Why Manchester City Are Ready to Win the Champions League
It is the biggest challenge of Pep Guardiola's career: Lead Manchester City to Champions League glory.
Have a look through football's history books, and you will not find City listed among Europe's elite. They won the Cup Winners' Cup in 1970, but never have they got their hands on the most sought-after trophy of all.
Truth is, they are playing catch up. It was not until 2011 that they featured in the Champions League—as we know it—for the first time.
Guardiola won the competition twice with Barcelona, in 2009 and 2011, but failed to lead his last club Bayern Munich to the Promised Land. He knows that part of his mission statement at City is to elevate them to the levels he was able to reach in Spain.
Guardiola's first attempt last season fell apart at the hands of Monaco in the last 16, but even though the manager plays down their current chances in public, City know they are better prepared than ever to reach Europe's holy grail.
Ambition Without Pressure
It was in the final days of May 2016 that Guardiola made a secret trip to Manchester and spoke with chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak about his plans for the club.
He had already been named their new manager but had not yet begun his role, and he was outlining how he would help them become a dominant force in European football.
Khaldoon did not need convincing. Sources explained at the time how he had been excited for months at the prospect of taking on "a proven winner." There was no other manager in the world he would rather have had.
We now know the first year did not go to plan, but the message from inside City is that it only intensified the desire of Khaldoon and owner Sheikh Mansour to bring unrivalled success to the club.
In January, watching on as the club faltered, City's top brass vowed to ensure the manager was backed with whatever funds were needed to raise their level.
Khaldoon has spoken of his ambition before, but interestingly, journalist Jack Gaughan, who covers Manchester City for the Daily Mail, explained to me how they have managed to do so without seeming threatening.
"Publicly, there hasn't seemed a great deal of pressure," he said. "Guardiola consistently talks about how much time City need before being able to challenge. However, there is a sense that winning this needs to happen sooner rather than later if they are to further boost their global brand."
It's an ideal working environment for Guardiola: Full backing of the board and the tools to take on anyone in Europe, without fear of losing his job.
Compare that to a club like PSG, where huge funds are being invested with an obvious expectation that Champions League success will follow, and you realise Guardiola may never experience such perfect conditions again.
Prepare for Peak Guardiola
It has been a slow burn to get this team moulded and playing in a way Guardiola desires, but perhaps that is what makes this current City side all the more dangerous.
"I'd say it will be from March 2018 onwards that we'll start to see the fruits of his labour," Marti Perarnau wrote in Pep Guardiola: The Evolution.
Perarnau had unlimited access to Guardiola during his time at Bayern Munich, becoming a trusted ally, and penned his book before watching the first City season unfold.
"No one can predict how Guardiola will do at City, and there's no way to tell how many trophies and titles he'll bring to Manchester," he went on. "It's highly likely, however, that it will take him at least 18 months to fully develop his playing model."
Before accepting this job as manager, Guardiola had been assured he would be given time to make his impact and Perarnau's bold prediction could come true.
Guardiola's immediate concerns about an aging squad, particularly the full-backs, were warranted, and both of those issues have been rectified.
Guardiola was disappointed by the last Champions League campaign. It was a serious letdown given their route to the semi-final under Manuel Pellegrini the previous season.
But the players from last term now have an advanced understanding of their roles, while the players recruited this summer have all the traits to perfectly slot into the system.
Recruiting to Specification
Guardiola got rid of the players who could not live up to his high-intensity style of football, and those who have been added to the squad bring elements that were lacking.
The specialist wing-back additions of Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo were a big statement; the guile and creativity of Bernardo Silva adds to the attacking prowess; the safety of goalkeeper Ederson brings comfort. City are stronger all over the pitch.
Sam Tighe, Bleacher Report's world football analyst, believes Mendy, in particular, will make them stronger.
"Pep Guardiola clearly instructed Manchester City to create chances using low crosses and cutbacks last season, but he didn't quite have the full-backs to carry out the strategy to full effect," Tighe said. "Benjamin Mendy remedies that; the whip and power, not to mention the accuracy, he provides when firing it in is a game-changer for the Citizens."
Mendy and Silva were part of that Monaco team last season that caused such a stir with their brilliant performances.
Charlotte Duncker, a City writer for Manchester Evening News, is in no doubt about how the summer recruitment has pushed the team forward.
"I definitely think there's going to be progression from last season's round-of-16 defeat to Monaco," she explained. "A big difference this year is Guardiola's additions to the squad. Every time you look on the bench, there's big names to bring on and that will be important for the Champions League campaign.
"There's no reason why City can't at least reach the semi-finals—they've definitely got the best chance of the English sides."
The Role of Gundogan
In his younger days, Guardiola played in midfield, so there is no area of the pitch he is more particular about.
When looking at recruitment early in his City tenure, Guardiola turned down the chance to pursue N'Golo Kante, Toni Kroos, Renato Sanches and Thiago Alcantara. Instead, he wanted to sign Ilkay Gundogan, even though he had recently had knee surgery.
The manager's vision was that Gundogan could bring the team together through a blend of organisation, discipline and creativity. He made nine starts last season, before ruptured knee ligaments set him back. It was a real blow to Guardiola, as the timing of the injury meant he did not get to figure at all in their Champions League campaign.
As he now returns to action, expect him to become a key element of their plan. A source at Manchester City explained to me how his availability will raise the team's level.
"Pep views him as the perfect type of player to knit together his style of football," I was told. "He is very versatile in his ability to slot in as a deep midfield player or much further up the field, and that is going to be an element that helps the team in big domestic and European matches."
Living in the Moment
Living in the moment is absolutely key to success with Guardiola.
Yes, he learns lessons from the past and is driven by picking up tips that have worked for great managers through history. But when it comes to setbacks or even his own success, he does not look back or reminisce.
It means that last season does not matter to him now. He has moved on. This is a different era and a new start in the Champions League.
One contact explained to me how golf is one of Guardiola's main fascinations outside of football—and much of this interest is to do with the mindset it requires.
The mentality it takes to succeed in golf is something he carries in daily life. You must feel present at all times, and you always focus on your next goal, not the last one, because you cannot influence the past.
Guardiola is obsessed and passionate about the game, and his players have been encouraged to adopt the same way of thinking.
Guardiola has undertaken a makeover of Manchester City's squad in both body and mind and now every day is geared towards making those huge steps towards domestic and European glory.