It seems an awfully long time ago now, as Pep Guardiola sits atop the summit of English football once more having as good as rewritten the rule book, that there were people wondering if his methods would work in the Premier League.
He has taken just about the biggest axe imaginable to that particular theory, wowing and entertaining us not only with the beauty and majesty of Manchester City’s football but the relentless consistency of the whole operation - it’s been like the best of Manchester United and Arsenal under Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger spliced with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and then some.
Guardiola and his players should be allowed some time to savour this moment and yet, even as they celebrated another title and another scarcely fathomable points total in sunny Brighton, it seemed fair to ask of a man who is constantly striving for better, for more: what next? What next for this serial winner and footballing deity Guardiola? What next for his rampant City machine? The immediate target, naturally, is to become the first club in English football history to win a domestic treble, and few would bet against City completing that job against Watford in the FA Cup final on Saturday. But beyond that?
The first thought that jumps out, of course, is winning the Champions League. It is a task that has eluded and confounded Guardiola since 2011, when he won the cup with big ears for the second time with Barcelona, and he knows full well that it is a trophy coveted by his paymasters at the Etihad Stadium.
Can City translate domestic dominance into European glory? It is a question certain to be asked on repeat next season as this wrecking ball of a football team seek to break new ground. Although City were eliminated, for the second successive season, at the quarter-final stage and have watched their conquerors, Tottenham Hotspur, go on to set up an all-English final against Liverpool, there is a strong case to argue that Guardiola’s side and their Merseyside rivals are Europe’s two best teams at present. It is certainly hard to escape the feeling that City have punched well below their considerable weight in continental competition and it is one of those great curiosities that a man who gets it so right week in, week out in domestically has suffered as many personnel and tactical aberrations in Europe as he has in recent seasons.
Will he prioritise the Champions League? Don’t bet on it. The prospect of becoming the first manager since Ferguson to win three successive Premier League titles and usher in a period of total dominance is sure to resonate with Guardiola and he is likely to be more motivated by the idea of aping the former United manager’s league, European Cup and FA Cup treble, or even another tilt at an unprecedented quadruple, as he is Champions League success alone. With the way the draws opened up for City this season, perhaps their best and most realistic shot at a quadruple has passed but the best squad in Europe is only about to get stronger so we cannot be sure.
Rodri, the Atletico Madrid midfielder who has been touted as Spain’s next Sergio Busquets, could come in as a long-term successor to Fernandinho, and Guardiola is also in the market for a centre-half, forward and possibly a left back. There is the threat of a transfer ban from Fifa for alleged irregularities relating to the signing of players under 18 from overseas hanging over the club.
But, if City remain clear to buy this summer and can reinforce in a few key areas, the age profile and appetite of the squad is such that a two window transfer ban, if it did materialise, would likely have little impact. A bigger spanner in the works would be the prospect of disqualification from the Champions League for a season as Uefa continue to investigate allegations of financial doping but City are confident they have not broken any rules and their finances and activities are fully above board.
Making City better at the same time as maintaining this remarkable consistency will inevitably involve renewal and one of the most interesting aspects of the next 12 months or so will be to see how Guardiola handles the process of phasing out David Silva to accommodate Phil Foden alongside the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva.
That process was accelerated in the final weeks of this season, with Foden starting a number of vital games, including the 1-0 league win over Spurs when the teenager scored the game’s only goal. Foden is England’s brightest talent for a generation alongside Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard and Guardiola knows as much. “Pep’s lad”, as City’s players affectionately call Foden, does not turn 19 until later this month but all the tools are there for the teenager to become the sort of player, in time, that teams are built around. Indeed, for all the talented midfielders he has worked with, Guardiola has already said he has not come across many Fodens before. Similarly, the process of phasing out Fernandinho for Rodri, most probably, will gather pace next season and, whether captain Vincent Kompany stays or goes, Guardiola will also have work to do in defence.
“We will be better,” Guardiola has said of City next season. And you have to believe him.
Featured from our writers: