And so it finally happened. The news that every United fan from Manchester to Macau had been dreading. The worst kept secret in football was finally out- the announcement that Pep Guardiola was to succeed Manuel Pellegrini as Manchester City manager lit up the screens.
Sky Sports News was awash with excitement, amongst the monotony of deadline-day decay. And rightly so.
Guardiola is a serial winner: his record demands respect. Yes, he has been at the helm of two of the finest teams in recent history, but that shouldn’t detract from his managerial achievements.
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What he achieved at Barcelona in four trophy-laden years was special. No superlative quite justifies that period of pure perfection. Yet Barcelona’s latest exploits are perhaps a testament to the fact that their nucleus of players gel like no other.
Make no mistake, though - whilst Guardiola’s teams play with a distinct panache - behind a cool exterior lies a ruthless and deeply ambitious manager, who will not shy away from shaking up the Premier League and putting his distinct imprint on the men in sky blue. The sale of City’s very own mercurial Yaya Toure and offloading of Deco and Ronaldinho exemplify this.
Meanwhile across the city, Ed Woodward was left to ponder yet another season scrapping for the top four. Yes, you read that right. United are currently six points adrift from fourth place and in real danger of missing out on those lucrative Champions League places, altogether.
This would be an unmitigated disaster, especially given their £250 million outlay on players. Whilst their recent win against Stoke was a marked improvement on the laborious displays of late, the same questions remain.
In Louis van Gaal, they have recruited a vastly experienced coach, but the brand of football that characterises United of yesteryear is no more. The formation alone is the biggest clue- deploying two holding midfielders would only ever be seen in an away fixture in the latter stages of the Champions League under Ferguson. Manchester United currently lack identity. Where has that swashbuckling brand of football gone?
Maybe United’s biggest enemy is Sir Alex himself - he lingers in the background, as fans demand the cavalier football which once brought them unprecedented success.
The lack of consistency in selection is perhaps representative of Van Gaal being caught in two minds - stuck between his natural instincts and appeasing the fans. The fact is, though, the Ferguson era will never be replicated. Football has changed. The modern game doesn’t accommodate manager’s time to build a team, to invest in an individual: it’s strictly business- the commercial ramifications override any projects, sentimentality or loyalty.
In contrast, Guardiola guarantees a certain brand of football- a tiki-taka style, a clear identity and blueprint from which City can replicate across their franchises and academies. Mind you, the Premier League is a different animal- it will be very interesting to see if this same brand of football will work on a ‘windy Monday night at Stoke’.
Beyond the obvious footballing ramifications of Guardiola’s appointment, the domino effect is worrying, from a United perspective.
The appointment of Guardiola at City signifies a seismic shift in the footballing landscape in Manchester. Pep is a prestigious appointment- one which gives City leverage commercially. Sponsors across the board will be able to identify with the purity of his teams- there is a romanticism to his interpretation of the ‘beautiful game’. Guardiola teams personify poetry in motion, in a footballing context.
Whilst United’s sponsors Adidas have already relayed worries over the brand of football displayed, in Guardiola, Manchester City have secured a manager recognisable across the globe, whose footballing blueprint has gained notoriety.
Pellegrini is the unfortunate pawn in this situation, but as the cliché goes: ‘That’s football!’ Guardiola carries an aura, a swagger, an arrogance, even. The pulling power of Pep is not to be underestimated, either. Players want to come and play for him.
Take Tiger Woods in his prime - he’d won before stepping foot on the course. Tiger had a fear factor reminiscent of Guardiola. Does Van Gaal evoke fear?
So what next for United? The inclination of Ed Woodward would be to press the metaphorical panic button and hire Mourinho; a serial winner, a footballing mastermind, a deeply divisive figure.
The former Chelsea boss certainly has the arrogance to turn up at Old Trafford and make the hot-seat his own. However, he also has the ability to polarise. Nevertheless, the presumption that Mourinho’s appointment guarantees success is naive - look at the media’s glorification of LVG upon his appointment.
Mourinho knows the league and has a point to prove, given his unceremonious exit at Chelsea. The United board will be wary of his confrontational, abrasive management style. The Eva Carneiro incident was a PR disaster and Manchester United have a commercial empire to protect: this is equally as important as results on the pitch.
Are United seeking a short-term fix or committed to a long-term vision? These are key questions that need addressing at Carrington, over the coming months and answers will become more apparent in the summer.
Manchester United’s rhetoric of expansive football, loyalty and dedication to the youngsters will certainly be tested more than ever before. Whilst the romantics champion the idea of Giggs taking the reins, this move seems rather premature - one stirred by sentiment over common-sense. Whilst he bleeds Manchester United, he has no managerial experience and must move to broaden his horizons, before being burdened with such a pressurised and sizeable job.
Perhaps Mauricio Pochettino would represent a sensible choice in the summer? He plays an attractive brand of football, is an impressive man manager and has overseen noteworthy projects both at Southampton and Tottenham, respectively.
However, he has no experience at a club the size of United and won’t be afforded the same amount of time. It seems whatever United’s next move, there are drawbacks. To validate a cliché: United are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Ten years down the line we may reflect on Guardiola’s appointment as the catalyst towards the turning of the tides. As from now, though, City are the noisy neighbours no more! Sorry Fergie…