Carmichael’s Column | Pep is the master, but someone else must restore his masterpiece

Pep Guardiola Manchester City

Pep Guardiola specialises in artistry, not restoration. Perhaps it’s time Manchester City look for a new head coach to build on his magnificent work.

Catalan architect Miquel del Pozo famously once said: “Pep is like an artist who completes his masterpiece and then moves on. He has that same creative drive. The important thing for a true artist is the process of creating, not the finished product.”

Guardiola is a perfectionist. He tries to design perfect sides. Perfection, of course, does not exist, but once he’s got as close as humanly possible, he tends to up sticks and leave. This time, he hasn’t.

Manchester City had reached their apex by the end of the 2018-19 season. In the prior campaign they were crowned centurions, before becoming the first English club side to win a domestic treble in the modern era.

They clinched both the League and FA Cups, and edged out Liverpool to retain their Premier League title, a feat that hadn’t been achieved since Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.

Pep Guardiola Premier League trophy

Historically, Pep would usually depart at this point. He was scarred by the mental fatigue of staying on for a fourth year at Barcelona and left Bayern Munich in their pomp after three utterly dominant seasons. Despite the widespread criticism that he “only takes easy jobs”, Guardiola has never been one to bask in his own glory.

In his book, Pep Guardiola: The Evolution, Martí Perarnau draws a parallel between Pep and the great Béla Guttmann. “Staying on for a third consecutive season at the same club usually ends in disaster,” Guttmann once scoffed, who managed throughout Hungary’s golden era and infamously cursed Benfica upon his departure from the Portuguese club.

Indeed, once you surpass three seasons at a football club, the job tends to become less about establishment and more about restoration. The building phase is complete, so maintenance takes precedent.

Pep does not maintain sides, he creates them — whether that’s through improving players, like Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta or Raheem Sterling, or tactically remodelling them, like Javier Mascherano, Philipp Lahm or even Lionel Messi. Once he’s elevated a team to new heights, he often seeks a fresh challenge.

The problem for Guardiola at Manchester City is that this was never a case of simply constructing an all-conquering side. This was a project where the club required him to build a legacy.

City Football Group, the company who technically runs Manchester City, earmarked Guardiola to be their Ferguson. Everything, from the boardroom personnel — namely Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano — to the way the academy operates was tailor-made for him.

Pep Guardiola Etihad Stadium

However, longevity has never been Pep’s strong suit. He clearly delivered on his usual promise: building a world class side, arguably the greatest the Premier League has ever seen. But embedding his dogma into the club so that it can continue in his image after he’s gone appears problematic.

You only have to look at Barcelona to see how difficult achieving that really is. In Johan Cruyff and La Masia, the club already had a blueprint for Pep’s long-term vision but, following his departure, the fortress began to crumble, and in the wake of president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s unceremonious resignation, now looks derelict.

The other inescapable issue for Pep at City is his failure to deliver the Champions League. He was disparaged for this in Munich, but chose to depart anyway in search of pastures new. In Manchester, he’s been coaxed into staying by his close colleagues at board level and the allure of the wider project.

It’s not exactly been the disaster Guttman foretold, but there’s little doubt City have regressed since 2018-19. The club retained its League Cup last season, but finished a colossal 18 points behind Liverpool, and were dumped out of the Champions League by a Lyon side who came 7th in Ligue 1.

The club’s start to this season has looked even bleaker. Despite City strengthening their squad in the summer — and Richard Keys comically suggesting Pep should lean on Sam Allardyce for defensive advice — the cracks are still there for all to see.

Manchester City 2019/20 vs 2020/21

It would be remiss not to acknowledge the lack of a proper pre-season and that they’ve struggled with injuries, in particular the loss of both first team strikers Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus, but given the level of expenditure elsewhere, it’s impossible to argue they shouldn’t be doing better.

So, if this summer is to be the end of the road for Manchester City and Pep Guardiola, where can the club turn next?

The obvious candidate would be Mauricio Pochettino. The former Spurs boss failed to deliver a trophy throughout his tenure at Tottenham but does possess a fantastic coaching pedigree, and graduated from the same school of thinking as Guardiola. Both coaches were disciples of Marcelo Bielsa, and Pochettino could well provide City with the necessary drive to finally push on and win the Champions League.

Another name regularly bandied about is RB Leipzig's Julian Nagelsmann. Similar to Pep, Nagelsmann is a revolutionary tactician who’s also used to working under the umbrella of a larger project, given his time in Red Bull’s club network. Nagelsmann certainly brings new creative ideas to the table and ticks a lot of the boxes City would look for in a potential new head coach.

Whomever ultimately succeeds Guardiola at Manchester City, the onus will be on them to turn the house that Pep built into a home.

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