The clock showed 6:27 when Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos lost the ball in midfield in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinal against Manchester City in May. Just over 10 seconds later, Real, having survived the City attack following Kroos’s mistake, tried to play out from the back with the poise and calm befitting the reigning European and world club champions. It took City just three seconds to win the ball back.
This time it was Luka Modri´c who gave the ball away. During the resulting attack, City’s defensive midfielder Rodri picked up the ball and slalomed past both Kroos and Modri´c―regarded by many as two of the greatest midfielders of all time―to fire a low shot just wide. Though City did not score from that move, it was a sign of things to come. For most of the first half, this pattern―intense pressure from City forcing mistakes from Real’s galaxy of stars―was repeated. The match, billed as the team of the year vs the team of the century, ended 4-0 in favour of City, who had utterly disregarded the pedigree and aura of the 14-time European champions. There was no longer room for doubt―City were now the best in world football.
The man responsible, manager Pep Guardiola, has a rather straightforward football philosophy. In his own words: “What we want is simple. When the opponent has the ball, take it back as quickly as possible. When we have the ball, try to move as quickly as possible, to create as many chances as possible. That’s all. And good team spirit.” Translation: Dominate. That’s all. And good team spirit.
The process Guardiola has been perfecting in Manchester since 2016 reached its culmination in June when City won their first Champions League to complete a continental treble of trophies (winning the first-tier continental competition, the domestic top flight and the first-tier domestic cup in the same season). In doing so, City joined an elite group of teams which have won the European treble―Celtic, Ajax Amsterdam, PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United, Barcelona (twice), Inter Milan and Bayern Munich (twice). Interestingly, Real―the team of the century―has never done it.
In Guardiola, City have the best coach in world football today. They also have, arguably, the world’s best players in the central positions―centre-back Rúben Dias, Rodri, playmaker Kevin De Bruyne and striker Erling Haaland. Moreover, City now have the highest revenue in world football, according to Deloitte. There are murmurs of “inflated commercial revenue” and “cooking the books” and charges of 100-plus breaches of financial rules over a decade―the time in which this new City was conceived and built by the Abu Dhabi United Group. If proven, the charges could have serious implications for the club. At the end of last season, potential sanctions, if big enough to have an impact on operations, seemed like the only thing that could slow down the City juggernaut.
The charges have been referred to an independent commission and not much has been heard about them ever since. Amid the excitement around the start of the new Premier League season, which kicked off on August 11, even rival fans stopped crying foul. Instead, they were busy dreaming up scenarios in which their teams compete with City and push them all the way before finishing second. The overwhelming feeling you get from the football community is that City winning the league is a foregone conclusion. But, it is not that simple.
City are going for a fourth consecutive title. No club has done it since the English football league began in 1888. Manchester United attempted it twice, but fell short. However, Guardiola has a penchant for setting precedents. He was only the second coach in Barcelona’s history to lead the Catalans to three Spanish league titles in a row. Since he left Spain in 2012, no team has done it. After a one-year break, he took over as Bayern Munich manager and won three titles in a row, the first time the club had done so in three decades. At City, the Spaniard has won five league titles in seven seasons. He was the first coach to win the treble in Spanish football and only the second to do so in English football, after Sir Alex Ferguson.
The challenge for Guardiola will be to keep his team motivated to continue winning trophies. Ferguson has spoken about the difficulty of keeping a winning team hungry year after year. That is why it is necessary to keep replenishing the squad. In modern football, if you stay still, you regress. So, losing a 32-year-old Riyad Mahrez to Saudi Arabian club Al Ahli is not a setback for City. Rather, it is a step forward. There is no doubting the Algeria captain’s calibre, but he was not a guaranteed starter―he did not feature in the finals of the Champions League or the English FA Cup―and therefore it made sense to let him go. Youth academy graduate Cole Palmer, 21, has developed into a viable option in the right-wing position that Mahrez played in. Moreover, City are reportedly in the market for another winger to add depth.
The bigger loss will be that of captain ˙Ilkay Gündo˘gan, who joined Barcelona. The German midfielder was Guardiola’s first signing as City manager. Over the years, the duo, who lived on the same floor of a city centre apartment, grew close and the boss made it known that he wanted Gündo˘gan to stay. But, it was not to be. Gündo˘gan was lured away by Guardiola disciple Xavi. The German explained his move as follows: “Xavi made his ideas very clear. It is similar to how we played in Man City. The way he approached talks, the honesty, I saw my character reflected in him.”
