The FA Cup is not going to rescue the season for Arsenal or Manchester City, Sunday’s semi-finalists at Wembley. Only a top-four finish will give Arsène Wenger ammunition with which to reply to his detractors and while City currently look the more capable of achieving that in this most competitive of seasons, Pep Guardiola is aware it is nowhere near enough.
“I am happy that we have made some progress this season but I cannot expect the owners to feel the same way,” the City manager says with disarming frankness. “The potential of this club is so much higher.”
Manuel Pellegrini secured fourth place last season, won the League Cup and took City to a Champions League semi-final, a performance the club hierarchy let it be known represented the bare minimum for their investment. Guardiola was clearly supposed to be an upgrade and does not need telling – though he is being told – that he has failed. “I expect to be judged in the same way,” he says. “Why should anyone make an exception for me? I was a lucky guy. I was manager of Messi, manager of Bayern Munich, that’s why we won a lot. I cannot change the past. I would have preferred to come here with no expectation, or with low expectation, but I came here to prove myself when I could have stayed there being successful.”
Guardiola is well aware that his decision to move to England could be regarded as his first real challenge in management. That is not to make light of the difficulty of competing with Real Madrid or winning the Bundesliga three years in succession but, as he says, he inherited a Barcelona team already full of wonderful talents, while the remit at Bayern Munich was merely to keep the strongest side in Germany on track. Guiding City to similar heights was always going to be a trickier proposition, even before factoring in the immense improvement at Chelsea and Tottenham this season.
So has Guardiola been found out or is it simply that the Premier League is a tough nut to crack even for a manager who has won titles everywhere he has been? Antonio Conte’s success at Chelsea shows what is possible for a coach in his first season in England, though he basically took over a fully formed title-winning team who had awarded themselves a season off. City, too, have won titles in the recent past, even under Pellegrini, though not with the conviction of the sides José Mourinho put together at Chelsea. Any evaluation of Guardiola’s first season in the Premier League needs to start with the realisation that City had to sweat a bit over fourth place last season too; he was not striding into a club accustomed to winning everything in sight.
“It depends on what people’s expectations were at the beginning of the season,” Guardiola says. “Was it to win all the titles? OK, we haven’t won all the titles. If that was the chairman’s expectation, then we have missed and we need to improve. I believe we have done that, but we clearly still need to improve more for next season.
“There are many times this season when I have been really happy, but I know we are here to be judged on the success we achieve. In my career I have won 10 titles and if people now say I am a disaster I can accept that.”
That seems an unnecessarily harsh assessment, though one should not ignore that fact that mistakes have been made, notably in the goalkeeping and defensive areas. City ought to have been strong enough to hold on to a winning position against Monaco in the Champions League and it is almost certainly Guardiola’s biggest regret that they did not. “It is always important to reach a final,” the manager says of Sunday’s encounter with Arsenal. “But the game against Monaco was important too.”
If going out of the Champions League so early defined City as a work in progress under Guardiola, the club’s next two games, against Arsenal and Manchester United, should put his theory of improvement to the test. There are still challenges ahead, starting at Wembley. The City manager is a great admirer of Alexis Sánchez, who he managed at Barcelona, where the Chilean found it hard to step out of Lionel Messi’s shadow. “Even the big, big players who believe they are top, when they go to Barcelona they understand they are behind Messi because Messi is unique,” Guardiola says. “But Alexis is just one step below. He is a fantastic player and I am happy that he is playing at Arsenal and scoring goals. I like Sanchez though, I like most of the players that Arsène signs and I like the way his teams play. I would have quite liked to have played for him myself.”