There’s no doubt that some of the light has gone out of Pep Guardiola’s delivery. He has been known wherever he has gone in football for humility and as close as you get to honesty in football’s public arena.
Yet on the eve of the Manchester derby, he rejected the suggestion that the golden first half at Old Trafford back in September when his players eviscerated Jose Mourinho’s United and led 2-0 was the elusive, title-winning standard they needed to aim for at all times.
“During the season we played many, many games at the same level or even better than that level,” he said. It was hard to remember many. The Champions League recovery against Barcelona was memorable, certainly, and the first half at home to Tottenham, but the inconvenient truth for the 46-year-old is that the Old Trafford experience - giving Paul Pogba what Patrice Evra once called the ‘washing machine’ treatment - was just about as good as it has got.
Whatever the outcome on Thursday night of what history may relate was a play-off for the fourth Champions League spot, Guardiola will end a season without a trophy for the first time in nine years. The Mourinho battle so feverishly anticipated eight months ago turned out to be a season of disappointments for both of them. The Portuguese has a trophy and will perhaps collect another but it has frequently been torpor watching his side. Guardiola has had fleeting beauty and nothing to show.
“We are one of the teams who have created the most chances,” the Spaniard said, clutching at straws and implying that a style was favourable to silverware. “We are the team who conceded few chances. We are the highest at scoring goals. But you are the ones who analyse and judge what we have done…”
For a sense of Guardiola’s genuine sentiments, forget the press conference theatre and examine the look on his face when City play their football. One scout who spends much time at Premier League level has been particularly struck by the Spaniard’s expression when the full-backs Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna have failed to complete the task in hand. Part of an inheritance which seems to have been worse than he imagined, both may be surplus to requirement by next August. Neither has looked as poor at times as Nicolas Otamendi, who features while young academy prospect Tosin Adarabioyo will not be risked.
Somewhere down the line there will surely come a reckoning for the club's Spanish senior management which has sanctioned a £569m spend on players since Sergio Aguero and yet has not bought a full-back since Maicon - a liability - arrived in 2012. Nine of the club's 14 most-used players this season are over the age of 30. Yet even Aguero, the talisman of previous years, has not been to the Guardiola standard and that’s been telegraphed by the manager at times, too. It is thought that the Argentine’s inability to chase down when out of possession is the problem for Guardiola and his demeanour off the field, though the latter has never been a problem for previous managers.
The most calamitous switch of goalkeepers the Premier League has seen has, of course, tarnished Guardiola’s glittering reputation, though equally significant is the manager’s limited flexibility in a Premier League where those who adapt flourish. Antonio Conte’s three-man rearguard was a product of circumstances and Mourinho has switched players and formations relentlessly. But Guardiola remains devoted to his own system. “I tried to introduce the players to the way we play, and in many cases we did it,” he said on Wednesday. “Some we were not able.”
Significantly, they have been ‘not able’ against the better sides who come to the Etihad to stop City playing. City have registered only six five points against current top five opposition at home and – in a symmetry with United – have a poor home record, stuffed with draws.
“If you watch the first five, six, eight games of the season, we were flying and playing very well,” Ferndinho said last week. “But after that the opponents came to our stadium and changed the way they play, with and without the ball. They put five players in the middle and close all the space and we suddenly we couldn’t create chances or score goals.”
The yin and yang of Guardiola and Mourinho was as evident as ever on Wednesday. Mourinho employed power of motivation built on trumped up charges of cowardice against Smalling and Jones, while the depths of the Guardiola were way short of last autumn’s complex tactical exposition.
The Spaniard was asked if he had ‘bumped into’ the individual with whom he had clashed so spectacularly in Spain. “No. We are neighbours but no,” he said. “When we see each other we say ‘hi’, ‘hi.’ These most inveterate foes are both becalmed and struggling to find the high ground again. Guardiola looks like the one most in need of answers.