We should know better than to judge Pep Guardiola’s approach based on conventional wisdom. There is little that is conventional about this man and the way he runs a club, but the result is a hoard of silver which culminated in last season’s treble.
However, we are conventional people, and all we can do is take it at face value. And at first glance, Pep Guardiola suggests that Manchester City’s squad is clearly incomplete after the treble.
No, it’s not the stale 60 minutes they played against Arsenal in the Community Shield. This game is a nice way to whet the appetite for the Premier League season, but it has about as much impact on the future as Taylor Swift’s jeans choice has on CPI: not much. Rather, it is simply a numbers game.
Manchester City’s official website lists 22 veteran outfield players. One of those (Josh Wilson-Esbrand) is already on loan, another (Joao Cancelo) was on loan in the second half of last season, was not part of the Community Shield roster and doesn’t appear to be part of Pep’s roster either. Another four (Maximo Perrone, Cole Palmer, Kalvin Phillips and Sergio Gomez) made six league appearances for City last year.
That means losing 16 experienced outfield players, but that includes Aymeric Laporte, who was a regular two years ago and spent most of last year on the bench and may also be looking for a way out to get regular time ahead of Euro 2024 receive. They include 33-year-old Kyle Walker, who has one year left on his contract and was linked with a move to Bayern earlier in the summer.
I know what you’re thinking. “No problem, Pep has it under control: They played 62 games last season, their squad wasn’t much larger than it is now and they still won the treble.”
award point. Basically it’s two in (Mateo Kovacic and Josko Gvardiol) and two out (Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez) and there’s nothing to worry about. Except… well, the conventional wisdom is that managers in a position of strength (and no one is currently in a position of greater strength than a man like Pep) like some kind of insurance. Especially at the start of a season which will add to the stresses of last year will include a trip to Saudi Arabia for the Club World Cup and which will be tight and congested ahead of the Euro.
Don’t take my word for it, take Pep’s.
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When asked about the mental and physical strain of the pre-Community Shield schedule, Guardiola was blunt. “Every year it gets worse and worse, and it’s only going to get worse, and I honestly don’t know how it’s going to end … The problem is here.” [mental]. You are exhausted. Look at how many were injured in the preseason… but that’s the way it is. We have to adapt and adapt, but that’s not normal.
Adjust? Adjust? For example by having a slightly larger squad and changing players a bit more often? Apparently not. He does things his way and there’s no arguing about his results. Even something as mundane as going through all five substitutions (especially when City stopped play late, which was common in a league season where they’ve won 20 games by two goals or more) is something he’s reluctant to do : Guardiola used less than two-thirds of his substitutions last year.
People talk at length about City’s strength and of course it looks impressive when you can start – like you did in the Champions League final – with Julian Alvarez, Phil Foden, Mahrez and Walker on the bench but there is a fairly steep drop-out after that.
On the attack side, it’s a musical chairs game made possible by player versatility and Pep’s tactical flexibility. Alvarez and Foden are your backups for the top four positions. If one fails, no problem. two out? We’re fine. three out? Hello Cole Palmer. (Which, to be fair, is good when he’s conjuring up moments like Sunday.)
What about the midfield? Assuming Kovacic can follow in Gundogan’s big footsteps (which he wore last season), he, Rodri and John Stones occupy two positions. And that assumes Stones doesn’t have to play in central defense like they did on Sunday. Otherwise, you’re up against Phillips and Rico Lewis (in the latter case, provided he doesn’t have to play at full-back). That’s a lot of assumptions.
The fact that Guardiola isn’t tied to labels and positions, instead opting for flexibility and versatility is great and a hallmark of his success. However, with the campaign ahead, there is a very real risk that more chairs will be seated as trusted and proven artists.
Perhaps he thinks the likes of Palmer, Lewis and Phillips (despite his miserable first season at Etihad) are ready to step up and play more minutes. Maybe he pulls another kid out of the hat? God knows City’s Academy is one of the most productive around. Perhaps Rodri, who played an incredible 68 games for club and country last season, is actually a vibranium cyborg and will never get hurt. (And maybe some of that will play out for Kovacic, who hasn’t started more than 23 league games in a season since 2015.)
He can think what he wants to think; He’s been right often enough. But from the outside at least it feels like a distinctly unconventional approach, like the guy buying a Ferrari but not caring about the insurance.
Therefore – and this is only a guess – one wonders if he will make a late return to the transfer market. He made it last season by signing defender Manuel Akanji on deadline day. Akanji was relatively under the radar. Coming in for a transfer fee of £15million, having had a lackluster couple of seasons at Borussia Dortmund, he should be a cover in defense and little more. Instead, he was one of City’s best defenders last year.
City could use a different insurance policy at the moment and if he ends up having an Akanji-like season that’s a bonus. It may be boring and conventional, but you can’t help but wonder: does Pep have something up his sleeve?