Perhaps the most significant phrase in the announcement that Pep Guardiola had signed a two-year contract extension, keeping him at Manchester City until summer 2023, was his comment that “the challenge for us is to continue improving and evolving.” That may be the sort of empty phrase habitually spewed at such junctures, but in City’s case it both represents a pressing need and perhaps explains just why so many had doubted that Guardiola would want to renew a contract that expires next summer.
In retrospect, Guardiola’s fourth season at Barcelona was seen as a mistake. After three seasons of consistent success, he seemed determined not to allow any staleness to settle in and dabbled with a back three that ended up diminishing the impact of his fullbacks because their starting position was too high up the field. At the same time, while his status at the club and the two Champions League wins as manager meant that dissent was never overt, there was a sense that the players had wearied of his ferocious intensity.
That was far more explicit at Bayern Munich, where even after three league titles in three seasons, players were openly chafing by the end. Guardiola, the logic ran, was a three-season manager.
It was the great Hungarian Béla Guttmann in the 1950s who first observed that “the third season is fatal.” After two seasons, he reasoned, players became bored of hearing the same old phrases and performing the same old training drills, while opponents got used to how you played. That rule of thumb still applies: By the third season, either the manager is on his way or there needs to be a significant overhaul of the playing personnel. Guardiola is currently in his fifth season at City. The dangers of not renewing can be seen in Mauricio Pochettino’s demise at Tottenham. He had been demanding investment to refresh his squad for two years, but because of the stadium move and construction, such funds were unavailable. By the end, it was clear that players had wearied of him.
City’s process of rejuvenation has begun. Vincent Kompany has left, and Sergio Agüero’s contributions are becoming less significant. This past summer saw the arrival of Rúben Dias and Ferran Torres. While there is still need for further recruitment at left back, center back, probably at center forward and, most pressingly, to replace Fernandinho at the back of midfield, knowing that Guardiola will be at the club until at least 2023 should lubricate that process.
Inevitably, the announcement will reawaken talk of Lionel Messi perhaps linking up with his former boss again, particularly given his comments this week about feeling he is always made to look like the problem at Barcelona. He was specifically addressing suggestions by Antoine Griezmann’s agent that he had made it difficult for the France striker, but it could have been any one of a number of issues: Discussion always ends up revolving around Messi. Add in his continuing wrangles with the Spanish tax authorities and his attempts to leave this summer, and he may be available on a free transfer when his contract expires next year. There would be an undoubted glamor for City in signing him, but the tactical issues Messi causes Barcelona would not disappear because he has changed clubs.
Messi turns 34 next June. He is no longer able to run consistently for 90 minutes. In a team predicated on pressing, that raises major concerns, even if he does effectively guarantee 20+ goals a season. In some respects, signing Messi would seem like a retrograde step. As Guardiola acknowledged, if he is to win City’s first Champions League title—and his first since 2011—and if he is to close a gap with Liverpool that last season amounted to 18 points by the end of the season, he does need to evolve. There is a sense that the German school of pressing has surpassed that of Spain, that what was revolutionary when Guardiola did it at Barcelona a decade ago isn’t any longer.
That is one part of the equation. The other is personnel and Guardiola’s relationship with the squad. There was not-insignificant grumbling from within the squad in the summer of 2019, which suggested Guardiola’s intensity had begun to grate on some players, but it was noticeably less pronounced this year. Even allowing for the strange circumstances, that perhaps suggests the process of renewal has begun.
Very few managers are given the chance to build a second great team, but given how City was built around Guardiola, and given just how extraordinary his two league titles were, it’s only reasonable he should be afforded that opportunity. Should he see out this contract, he will become the club’s second-longest-serving post-War manager. This is uncharted territory both for him and for the club.