managerial tenures have been short and sharp, purely in the interests of self-preservation. The constant demands of managing Barcelona eventually proved too much for him, while the project at Manchester City offered a timely excuse to move onto a new challenge. A change is considered as a good as a rest, and there is no doubt that the term served in Guardiola’s latest role has left him eyeing alternative options.
Time of transition
And this is why Guardiola’s career is now at a crossroads. Spending one more season at Manchester City is not an option at the present time. The club has entered into a period of transition, accelerated by the performance of Liverpool. To take this project forward requires a long-term plan and a figurehead to see the changes through to fruition. Guardiola must now decide whether to stick or twist and sticking with the club requires a dedication to rebuild.
The departure of captain Vincent Kompany has left a void at the club both on and off the field. The hands of time will shortly also confirm the exit of players such as David Silva, Fernandinho, Nicolás Otamendi and Sergio Agüero. These are figures who have defined the period of success under Guardiola at Manchester City, and replacing them will require patience and a plan to ensure the transition does not come at the expense of challenging for major honours.
First steps into the future
Phil Foden is an exciting prospect, and while Guardiola has managed him with the manner of an overly-protective parent, he has no doubt about his ability and potential to establish himself at the very highest level for a number of years to come. Sir Alex Ferguson famously referred to the club as the ‘noisy neighbours’, but it was his ability to reinvent and reinvigorate his Manchester United side while keeping standards at a premium that Manchester City must now follow.
But while Kompany’s exit and the injury concerns of Aymeric Laporte have upset the defensive balance this season, it is the departure of assistant Mikel Arteta that will have rattled Guardiola more than anything else. Entering into a period of significant change requires the strength and support of a trusted confidant. Big decisions will need to be made in terms of new signings and who they replace, and any self-doubt from the manager will require assurance from a reliable and consistent source.
The connection between Guardiola and Arteta stretches back a number of years, and there has always been an appreciation from the senior figure of the potential that exists within the recently-appointed Arsenal manager. Bringing him to Manchester City was a significant event for Guardiola, and his exit will have hurt him more than he may let on. It is another negative factor in a chain of events that has left his future at the club in the balance.
Of course, the presence of Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano brings a degree of familiarisation for Guardiola, and the former Barcelona pair played a pivotal role in developing the club in his image before his arrival in the summer of 2016. Building the club around the future manager showed an unparalleled level of trust and support, and Guardiola will struggle to find a hierarchy that will share his vision to that extent at any other club.
Recent reports have linked Guardiola with Italian giants Juventus, and there is a natural fit that supports the move. While Manchester City are only now creating a legacy of success, the Turin club are steeped in a tradition of domestic and European glory, and that will appeal to his nature. Juventus have had to reinvent their image following previous controversies, and with their new stadium redefining the profile of the club, Guardiola will be considered as the ideal candidate to take matters forward on the field.
The Cruyff legacy
Guardiola received his football education from the late Johan Cruyff. His long-term hero and mentor, Cruyff inspired the Catalan to stay true to his principles and beliefs, and the Dutchman’s legacy has lived on in the teams that Guardiola has created from the blueprint instilled in him during his formative years. While his career will be defined by trophies, Guardiola feels responsible for having a vision of the game that extends beyond just silverware.
Losing Guardiola at this stage of the Manchester City project would be a significant blow to the club, and every measure will be taken to prevent their prized possession from calling time at what has now become a crucial period that will shape their short and long-term future. Transition brings with it a different type of pressure and a different type of challenge, but the question now is how much energy does Guardiola have left in him to embrace it?
Should he decide to leave for an alternative project that is further down the line, his legacy will be tarnished by those who question his ability to succeed with teams that are not the finished article. He has fine-tuned teams in the past, but the foundations he has inherited have always been stronger than what he currently has to work with at Manchester City. His achievements will ensure that his status remains as one of the all-time greats, but he may find more satisfaction in creating a dynasty than inheriting one.
In many ways, remaining at Manchester City offers a unique opportunity for Guardiola. Cruyff created his Barcelona side in his own image and created a legacy at the club that continues to inspire his successors at the Camp Nou to this very day. If Guardiola is to emulate his hero, this is a project that could truly allow him to leave a legacy unlike any of his managerial peers.