It’s entirely feasible that by the close of this season, Manuel Pellegrini will go down as the most successful manager in Manchester City’s history—at least in the Premier League era.
The Etihad Stadium club are clear front-runners for the 2015/16 title, and should they follow through on that promise, they will have won two of the last three Premier League crowns under their Chilean coach. And yet reverence hardly flows in Pellegrini’s direction.
In fact, this is widely expected to be the Chilean’s final season at Man City, despite him signing a new contract with the club ahead of the new campaign. It’s somewhat surprising that he even survived the summer, given the level of speculation concerning his future toward the end of last term. He has been afforded a third year, but there might not be a fourth—regardless of what he achieves this season.
It’s all Pep Guardiola’s fault. Manchester City’s fancy for the Spaniard is English football’s worst kept secret, with the Abu Dhabi-owned club long-term admirers of the former Barcelona coach. Even as Bayern Munich manager, Guardiola casts a shadow over the Etihad Stadium, with his arrival there considered by many to be an inevitability.
Pellegrini himself even admits that the lure of Guardiola might prove too much for City, commenting that the Spaniard “is a manager every team will want to manage them,” as per Simon Bird of the Daily Mirror.
Of course, as one of the most successful coaches in European football history, that urge is perhaps understandable, but his hiring would be rather harsh and even disrespectful on Pellegrini—the man who restored City following the demise of Roberto Mancini’s tenure.
City have been preparing for Guardiola’s arrival for years.
Even before Pellegrini’s appointment two years ago, moves were made to build an environment in which the Spanish coach could thrive, from the boardroom recruitment of former Barcelona directors Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, to the signing of players in keeping with his famed philosophy. “Maybe he’s more linked to this team because of Txiki [Begiristain],” Pellegrini himself admitted just last month.
But at the time of Mancini’s exit, Guardiola had already agreed to become Bayern Munich's new manager, signing a three-year contract with the Bundesliga club in January 2013. And so Pellegrini was hired as something of a stopgap, albeit a high-calibre stopgap who delivered the Premier League title in his first season in charge of City.
So is there any way Pellegrini could keep his job for next season? Other than a clean sweep of all in front of them, what could the Chilean coach do to prove to the Man City hierarchy that he is the right man in the long term for the club?
It could come down to what progress is made in the Champions League this season. For all the success that has been achieved in recent years, Man City have yet to truly establish themselves as an elite side in European terms, having failed to make it past the last 16 of the Champions League in five attempts.
City have been handed another tough group-stage draw this season, which could provide a gauge of just how far they have progressed under Pellegrini. The former Premier League champions are certainly strong enough to finish top of the group that includes Juventus, Sevilla and Borussia Monchengladbach, but on the precedent of their recent Champions League struggles, that might not be so straightforward.
There were signs of progress last season, with City easing into the last 16. It was somewhat unfortunate that they were paired with the eventual winners Barcelona in the first knockout round, although that matchup did illustrate just how far adrift Pellegrini’s side are of the very top of European football.
But a run deep into the Champions League's latter stages might not even be enough to stave off Guardiola’s much-mooted arrival at Manchester City. The club’s courting of the Spanish coach isn’t so much about results, but about philosophy, long-term vision and stature. By tempting Guardiola, City would be announcing themselves as an elite team just like any Champions League success would.
Pellegrini must look at everything around him, including those he reports to on the City board, and fear the worst. Signing the Chilean to a contract extension was a shrewd move, with the dressing room now settled for this season at least, but it does little to secure his long-term future with the Premier League champions. Guardiola is still the man City want in charge next season.
If Pellegrini is to stand any chance of returning for a fourth season at Man City, he must demonstrate more tactical flexibility this term. Such rigidity is the Chilean coach's weakness, with his favoured 4-4-2 formation not especially suited to European football. His summer signings suggest that a more dynamic attacking system will now be used, and that must come to fruition.
For the time being, though, Pellegrini is prepared—if not totally comfortable—for the conjecture that will threaten to undermine Man City’s season. “I was used, last season, to the speculation. Ancelotti supposedly had a pre-contract signed and Jurgen Klopp had also a contract,” he said. But by all accounts, the club’s interest in Guardiola is more legitimate and is something that Pellegrini will have to cope with.
The Chilean would be well-advised to enjoy this season on its individual merit, and early indications are that this could be a special Man City campaign, particularly after the summer signings of Raheem Sterling, Nicolas Otamendi and Kevin De Bruyne.
But as Pellegrini says, Guardiola is the manager that all of European football wants. The coup in snatching him ahead of everyone else would give Man City the sense of fulfilment that their current Chilean coach simply can’t, regardless of what he wins this season.