Something’s up with Pep Guardiola. The 48-year-old has never been the most easygoing of people, a character seemingly burdened by the relentless turning of his own mind, but even by his usual standard the Manchester City manager has been a tortured soul over the past few weeks and months.
That could have something to do with the gulf that is only growing wider between his side and Liverpool at the top of the Premier League table. Guardiola has never found himself so far off the pace at this stage of a season and so the Catalan coach’s mood may have been darkened as a consequence of this.
This doesn’t fully explain everything we have seen and heard from Guardiola this season, though. He has appeared agitated for quite some time now and that has manifested itself in the uncharacteristically erratic performances of City. But we shouldn’t be too surprised. A very consistent pattern is being adhered to.
What we are seeing from Guardiola and his City team is evocative of his latter days at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. At all three clubs, Guardiola made himself a legendary, zeitgeist-setting figure, not just lifting countless trophies but changing the landscape of the place he found himself in. And at all three clubs Guardiola’s tenure could be split into three different acts.
The first act is a phase of communication. This sees Guardiola test his new players through the introduction of ideas and methods with those unable to absorb them cast aside. At Man City, this phase was especially rough, with a fourth-place finish in Guardiola’s first Premier League season, but it was still a necessary period to establish the relationship between coach and dressing room.
The second phase is when these ideas and methods fully take root. It’s over this period that Guardiola’s teams achieve their best results – see his great Barcelona side of the 2010/11 season – the one that dismantled Manchester United in the Champions League final – and his Manchester City side of last season.
Then there’s the third phase.
There are a number of theories over what takes hold of Guardiola and his teams at this point, but at Barca, Bayern Munich and now Man City he has allowed himself to be engulfed by his own chaos. Maybe it takes opposition teams three seasons or so to figure out Guardiola’s strategy. Maybe his inherent perfectionism is always destined to bring his players to breaking point.
It’s uncanny just how true to this established pattern Guardiola has been at all three of his clubs. Just like at this stage of his Bayern Munich tenure, there is speculation and conjecture over what the Catalan’s next move might be. Juventus are known to hold a long-standing in interest in Guardiola while recent reports claim a return to Bayern Munich could also be an option, as surprising as that would be.
Even if Guardiola manages to mastermind a comeback for the ages, leading City to a third straight Premier League title by drawing in Liverpool between now and the end of the season, the third act of his time at the club would be undeniable. He finished at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich with silverware in his grips, after all.
City knew what they signed up for.
They knew that Guardiola would come with an expiry date, that what fuels the great man would burn up after roughly three seasons just like it did at Bayern Munich and Barcelona before that. Guardiola is now into his fourth season at the Etihad Stadium. That expiry date is nearing with his third act well and truly playing out.