But can he do it on a wet and rainy night at Stoke? That was the question posed to Pep Guardiola after he dominated both Spain and Germany, after winning the treble with Barcelona and after reaching three consecutive semi-finals with Bayern, but could he do it on a cold and rainy night at Stoke?
The answer was apparently yes, he could do it on a cold and rainy night in Stoke with his Manchester City side unbeaten against the Potters before the latter suffered the ignominy of getting relegated. That included a massive 7-2 win on their way to a record breaking 100 point season with 19 separating them and second placed Manchester United lead by his rival Jose Mourinho. He then followed that up with a 98 point season, proving that any rust his critics spotted were merely rumours.
However, then came last season. A pandemic, a lockdown, Project Restart but even then, Manchester City’s season was well over before all that took place. It saw Guardiola lead, at times, what has looked like a beyond exhausted Manchester City side but things weren’t all that bad. They’ve been faced to battle against a Liverpool side that has reached the pinnacle of their powers, with them in the midst of the perfect storm. The eye of the perfect storm rather with City the only challenger the Reds had until even Pep Guardiola’s perfect team of robots could no longer keep up.
That alone shocked the world but it didn’t really matter, because City’s progress everywhere else has proven that their abilities are far from diminished. That was until it all fell apart. One by one, a string was pulled and the mystery unravelled like an episode on Scooby-Doo. In the FA Cup, they were brushed aside by Arsenal, a struggling side who would go on to lift the trophy. The Carabao Cup saw them sweep aside Aston Villa as if they meant absolutely nothing and it did, mean nothing.
Then came this season. The 2020/21 Premier League season, a year were weird things started happening like Manchester City struggling. Like Liverpool losing……at Anfield….for six consecutive games with that run still in play in the league. But then Pep Guardiola did something, what he did nobody knows, because suddenly City turned into a coherent outfit. John Stones has become England’s best center-back by some margin with Joao Cancelo in the running for best full-back.
Then there’s everyone else. Ilkay Gundogan has scored an absurd number of goals, Raheem Sterling hasn’t. Rodri has turned into a stellar defensive midfielder, Aymeric Laporte can’t get a game to save his life, Kyle Walker is out of the team and Sergio Aguero is leaving. But despite their lack of goals, Manchester City sits 14 points clear of Manchester United and have outscored every other team in the league.
Just let that sink in because somehow in the weirdest season ever, Manchester City are dominating which means even in the eye of the weird storm, City remains the same. They even went on a 21 game winning streak across all competitions and are now in place for another quadruple. It proves, more than anything else, that Guardiola and his Manchester City side have England pegged to the very last team with nobody capable of outdoing them without splashing out obscene amounts of money.
Liverpool tried the spend-thrift way before eventually spending world record sums on two players but it was a four year plan in the making and fell apart with the loss of a few key pieces. But barring them, nobody else has put up a sliver of a challenge against the Cityzens. Transfermarkt tells us that Pep Guardiola and his side have only been beaten 24 times in the Premier League. Chelsea and Manchester United have done it four times each, Leicester have done it thrice, Tottenham, Wolves and Liverpool have a couple with Everton, Southampton, Norwich City, Newcastle United and Crystal Palace doing it once each.
Not exactly the worst record, but that’s not what Manchester City spent four odd years trying to bring in what they considered the greatest manager to help them do it. Not why City allowed Guardiola to spend hundreds of millions of pounds not once but in four separate windows including the window before he arrived. Now many will claim that was for Manuel Pellegrini to help improve his squad but the Chilean already knew by then that he was living on borrowed time at the Etihad.
Manchester City did that because in their eyes, they were bringing in the sole man on a planet overpopulated with football managers who could bring them that coveted Champions League crown. He won it in his first season as a football manager before creating possibly the greatest team that football has ever seen. A team so glorified that even the myths and rumours you hear about them now seem small in stature lined up alongside them.
You add in the fact that Guardiola has failed to win a Champions League crown since then and it makes his record with Barcelona even greater, although to many it makes him a failure. Before he joined Manchester City, the Spaniard hadn’t done too badly in the race for the greatest trophy available. On paper, three semi-finals in three years isn’t bad but when you take history into context, things change. Especially when you combine his record at Manchester City with the Bayern Munich bit and things get a little murky there.
