When Manchester City announced that Pep Guardiola would take over for Manuel Pellegrini as manager at the Etihad last year, the appointment was met with an incredible feeling of excitement by City supporters. The hiring sent a message to Blues fans as well as the rest of Europe that City are intent on challenging for trophies every year on both the domestic and international stage. And after spending big in last year’s summer transfer window, City were the overwhelming favorites to win the title heading into the new season. In the end, City finished a disappointing 3rd, 15 points off the pace set by title winners Chelsea with a spot in the top 4 at times looking especially dicey. Needless to say, Guardiola’s debut season in England did not go according to plan with the title well out of reach by March, an early Champions League exit at the hands of Monaco in the Round of 16, and a lack of success in the EFL and FA Cup. Considering the expectations going into this most recent Premier League season set by fans and pundits, Guardiola’s reputation, and City Football Group’s ambitions, it is easy to point fingers at the Catalonian and call his season a failure.
Let’s first look at Guardiola’s transfer record this past year at City. In his first transfer window last summer, Guardiola spent a total of £181 million on players that included the likes of Ilkay Gundogan, Leroy Sane, John Stones, Nolito, Gabriel Jesus, and Claudio Bravo. Pep’s signings last summer were a mixed bag to say the least.
Gundogan showed promise but never quite found his form before succumbing to a season ending knee injury after featuring in just 16 games.
Leroy Sane as well got off to a slow start but proved to be unplayable at times in the second half of the season and formed a solid partnership with Raheem Sterling on the wings. Sane’s development caught the attention of many members of the media leading some to compare him to Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and putting him on the shortlist of the PFA’s Young Player of the Year award among the likes of Dele Alli, Harry Kane, and Romelu Lukaku.
Making John Stones the second most expensive defender in the world after David Luiz was a move that raised some eyebrows and for good reason. For much of the season, Stones was inconsistent and made several critical errors that led directly to goals or goal scoring opportunities. Most memorably, his defensive error in the first leg of Manchester City’s Champions League tie against Monaco proved to be decisive as Monaco advanced on away goals. Much of this can be attributed to the style of play that Guardiola demands of all his players as well as the absence of City captain Vincent Kompany for much of the season to provide stability and organization in their defense.
Nolito was brought in from Celta Vigo with the intention of providing depth on the wings as well as acting as aid in the adjustment of the team towards Guardiola’s style of play. The Spaniard got off to a good start, finding the back of the net in the first leg of City’s Champions League qualifying round against Steaua Bucharest and twice away to Stoke four days later, but his performances tapered off and Nolito was largely omitted from Pep’s team sheet by December.
Signing Gabriel Jesus from Palmeiras for £32 million looks to be a steal for City. In his first two starts after joining the club in January away to West Ham and home to Swansea, Jesus demonstrated why he is considered by some to be the next Neymar, scoring three times and providing an assist. Like Gundogan, Jesus picked up an injury that cut his season short, causing him to miss 11 games including important ones against Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea. Out of those matches, City earned just two points and saw their title bid effectively end for good. With Jesus in the lineup for those games, who knows where City would have finished the season?
Sending fan favorite Joe Hart out on loan to Torino to bring in Claudio Bravo from Barcelona was undoubtedly Guardiola’s most controversial decision in last summer’s transfer window. As we all know, Bravo was one of the Premier League’s biggest flops this season and was usurped as City’s number one goalkeeper by Willy Caballero in February. It is really difficult to judge the decision to sign Bravo as Joe Hart was nearly as equal of a disaster as Bravo in Italy this past season; however, Guardiola did himself no favors by getting rid of a certifiable City legend.
Tactically, Guardiola had City looking like Barcelona at certain points of the season featuring the trademark dominant possession and short quick passes his teams are known for. After winning their first 10 games of the season, it looked like any adjustment period that was needed to play Guardiola football was nonexistent and the Premier League title seemed to be a foregone conclusion. However, a surprising 3-3 draw away to Celtic in the Champions League followed by a 2-0 loss to Spurs quickly put doubt in the title race. For the rest of the season, City were the most inconsistent team in the Premier League, enjoying spells of great form and providing exciting football as well as putting up head scratching performances like Leicester and Everton away and generally looking like Manuel Pellegrini’s team from last year. Throughout the season, Guardiola tinkered nonstop with the starting XI, experimenting with a back three, and even at times playing Fernandinho and Jesus Navas in full back positions. This uncertainty likely was the defining factor in the club’s inconsistent performances this season. A season of experience for both player and manager should provide stability in the team selection next season.
Looking at the season on its own, Pep Guardiola’s first year in England does indeed look to be a failure both in terms of transfers and results. The Catalonian experienced a litany of firsts. First time finishing outside the top 2 in the league? Check. First time finishing a season trophy less? Check. First time experiencing defeat twice to the same opponent? Check.
However, it is important to look at this season in the context of what City are trying to accomplish. Guardiola is under contract for at least two more years and seems receptive to signing an even longer deal indicating that this is a long term project to get Manchester City up to the same status as its European counterparts.
As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day and Guardiola’s performance at City should be not be judged by one season, no matter how disastrous it was. With a year of experience and a war chest matched by few in world football at his disposal, expect Pep to make huge strides towards getting City closer to their goal of perennial domestic and European glory next season.