When Pep Guardiola was a little boy growing up in Santpedor, they warned darkly of such things. There would come, they said, an opponent too terrible to contemplate. It would be huge, yet quick. It would have prodigious strength, yet the most delicate feet. It would devastate its enemies with its power, yet practise also the most sublime skill. It would be a chimera, crafted both by La Masia and by Tony Pulis. Its mighty arms would drip with oil so no man could hold it. It would know Guardiola’s weakness and exploit it ruthlessly. On the nights when sleep comes hardest, Guardiola’s dreams are, you imagine, haunted yet by Adama Traoré.
There he is, surging through the City defence twice at the Etihad last season. There he is again, at Molineux, hammering a shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the penalty area. And there he is again, bumping Benjamin Mendy off the ball before crossing for Raúl Jiménez. City do not like balls played in behind them. They do not relish players who run directly at them. And, in the popular imagination at least, they don’t like it up ’em. Traoré is everything City hate.
Wolves beat City home and away last season. It was in their remarkable 3-2 win at Molineux just after Christmas, coming 24 hours after Liverpool’s demolition of Leicester, that it became clear City’s reign as champions was at an end. It was a game of almost unabsorbable drama – a red card, a twice-taken penalty scored on the rebound, a 2-0 lead lost – but one thing was constant: City could not handle Wolves’ counterattacking, their capacity to play balls quickly behind the back four, the verticality of their running.
If there can be a positive for City from their nine league defeats last season it is that each of them, and their exits from the FA Cup and the Champions League, whether they were losing to Norwich or Chelsea or Lyon, could be attributed to that same group of inter-related failings that makes them so susceptible to Traoré. Fix that, and they may be able to reel in Liverpool.
To an extent, the issue was one of personnel. For the first time in a long time, City’s squad has begun to look a little frayed. Unless Gabriel Jesus’s finishing develops dramatically, they probably need a more clinical central striker as Sergio Agüero ages. It’s not yet clear that Rodri is adequate midfield cover for Fernandinho, who is 35 and spent much of last season playing at the back. Nobody has entirely convinced at left-back under Guardiola.
But the most pressing concern was in the centre of defence. That there was a need for reinforcement was obvious even at the beginning of last season. With both John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi seeming increasingly uncomfortable in Guardiola’s system, City probably could have done with a new signing there even before Vincent Kompany’s departure for Anderlecht. When Aymeric Laporte, who has looked by far their most accomplished defender over the past 18 months or so, suffered his knee injury, they were left horribly exposed.
Nathan Aké, signed for £41m from Bournemouth, answers that call to an extent. He is 25 and, theoretically at least, just coming into his peak. The demands of guardiolisme are idiosyncratic, but he would appear to have the blend of defensive and technical qualities required. But he is left-footed and, given the advantages of having one left-footer and one right-footer at the heart of defence for playing the ball out from the back, that would suggest he is regarded as an alternative to or back-up for Laporte, rather than a partner for him. There is still a vacancy for a right-footed central defender.
In a sense, the hope must be that the issue is simply to do with the squad. Sign the right players and it goes away. That is the easy alternative. But there is a more worrying possibility. And that is that Guardiola is no longer quite at the forefront of the game’s tactical innovation any more. He may be only 49, an age at which many coaches are still reaching their peaks, but he has been at the top for 12 years now – and that, historically speaking, is a long time.
Twelve years ago he was a radical. His juego de posición as practised at Barcelona shifted the parameters of what was believed to be possible in terms of possession football. But what was once revolutionary soon becomes familiar. Others began to copy how Guardiola played; others began to work out responses. In 2009, Manchester United had panicked when they found themselves with less than 40% of the ball in the Champions League final; now it is accepted even major teams can win games with only a third of possession.
The dialectic shifted. Elite-level football became less about retaining possession than regaining it. Football shifted from the technical back towards the physical. The German school has replaced the Dutch/Spanish model as the predominant mode. His pressing is no longer the most advanced there is (which is why the talk of signing Lionel Messi seemed to miss the point).
Can Guardiola respond? Can he find a way to counter the measures taken to counter him? Perhaps he can – nobody doubts his intelligence or work ethic – but constant evolution is unusual. Alex Ferguson and Valeriy Lobanovskyi are exceptions. A lot of footballing revolutionaries blaze bright then fade away. Guardiola is a few months older now than his great inspiration, Johan Cruyff, was when he left Barcelona in 1996, never to coach a club again.
Guardiola has never before begun a fifth season at a club; that is a long time for somebody of his intensity, even in an environment that has essentially been built to his specifications. There is a sense in which regaining the title this season or, even more significant, winning his first Champions League in a decade would be his most remarkable achievement.
As to whether he can, a meeting first up with Wolves and Traoré, the great bogeyman, should be a revealing test.