Pep Guardiola needed two things to move Manchester City forward: time and money. Time was required to train the players already on the books, to sort the capable ones from the incapable ones and to put his message across. Money was necessary to improve the squad - to buy his own men – and also to reduce the average age.
City are one point off the top in the Premier League and safely qualified for the second round of the Champions League. Guardiola – so far – has done a bang up job.
The club did not get all the players they wanted in the market; it’s known for example that Pep wanted to improve his options at full back but the club did not have the budget to do it last summer. He will take delivery of Gabriel Jesus in time for the second half of the season but the numbers will still fall a long way short of the 10 new players Guardiola requested upon taking over at City.
Time has as scarce a commodity as first-team signings. Guardiola has overseen 22 official matches as City coach since the day the Premier League season started on August 13; an average of a game every five days the international breaks notwithstanding.
There have been five Champions League matches – three away trips – as well as league matches and EFL Cup ties. Pre-season came and the whole squad was in a state of flux - with transfers to be completed in and out - and key players recharging after Euro 2016 as well as the Copa Centenario. And since then it’s impossible to find in the calendar a stretch of one week solid in which Guardiola would have had all of his squad to himself on the training field.
"It's virtually impossible to play the same 11 week-in, week-out with Champions League travel and in the Premier League where the game is so quick and ferocious you need that fresh legs,” ex-Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher told the Leicester Mercury last week after his West Brom side beat the champions.
There have been glimpses of Guardiola’s vision if not great consistency in it. The hammering of Manchester United and Old Trafford and the victory over Barcelona at the Etihad stand out as tremendous proof of Guardiola’s qualities. In those performances there was innovation, urgency and discipline.
Elsewhere – however - and City have been patchy. Their record of six away wins in seven tries is exemplary by Premier League standards and testament to the fact that Guardiola’s men can eke out results even in the most trying of circumstances. If you can’t be brilliant, be gritty.
He will have relished these last few days training. It’s the first time since the season began that he has had a week preparing for only one match; a rare treat.
At Bayern Munich, Guardiola’s coaching methods developed. At Barcelona there appeared to be a Plan A and not much else – not that they needed it – but at Bayern he composed a symphony in honour of every opposition team he faced. There was close attention to detail to both strengths and weaknesses in the opposition ranks and a plan to neuter one and expose the other. Matches like that have been conspicuous by their absence for City this season. They have usually been the better team even if they’ve been simply getting the job done.
That said, if there’s a flaw in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 then Guardiola will find it.
The defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal had Conte reaching for the reset button and since then it’s been serene progress for Chelsea. Since going to three at the back at the start of October they’ve had to play only one midweek match. Since beating Hull they’ve made one single change to their starting XI in the intervening league games. Willian played against Hull, he was taken out for their next game against Leicester and Chelsea have been unchanged since.
“Conte and the club are trying to establish a philosophy,” Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola told Goal this week. “Roman wants to try to play with an identity. Barcelona has their style then Chelsea have their style. In that context everyone knows what they are doing; it is not Zola playing or Hazard playing, but Chelsea playing.”
Continuity is a luxury so far denied to City. To keep players fresh, to cover for injuries and suspensions, to protect new signings, Guardiola has had to chop and change. John Stones and Ilkay Gundogan – two key parts of City’s future – did not even make the squad for last week’s trip to Burnley. Conte is lucky that such decisions do not need to be made.
It would have been pretty embarrassing for Manchester City – and plenty mirthful for Pep’s detractors – if they had failed to qualify for Europe last season as Chelsea did. To see a two-time Champions League winner - and by most accounts the best-paid manager in history – without continental football would have had plenty questioning his decision to go to a club of such low standing.
Well, in hindsight, it’s not done Antonio Conte and Chelsea any harm. A season for them out of the Champions League reckoning is no great loss. They’ve offset their losses thanks to a new sponsorship deal and increased TV money and look fresher, more settled and more intuitive as a result of a reduced schedule.
Guardiola, meanwhile, is trying to live from one match to the next. If he can put in a title challenge, a good run in Europe – and do all that by overhauling the team in his own image – then he’s worth every penny he gets.