It has taken a while for Manchester City to play with the sense of identity Pep Guardiola demands this season. Their new manager is arguably the very best in the business, having won 21 trophies inside his first decade in the dugout, with two of the world’s biggest clubs, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He is in his debut season with City – as is Leroy Sane.
When announced in February last year, his impending arrival was met with a level of expectancy and anticipation unrivalled by anyone who previously came into the Premier League. His methods have not, to this day, failed, and there was a sense the pioneer of perhaps the most eye-catching and successful playing style in the game would be able to teach English football a thing or two. There are critics who claim his success is down to having the best players from his time in Spain and Germany, and if he took City where they wanted to go, to the very top of the European game, it would only be because of the huge bank balance he has behind him, an idea which conveniently forgot the heavy spending across town at Manchester United under Jose Mourinho.
Everything started so well. Guardiola led City to ten wins from his opening ten games, admitting later that fooled him into believing the Premier League was not as strong as he had first thought or been told. Once everything began to unravel, the previously silenced doubters began to point and laugh, gleefully swimming in the pool of Guardiola’s apparent failure and suggesting his arrogance would lead to his downfall.
Since fellow title chasers Tottenham Hotspur ended that initial run in October, Guardiola has lost four more games in the Premier League games and fallen behind Chelsea, a well-oiled machine who currently lead the table by ten points. It is the toughest time in the 46-year-old’s remarkable career, but the fact they are favourites to go through in the Champions League last 16, as well as sitting third in the league and in an FA Cup semi final says more about Guardiola than it does the quality of the English game.
The Premier League is the most tactically diverse in the world. Each team has their own style and some are not so easily suffocated by the high-pressure and possession philosophy Guardiola employs. But there has definitely been a slower uptake on his ideas from the City squad than at Barcelona or Bayern. Those clubs were built for immediate victory, not just in terms of the players’ ability, but their mentality, too.
Coming to England was always going to be the biggest challenge of Guardiola’s career in many ways. For the first time, he had to bring a club up to his level; there was extra pressure on the training pitch. After giving the likes of Philipp Lahm, David Alaba and, of course, Lionel Messi, a new lease of life by altering their positions, his ability to take City onto a new level should never be questioned, but it may just take a bit more time.
His work in the transfer window has put the wheels in motion, too. It looks as though the spine of the City team from previous years will be under threat, with the futures of Sergio Agüero, Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure under scrutiny. So far, only Joe Hart has left, with Guardiola citing the need for his goalkeeper to be better with his feet. Claudio Bravo has arrived and struggled – many fans in England are not happy with the treatment of their national side’s number one stopper.
John Stones, known for his preference to play the ball out from the back, joined from Everton, and Ilkay Gundögan and Leroy Sane followed Guardiola from Germany. An injury sustained by former Borussia Dortmund midfielder Gundögan, who’s passing range was planned to set the tone in Guardiola’s play, and inconsistent performances from Stones and Bravo, have made the transition frustratingly slow at the Etihad Stadium.
For Sane, though, his debut season after signing from Schalke is turning into a roaring success. The 21-year-old has made a starting spot on the left of an attacking three after usurping the more experienced Nolito, who also joined in the summer. His partnership with Raheem Sterling has given a distinct Guardiola-like quality to the team, particularly in recent weeks, and alongside Kevin de Bruyne, the Belgian playmaker, and teenage Brazilian striker Gabriel Jesus, who completed a move from Palmeiras in January and scored three goals in two games before suffering a season-ending foot injury, Sane really is the future of Manchester City.
What he represents for Guardiola, though, is a work in progress. The Catalan coach wants his front players to run forward with or without the ball, stretching the play or taking a defender on. Most importantly, they must score goals, and while Sane has come up with crucial moments, notably in a home victory over Arsenal in the Premier League, there is certainly improvement to be made.
City reached the FA Cup last four at Wembley, where they will again face the Gunners, by easing past Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium on Saturday. Sane’s performance was exemplary once again, constantly looking to get at Antonio Barragan, the Boro right back. His agility made him impossible to stop; he created space, chances and excitement. Barragan never got close him.
Yet with the score only 2-0, the tie was much closer than it had to be, particularly because Sane missed two excellent first half opportunities to press home the visitors’ advantage much sooner.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are far from the finished article, but the world’s most encapsulating coach is finally putting the puzzle together and in Leroy Sane, he has a key piece already in place.