It might have been different had Brendan Rodgers not turned Liverpool’s season around so convincingly in the past few months and secured his future there, because he has twice been on Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano’s list when the club were looking for a manager. City would have happily had him replace Roberto Mancini in the summer of 2013. Four years earlier, they invited him to a hotel in Sicily, hoping he would become the Italian’s assistant. Mancini seems to have had other plans and City, desperate to replace Mark Hughes, acceded to demands for his own big entourage.
Asking Rodgers to move to City was dismissed internally as just too complicated two summers ago. There would have been huge controversy – carnage – if the club were seen to be trying to take Liverpool’s manager at that stage, only one season into his Anfield contract. It is also hard to see how he could have been persuaded to move, in any case. Manuel Pellegrini, the only other candidate, was far more attainable. Now, another two years on, City find themselves in the same situation as 2013: acutely aware that there are very few potential replacements for Pellegrini who would fit their very specific criteria and actually make the side materially better.
An expression of the limited options came in January, from the unlikely source of a supporter who had won a City trip to Abu Dhabi, where he met some of the club’s executives and players. He said that Txiki Begiristain, the director of football, had told him that “only four or five managers have the style to manage City: Pellegrini, Guardiola and Frank Rijkaard being three of them.” We can dismiss Rijkaard, who was sacked at Barcelona by Soriano and is currently working at a Florida prep school. Most of the managers who tend to be linked with City – principally Carlo Ancelotti and Diego Simeone – simply don’t adhere to the club’s “style,” as Begiristain put it.
Since Rodgers seems to be unattainable for the foreseeable future, it means that this story is all about Pep. The question is whether City can really afford to wait for him.
Perhaps it was inevitable that a club who have become absorbed and obsessed by the Barcelona model – with its one style of football and pathways to the first team for enlightened, intelligent young academy scholars – would ultimately require its former manager to lead them. It is by an irony of all ironies that the size of the task still ahead of them has been laid bare by Barcelona, in consecutive seasons.
There is an argument in favour of waiting for Guardiola – if we take at face value his words last month that he is “very happy” at Bayern Munich and it is “not an option that I leave this summer”. His contract expires the following summer. To replace Pellegrini with someone else now means City’s ship will have sailed by the time Guardiola reaches the quayside. The probable renewal of the squad this summer – James Milner is likely to take the central midfield role he craves at Liverpool, while Yaya Touré, Aleksandr Kolarov and Stevan Jovetic may all go – will have been someone else’s work.
A new deal for the Chilean also seems unthinkable, given some of the dire tactical failings in the Nou Camp, where Pellegrini did not establish the most elementary defensive base for his team. There was also individual ineptitude, which suggested that there is not the healthy creative tension required for the big occasions. For Vincent Kompany to dawdle and be robbed in his own box to yield up an opportunity which Neymar struck against the post would be an understandable sign of fatigue on 77, or even 67 minutes. But after seven minutes? Pellegrini can be tough. He has dropped Kompany and Joe Hart in the past two seasons. But his players lacked intensity.
It was this very failing which led Soriano to sack Rijkaard who – in an echo of why City hired Pellegrini after Mancini – was initially seen as antidote to authoritarian Louis van Gaal at Barcelona. Soriano tells of Rijkaard, early in his tenure, taking the entire team to a spa south of Barcelona after they had won the 2004-05 La Liga title and openly discussing what needed to be done, gathering opinions and facilitating the discussion. “His: ‘Why don’t you try this or that?’ was far from Louis van Gaal’s usual shouts in his well-known, direct style,” Soriano later related.
But Barcelona lost their intensity once they had won the league, leaving Soriano to believe Rijkaard should have then adopted “a far more direct and even authoritarian approach”, as he has described it. The Dutchman was reluctant because “as he said himself, he ‘loved the group’,” Soriano related. Barcelona lost to Liverpool in the Champions League round of 16 in 2006 and their La Liga title a few months later. The pursuit of Rijkaard’s replacement started midway through the following season.
But can City now wait? The risks attached to hanging around for another manager are substantial. Standing still for a year in Premier League football is potentially disastrous. If this club create any sense that Pellegrini – about to enter the last year of his own contract – is a stop-gap, lame-duck manager, the chances of adequately strengthening the squad will become materially tougher.
Will a one-year wait yield them Guardiola, in any case? Manchester United may also be in the running for him next summer, at which point a 64-year-old Van Gaal’s contract will have a year to run. Old Trafford would carry vastly greater commercial income, which would give Guardiola far more to play. Arsenal – and a north London lifestyle – may actually carry even more attractions.
The reservoir of support for Pellegrini inside City is huge. There is a justifiable sense that last season’s Liverpool FC euphoria obscured his extraordinary accomplishments, for a manager new to England. City must hope that Pellegrini can rally his players to a rousing, convincing Premier League finish and save his job. A managerial no-man’s-land, waiting for Pep, is no place to be.
Champions League Last eight draw details
Draw takes place at 11am Friday. There are no country restrictions.
Quarter-finals 14/15 & 21/22 Apr
Semi-finals 5/6 & 12/13 May
Final Saturday 6 June (Berlin)Reuse content