For a manager considered to be one of the greatest ever, Guardiola’s record post-Barcelona in the Champions League knockout stages has been terrible. Largely, or so many have claimed, due to the lack of one incredible player in the form of Lionel Messi. That’s the bat his critics have used to beat him and they’ve done it in great style because there is an argument to be made. Yet, in this City project, Pep has his best chance to change the course of his career in Europe and yet he has failed to do it over the last four years.
Getting knocked out in the last of 16 could be put down to him not having the team he really wanted and City being in a transitional phase. But after that? Three quarter-final losses to two English teams including a Liverpool side that swept them aside. Last season it was that horror show against Olympique Lyon, a team that even their own boss admitted had little chance against City. Before that, it was Tottenham with his time at Bayern giving us not one but three incredible failures.
And all six years have one glaring thing in common which many have now come to call Pep Guardiola overcomplicating things.
First there was Guardiola getting out-coached and out done by Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid before that fiasco against Barcelona and then another one against Atletico Madrid. Move into Manchester and even if you exclude the loss to Monaco, losing to Liverpool and then Tottenham was something else and anyone who’s seen Man City's 'All or Nothing' series knows how much losing to Liverpool hurt Guardiola. But that Lyon loss was something else altogether and hopefully, it has put Guardiola off tinkering with his side.
Because Manchester City should have reached, at the very least, the semi-finals of that tournament, no offense meant to Lyon. They should have been no more than a blip in their way before an almighty clash against Bayern Munich, which would have been a majestic semi-final. But Pep Guardiola’s overcomplicate nature walked through the door and the rest is history. It’s because constant tinkering with his side hasn’t helped the Spaniard’s cause either and for some reason whatsoever, he tends to do that on the biggest stages possible.
He did it against Barcelona, against Atletico Madrid, against Real Madrid, against Liverpool, against Tottenham and especially against Olympique Lyon last season. For some reason, the no-Messi-means-no-Champions-League-for-Pep stick that has been used to beat the Spaniard has gotten to him. Or maybe it’s because he knows how otherworldly Messi is and has been trying to make his collective better than that to help him overcome the stick.
Either way, last season was the perfect chance for Pep to let all his overcomplicate nature out and just play football in the Champions League. He didn’t take it and somehow, the universe has offered him another chance. Now you, me and the entire footballing universe knows that the Premier League title race is over which means Pep Guardiola has eight games of absolutely meaningless football.
Technically, they’re four games from the title but technicalities don’t really matter because this is the second greatest situation that Pep could have. The first was when a global pandemic transformed football’s landscape and allowed teams to reset things. The second is having eight games to just let go of everything. It allows Guardiola to get everything out of his system and by everything, it means absolutely everything.
It’s the proving ground for all his nonsensical and crazy ideas even if that includes playing Joao Cancelo as an inverted full-back/fourth midfielder, playing a 4-4-2 with two midfielders leading the line or a diamond 4-3-3 with wing-backs. Nothing is wrong, everything works and Guardiola manages to get it all out in the Premier League where nothing matters. Because with a 14 point lead, his title is all but secure and that's something everyone knows.
Manchester United seem happy with second place although they’ve got a fight on their hands with Leicester City rather interested in it as well. But for City, that matters not because all this has to be towards one single goal and no, that is not the quadruple. That’s the Champions League and sure, if they can win the quadruple along the way, then why not, right? But the Champions League comes first and it has to come first.
Their tie, on paper, might be the second easiest one in the quarter-finals. But when a side has Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho, Jude Bellingham, Marco Reus and even young Giovani Reyna amongst others, nothing can be considered easy. Especially given the ferocity that Dortmund have shown on the counter-attack even if their defense isn’t the strongest in the world. And yet for a side that has strangled opponents time after time after time this season, it may not be a tough test if City pulls out all the stops.
And yet with Pep having signed a new contract until 2023, it’s unlikely that this will be Manchester City’s last foray into the Champions League. But it could very well be one of the last great chances that this particular City team could have because a transition is coming around the corner. Nobody knows how long it will take but it could very well take the better part of the next few years before they can create a chance as good as this one. So why not take it while you’ve got it?