When it comes to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the definition of ‘success’ seems to be ever-changing. Ever since the Catalonian’s arrival, it seems the expectations of his tenure have escalated from winning trophies to installing an identity to winning an unprecedented quadruple (largely thanks to the constant demands of the football media). However, those on the blue side of Manchester will tell you a very different story.
The ‘Q’ word . Like vicious hearsay in a tavern, it’s starting to spread. Whisper it, speak it quietly as it’s sneaking in like the mists over the moors. The media are keen to discuss it, using it as a bludgeon during every press conference until it’s no longer a possibility, whilst even the most optimistic fans entertain it as a fleeting daydream.
Yet still, that unprecedented ‘quadruple’ is hanging in the air. In the event that Manchester City do not win both the tightest league title race in years or the Champions League (a competition so illusive/ elusive that only 22 clubs have won since its inception in 1955) then we can brace ourselves for a large helping of ‘I told you so’ from all those who don’t regularly wear sky blue.
But does not winning four trophies genuinely constitute a failure of a season? Of course not. But what would be deemed a successful season?
A successful season is a fluid concept which is measured by a number of factors, though traditionally dominated by the amount of trophies a team has won. However, this isn’t always an accurate measure of the feeling around a club. Antonio Conte, Louis Van Gaal, Fabio Capello and Laurent Blanc all share the burden of being dismissed after winning a trophy or three. Indeed, trophies did not dictate their success; these are Grade A managers who suffered at the hands of expectation, the expectation to win and improve.
For 34 years, a banner was hung at Old Trafford, meant to remind us Blues how significant it was that not even a single trophy had passed through the halls of Manchester City. It was a reminder that, however petty, still dramatically emphasised the gap in competition between the Manchester clubs.
Though who would have known that a thunderbolt from Yaya Touré would be the start of such a dramatic trophy haul? The aforementioned banner long torn down, trophies are hardly a rarity at Manchester City these days, with the Blues racking up a remarkable three Premier League titles, four League Cups, two Community Shields and one FA Cup since Yaya scored his historic goal against Stoke at Wembley.
The weight of expectation is intense when a club is dining at the top of the table, and City must keep collecting cups to ensure they stay on at their peak. But this modern slew of trophies, ten in eight and a half seasons, means that besides the elusive Champions League, the prospect of winning simply winning silverware is perhaps no longer the defining aspect of the club’s success. So what else is there?
To rewind to City’s thirty-four year barren spell without a trophy, it stands to reason that there must then be some measure of success beyond silverware. Indeed, when compared to the likes of Rochdale AFC, thirty-four years is but a grain of sand, with the Dale currently languishing 22nd in EFL League One. Facing relegation, the side haven’t won a footballing prize since 1921.
Approaching one hundred years without a top silverware, it’s clear trophies do not equal success for this club. Instead, the Lancashire club is driven by a fierce regional connection, a community spirit and a long history. In a sense, you could say City aren’t so different.
Of course though, City’s fortunes have been far different. But the point stands – there is more to football that polishing trophies.
Indeed, the greatest teams, the sides we truly remember, aren’t just celebrated for the silverware that spill out of the cabinets in the grounds. They’re ingrained in history for something much harder to pin down but much easier to identify: an identity.
Take Cruyff’s Ajax. Sacchi’s AC Milan. Ferguson’s Man Utd. Del Bosque’s Spain. Ask any football fan about these teams and subconsciously images will race to mind of marauding wingers, total football, tika-taka, triumphs and heartbreaks. Above all, there exists a burning fondness of how these teams operated, an affection for their style of play.
This is a process and one that usually takes more than a single season to implement and is the trickiest to convince fans to be patient for. If a fanbase can understand where such a project might take them, the identity a club is trying to build helps trophies take on much less significance.
Enter Pep Guardiola.
When he stepped through the doors at The Etihad in 2016, he walked into a club with trophies but without expectation, with a playing style but no real identity. A club so patient for him that they hired an unofficial caretaker manager in Manuel Pellegrini so that they would be ready for him. If the rumours are to believed, a club that spent £104m on Sterling and De Bruyne with his seal of approval. A club that needed a manager who would breed the expectation of trophies and success, the expectation of winning.
Nobody would call City’s first season under Guardiola a roaring success, with even Pep himself towing the line “no silverware – it will not be a good season”. Nevertheless, something was happening at City. Cogs were turning and a machine was clanking, sputtering and hulking into shape.
After a third place finish and for the first time in Guardiola’s career not a single piece of silverware, the following summer was oddly divisive one. Outcries from pundits and fans of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ harmonised with the concept that English football was too much for Pep. He couldn’t possibly bend it to his will, it wouldn’t work over here, would it?
Big spoiler – it did.
Three seasons on and things are different. There’s already an identity, a team driven to win forged in the image of the manager. Sane and Sterling out wide, Fernandinho marshalling, Silva sparkling and Aguero scoring. The banner was torn down years ago in an afternoon at Wembley with a superbia in proelia that has seen boys in battle become champions as centurions.
There’s already an addition to the cabinet this season having retained the Carabao Cup, the first trophy we’ve ever retained in our history. Despite it being viewed as the least important of the four on offer, the equivalent to ketchup without any chips, we are still on the hunt for three more.
Now Manchester City are a team who are expected to win it all beyond all logical reason, history and probability. For it is not due to City’s steady haul of trophies that the media keep laying the ‘Q’ word at our door. It is because this City, Pep’s Manchester City, have forged an identity that might be capable of going where no others have been before.
So dare to daydream about it and keep whispering it. Falling short of ‘The Quadruple’ isn’t a failure. The real success is that we are expected to achieve it.
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