The ‘Will he or Won’t he’ saga that surrounded whether Pep Guardiola would stay or go from Manchester City finally came to a head on Thursday – now attention turns to his plans for the future.
Guardiola had seven months left to run on a deal that was up as of next summer. There was no contractual assurance that after five years he would continue as City manager.
But after City confirmed his two-year extension, a story exclusively revealed by Sportsmail on Thursday morning, talk now surrounds what Guardiola will – and must – do to put City back on top.
Pep Guardiola put pen-to-paper on a new two-year contract to remain at Manchester City
The Catalan boss now has the task of transforming this squad into a dominant force again
Dethroned of their title emphatically by Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool last season and having made a spluttering start to this campaign, Guardiola signs under no illusions that his side’s stranglehold over English football has, for the time being at least, loosened considerably.
David Silva and Vincent Kompany’s quality and experience have been missed while there are significant defects in the current incarnation of Guardiola’s team – not least at left back and centre forward.
Guardiola was all smiles as he put pen-to-paper on his extension but inside he knows he has a job on his hands to make City the top dogs once more. Sportsmail looks into how the Catalan will look to do it…
REUNION WITH MESSI
The big talking point in wake of the contract renewal.
When asking the question as to just how Guardiola can transform City’s fortunes, bringing in a six-time Ballon d’Or winner who is in the conversation for greatest footballer to ever live seems one way to do that.
It almost happened in the summer after Lionel Messi filed a burofax document to Barcelona informing them of his desire to activate a break clause in his contract so he could leave the Nou Camp, most likely to reunite with Guardiola in Manchester.
Messi’s wish was ignored by both the club and LaLiga and they insisted his break clause had expired and all that remained was a £645million release clause. The deal, for the time being at least, was dead.
Guardiola’s new two-year deal points towards Lionel Messi coming to Manchester City
The Argentine stayed but has grown ‘tired’ of always being blamed for any toxicity that emerges out of Barcelona.
Out of contract in the summer, Guardiola’s decision to commit feels the clearest sign yet that he feels Messi will land at the Etihad Stadium.
City will go for him in January if the move is doable. Barcelona are under immense financial pressure, caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and City would likely test the water for Messi in the winter window to see how willing the LaLiga side would be to cash in, even if it is considered unlikely.
But, never say never. City defender Eric Garcia is wanted by Barcelona and their desire to land the 19-year-old could grease the wheels for Messi to Manchester.
Messi will have only six months left in January and will be free to negotiate with foreign clubs
HOW SPORTSMAIL BROKE THE STORY
Sportsmail broke the news of Pep Guardiola’s new contract on Thursday morning, with Jack Gaughan’s exclusive story leading the way.
Guardiola’s future had been shrouded in mystery for months before Thursday’s report, published at 11.55am, revealed that an agreement had been reached.
City later confirmed Guardiola had signed a new two-year contract, confirming the story.
Messi and Guardiola were brilliant together at Barcelona between 2008-2012 and were key pieces in a team that is regarded by many as the most impressive club side ever.
If the Premier League title race hangs in the balance come January and Messi’s Argentine team-mate Sergio Aguero is still battling against a glut of niggling injuries, acquiring the Barcelona captain would represent the most potent shot of adrenalin to get them over the line.
This season or next, reuniting with Messi and building a young attack around him to maximise his talents feels one way for Guardiola to become No 1 again.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
How he can change City’s fortunes rests largely on changing personnel. Fresh faces mean fresh ideas are easier to get across.
A left back and a forward represent priorities in either January or, more likely, next summer.
Benjamin Mendy has failed to make the left back role his own due to a mixture of fitness and form and while Joao Cancelo is slotting in there currently, he is primarily a right-sided player and so is unorthodox in the position.
As for a centre forward, relying on Ferran Torres or Raheem Sterling through the middle for large stretches of a campaign represents a great deal of risk.
The drop-off from Aguero is inevitable – he has 180 Premier League goals for City and is fourth on the all-time rankings.
But he is 32 and his body, based on what has been seen so far, is slowly but surely breaking down on him. Aguero’s status as one of the finest foreign exports to the league mean it is ridiculous to write him off but even with Gabriel Jesus as an option, a top-level new striker feels important for Guardiola’s new-look City down the line.
Fernandinho (35) and Sergio Aguero (32) are part of the old-guard who have had great success
Guardiola needs new faces to build a side that can dominate English football once again
It will also be interesting to see if he goes for a midfielder next summer, too. Fernandinho will turn 36 in May and while Guardiola’s reliance on the Brazilian has waned, he has been a key part of the side’s that have claimed league and cups in recent years.
Few in world football have screened a defence better than Fernandinho did and so while Rodri arrived as a ready-made replacement, the exit of David Silva last summer may see Guardiola dip his toe into the market for a new focal piece in the middle of the park.
FAITH IN THE ACADEMY
While signings are seen as essential to any rebuild, City have lots of players in the youth set-up that are turning heads and appear ready to make the grade as Phil Foden has proven.
Cole Palmer is considered as one of the most exciting.
The 18-year-old has been training with the first team since the Project Restart in June and earned inclusion in Guardiola’s matchday squad on four occasions towards the end of the 2019-20 season.
Cole Palmer, posing with the FA Youth Cup, is seen as one of the most exciting academy stars
Guardiola even name-checked Palmer as an ‘exceptional’ player earlier this year when quizzed on young players that could help his injury hit squad.
Liam Delap, Tommy Doyle and Taylor Harwood-Bellis are others catching the eye and with injuries piling up and City battling multiple competitions, Guardiola knows he needs to pluck some of the finest Academy stars to fill out his team.
The Premier League is a big step-up and it took Foden time to earn his spot but in a season as unpredictable as this one and difficulties in acquiring top targets, especially in January, youth players are ready and waiting to lend a hand.
Palmer enjoyed a fine campaign with City‘s league-winning under-18s last season, scoring 15 times and providing five assists in just 14 Under-18 Premier League appearances.
It would be unfair to place the burden on Palmer and Delap to fill any void that is eventually left by Aguero but given the success of City’s youth set-up, it would be reminiscent of promotion from Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy if Guardiola can make his rebuild around homegrown stars of the future.
Guardiola (right) has shown a greater trust in young players and they could prove essential
Aside from a change in personnel, it is tactical flexibility where Guardiola can make the biggest strides.
Nathan Ake’s arrival from Bournemouth means City can play a back three more readily if needed.
Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte have been the preferred pairing in a back four but given uncertainty in the full-back roles – due largely to their vulnerability defensively – a back three would favour attacking returns in wide areas.
Nathan Ake allows Guardiola to mix it up tactically and switch to a back three in defence
Having already touched on Aguero’s situation, both Torres and Sterling represent genuine options through the middle now if the Argentine and Jesus are absent.
Torres in particular has emerged as a real differential and showed for Spain in the 6-0 rout of Germany, in which he scored a hat-trick, that he is beginning to find his groove.
In City’s stuttering start it has appeared that the midfield has lacked the usual fluency many have come to expect from Guardiola at City.
He Needs to find a way of getting best out of Rodri if he’s going to play the anchor role every week.
The former Atletico Madrid midfielder has looked considerably better in a two-man axis instead of a lone role in front of the back four, something Fernandinho mastered in Guardiola’s title-winning seasons.
Guardiola will need to show greater tactical flexibility to restore City as the best team again