Pep Guardiola signed a new two-year deal at Manchester City. That news in isolation simply confirms Dean Jones' reporting that City were intent on extending his stay at the Etihad club. However, layered with the context that the club saw the new deal for the Catalan as an integral part of their plan to entice Lionel Messi to Manchester, as exclusively reported by Eurosport earlier on Thursday, it takes on renewed significance - particularly coming just over a month before the Argentine can sign a pre-contract agreement with the Premier League side.
Tying Guardiola to a new deal represents one part – and perhaps the most difficult – of City’s three-pronged approach to sealing one of the greatest transfer coups in the history of football. Fermin de la Calle of Eurosport Spain further details the importance of Sergio Aguero to any Messi deal and how the club will seek to capitalise on the turmoil at Camp Nou.
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Is Messi to City realistic?
It is appearing increasingly likely that if Messi leaves Barcelona he will sign for City. Why? The club have form here, having previously shown a mastery of long-term planning to acquire the services of a prime target: Josep Guardiola. City were known admirers of the then 42-year-old when he was on a year-long sabbatical following a trophy-laden spell at Barcelona. However, Guardiola opted to move to Bayern Munich.
Yet, City put in motion the wheels for his 2016 appointment in 2012 when they appointed Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain. The pair arrived within a week of each other in the winter of 2012, with a large portion of their remit the appointment of Guardiola, having been the driving force behind his promotion from Barca B in 2008. Soriano, as CEO, and Begiristain, as director of football, set about a root and branch overhaul of the club to fit the requirements of Guardiola.
Such was their desire to appoint the former Barcelona coach, Manuel Pellegrini, the man who took the job in 2013, was told, according to Sky, that the Catalan had been the first choice for the role and the club intended to appoint him at some point in the future.
It appears now City are following the same policy to secure the services of Messi, with every decision made with the overarching aim of prising the Argentine from Barcelona. The 33-year-old forward can sign a pre-contract agreement elsewhere in Europe from January 1, and the extension of Guardiola’s contract represents a crucial cog to this end goal. If Aguero signs a long-term extension - particularly in light of rumours earlier this year that the club would be open to allowing the forward to leave - then the concept of Messi to City will be given further weight.
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Does the move make sense?
On the surface, yes. Messi and Guardiola's greatest successes are intertwined. However, a move for Messi represents a huge risk for both player and manager. To be blunt, they are not a suitable fit any more.
City's boss has never been at a club for longer than four years. The reason? His intensity, generally. It was footballing pioneer Bela Guttmann who said that the “third year is fatal”. Basically, the Hungarian great cautioned that after a three-year cycle, inertia set in; that any side, no matter how great, would become beset by its own overfamiliarity.
The 49-year-old is a demanding coach, both physically and mentally, and it is difficult to sustain the intensity he demands. City sit 10th in the table this season with three wins, three draws and a loss from seven games thus far. It is of course early in the season but the 5-2 reverse to Leicester City pointed at a team in decline, minimal decline but decline all the same.
Bringing Messi on board in this context could compound City’s issues, particularly as they are expected to have to move on one of their marquee players to accommodate the Argentine.
Why would signing Messi be a risk?
Tactics are fairly cyclical in nature. However, one consistent thread running through successful elite teams during the last decade and a half is pressing. Now, there are wildly different forms of pressing, but, to some degree, successful teams press as a unit and certainly so a Guardiola team, usually from the front. However, as Messi has aged he has become less able but also, if reports are to be believed, less willing to press. It was a theme detailed by Ken Early in a Slate article during the 2014 World Cup, entitled Walking to Stay One Step Ahead.
Early detailed Messi’s performance in their last-16 win against Switzerland. Here is a key passage:
If Messi on the ball is the greatest spectacle in the game, Messi off the ball is one of the most mysterious. It’s fascinating to watch him and try to see the game through his eyes. The first thing that strikes you is that, most of the time, he appears to be doing very little indeed. He loiters at an angle to the play. He drifts disinterestedly in the spaces between defenders. The only signs of alertness are those sharp, hawkish swivels of the head, as he stores a mental image of what’s over his shoulder. Then he darts toward empty space—the logic of his movement only becoming apparent two passes later, when the ball arrives at his feet. The wonder is that somehow he exerts this gravitational pull on the play while seldom even breaking into a trot. FIFA’s post-match data confirmed the impression that Messi had expended less energy to exert more influence than anyone else on the field. He moved 10.7 kms in 130 minutes of game time, meaning he covered less ground than any other outfield player who completed the match.
This is a theme that has marked the latter period of his career, and it appears a bad fit for City and Guardiola for two reasons. First the Catalan is a system manager, and second the components of his system at City are beginning to show wear and tear. Were City at the start of their cycle under Guardiola rather than edging towards the end, then they could perhaps accommodate Messi’s passivity. Further, Guardiola has, like his elite-level peers, not overseen a squad rebuild. And a rebuild is as much about mentality and intensity as it is about quality player acquisition. The club are at that crossroads and the introduction of a player, regardless of talent, whose methods may not align with those required of a rebuild – renewed and complete commitment to the intensity Guardiola demands – complicates matters for player, club and manager.
If Messi is to be a success at City – and success means winning the Champions League – then that would entail a fairly substantial modification to his game, or a modification of the principles that have defined Guardiola’s managerial career. Both Messi and Guardiola would be staking burnishing their legacies on winning the Champions League at City. It represents a sizable risk.
How might it work?
Messi would improve any team going forward, and City have, for all their wealth of attacking talent, began to show signs of struggle on that front. The Etihad club have scored just one goal in each of their last five Premier League matches, a first under Guardiola.
City do have the personnel – unlike Barcelona, weighed down with incompatible number 10s – for Messi to thrive in an attacking sense. They have marauding full-backs, technically-able wide forwards willing – and able – to dart in behind to open up space, and a mobile, tactically capable midfield base ready to sit behind, even if Fernandinho’s injury record has started to punctuate his excellence with extended lay-offs. The tactical framework is there for the Argentine to truly excel in an attacking sense, and an attack of Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, and Kevin de Bruyne et al supplemented by Messi would by sheer force of talent threaten the latter stages of any competition.
Further, part of City’s early season malaise can be attributed to the exit of David Silva, who set the tone and tempo of Guardiola’s peak City. The Citizens have a legion of attacking midfielders but none can quite fill the skill set gap left by Silva’s exit. Messi, a master of all trades and a jack of none, could, as well as offering a near-constant goal threat, provide that tempo-setting that Guardiola and City currently appear to miss.
The reunion of Messi and Guardiola would undoubtedly produce some beguiling attacking play but, as evidenced by Barcelona’s Champions League travails in recent seasons, that is often not enough. The margins at the elite-level are so fine that sheer force of talent is not enough; often, particularly in two-legged knockout football, talent combined with a cohesive unit in both philosophy and work ethic will trump sheer talent.
Therefore, should Messi sign for City then it would likely take compromise from Messi, or for his huge wealth of attacking threat to negate his impact on the defensive side of the ball for it to be a success - and that means at least one Champions League win. This potential reunion will either burnish or tarnish their legacies and the balance of probabilities suggest it will be the latter rather than the former.
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