Gündo˘gan, who played over 300 matches for City, was not statistically as productive as some of the world’s best attack-minded midfielders. But, he is tough to replace as he had a knack for scoring crucial goals. For example, in 2021-2022, he scored two in a stunning comeback win (3-2) on the final day to clinch the title for City. Earlier this year, he scored both goals in the 2-1 win over United in the FA Cup final, including a brilliant volley 13 seconds into the match. There is a reason why he scored important goals. In tight matches, when the opposition was focused on neutralising City’s more obvious attacking threats, Gündo˘gan’s smart movement often resulted in him getting to a good goalscoring position at the perfect time. He was also key to the way the side moved the ball and his movement off the ball helped create space for his teammates.
With characteristic efficiency, City brought in Mateo Kova˘ci´c from Chelsea for ￡25 million to replace Gündo˘gan three days before his departure was finalised. However, the technically gifted Croatian central midfielder is more defensive-minded than the German. Perhaps, as a result, City have been linked to a big-money transfer for West Ham United’s Lucas Paquetá, a more attack-minded option.
In defence, there is a growing collection of top quality centre-backs at City. Dias is the leader of the defence. His trusted lieutenants, Barnsley-born John Stones, now known as “Barnsley Beckenbauer”, and Swiss superstar Manuel Akanji, would walk into the starting lineups of most teams in the world. Guardiola has also moulded the less heralded Nathan Aké into a reliable option. Meanwhile, Spain’s Aymeric Laporte, too, has started the new season at the club. On top of this, Guardiola has brought in one of the most exciting prospects in world football, 21-year-old Croatian defender Joško Gvardiol, for around ￡77 million, just ￡3 million short of the world record transfer fee for a defender.
Gvardiol is still best remembered for being turned inside out by Lionel Messi at the 2022 World Cup. In fact, the hype around him had temporarily died down after that unfortunate meeting with Messi. But, Gvardiol is most definitely not overrated. He has remarkable technical ability and the physicality to match. Combine that with his impressive pace and he is almost like a defensive version of Haaland. He is hard to get past (except, of course, if you are an all-time great) and is comfortable carrying the ball up the field to contribute to the attack. In short, he is perfect for the Guardiola way, though his integration into the starting lineup is likely to be systematic and methodical. Again, the Guardiola way.
One point of concern for City is that rivals have already got significant business done, whereas, it seems, City are still mulling over a few more moves. Last season’s runners-up, Arsenal, managed by Guardiola disciple Mikel Arteta, have spent over ￡200 million (around Rs2,000 crore) to supplement their squad. Erik ten Hag, who was the reserve team manager at Bayern during Guardiola’s tenure as first-team boss, is revolutionising United. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool are in the process of replacing their midfield, though they were missing a defensive midfielder at the start of the season, and Chelsea have continued to add to their squad to aid new manager Mauricio Pochettino. In Europe, heavyweights Real and Bayern have strengthened.
But, in spite of all this, the most significant issue for City, in the short term, is the injury to its playmaker De Bruyne. He was forced off in the 23rd minute of the season’s inaugural match and is expected to miss a few months. The match itself was an intriguing insight into potential weaknesses at City. The champions played newly promoted second division champions Burnley and though they were comfortable winners―Haaland literally scored with his first touch of the season―the contest was uncomfortable at times, especially in the first half. Burnley, managed by City legend Vincent Kompany, troubled City more than the scoreline (3-0) suggested, and it was only after Haaland’s second goal―a superb, instinctive finish in the 36th minute―that the champions got a degree of control over the match. Whether it is a case of early-season sluggishness or something more concerning will be revealed soon. But, even if City make a shaky start, they can be relied upon to level up in the second half of the season.
Therefore, despite the challenges, it would not be wise to bet against City winning yet another title. The team will also start the Champions League as favourites. The next step for City is to go for the quadruple―add the second-tier domestic cup (the English League Cup) to its treble. But, it is highly unlikely that City will even repeat the treble. Firstly, it is notoriously difficult to retain the Champions League―only Real have ever done it. Second, fixture congestion and fatigue may force Guardiola to rotate his side in the FA Cup, a competition where giant killings are almost a norm.
The worst-case scenario would obviously be a trophy-less season, but that is also unlikely. Therefore, a more realistic worst-case scenario would be not winning either the league or the Champions League. That simply would not do for City in the current context.
Guardiola, for his part, has already tempered expectations. “It is impossible to do what we did last season,” he said ahead of the start of the new season. “It is once in a lifetime, I told the players to forget it.” However, that statement is really a challenge to his own players. The manager’s aim, as he stated during the same interaction, is to take it game by game.
Dominate. That’s all. And, good team spirit.