Like most people I was quite shocked when I saw the news Thursday morning that Manchester City had agreed to a two year extension with Pep Guardiola.
I had thought for sure this would be his final season at the Ethiad. He’s never been at a club this long. His managerial style is very demanding, not just on his players but mentally on himself too. It’s not really sustainable. Eventually he wears himself out.
City dropped to 81 points last season. That’s still a very respectable total and as is customary they won the League Cup. But this year it seemed like the end was coming. City have gotten off to a poor start this season. That shouldn’t come as a surprise due to the fact that they didn’t have a preseason but nevertheless everything looks kind of stale.
It’s well known that City’s current window is closing and they’re going to need to rebuild this squad in the coming years. The core of their squad are all right at, or just past their peak ages. They’re still in their primes but their best years are definitely behind them.
Attacking players typically hit their peak at the age of 26. Defenders around 28-29. These players are Kevin de Bruyne (29), Riyad Mahrez (29), Kyle Walker (30), Ilkay Gundogan (30), Bernardo Silva (26), and Raheem Sterling (less than a month away from his 26th birthday). Sterling may be on the younger side but you have to factor in that he’s been playing first team football since he was 17 and has had a full international slate since he was 19. He’s 26+ in terms of mileage on his legs.
Pep Guardiola has built teams wherever he’s gone, but he’s never rebuilt them. Thus, that’s a new challenge for him and thinking he was going to attempt that at City was the reasonable conventional wisdom of the football community when the news broke.
Except I’m not sure if that’s what he’s actually going to do.
Yes, Pep is going to keep signing new young players. He’s going to keep bringing in the Ferran Torres’ of the world, giving bigger roles to the Bernardo Silva’s and the Phil Foden’s but to do a proper rebuild he’s got to overhaul the core of his team.
That means some – not all – of that De Bruyne, Mahrez, Sterling etc group will have to go and make way for younger versions of themselves.
That however, is much easier said than done.
The transfer market has shifted so dramatically in the past few years, that offloading older players is not nearly as easy as it used to be. Clubs have gotten smarter in the transfer market. They know that older players aren’t going to produce the way they currently are or used to. Therefore they’re not going to spend big money on them.
City don’t really need the money from transfer sales to go out and get new players but they do need the wage relief. There’s a limit to how many new Ferran Torres’ they could sign if they still have the likes of De Bruyne and Mahrez eating at their wage bills.
That begs the question, where exactly would those guys go? Sure City would take a cut rate price on their transfer fee to get rid of them but then comes the wages. Remember, transfers are much more complicated now. It’s no longer just pay a transfer fee, the wages, and a signing bonus. There’s now agents fees, broker fees, and a whole hullabaloo of other things. Those fees all add up and suddenly £20 million transfers cost a lot more than £20 million.
For a smaller club that becomes way too much. The bigger clubs can afford this but again – they’ve all shifted their strategies away from signing players in their late 20s/early 30s and focused on players in their early 20s. Like City, they’re going after the Ferran Torres’ of the world.
Then I looked at the contracts of these players. Mahrez, De Brunye, Sterling, and Gundogan’s contracts all expire in 2023 – the same year as Pep’s new deal!
This looks an awful lot like Liverpool where Salah, Firmino, Mane, and Jordan Henderson’s contracts all expire in 2023, with Jurgen Klopp’s the following summer.
It no longer looks like a rebuild. To me, it looks like the plan is for Pep to squeeze every last bit that he can out of this group (while still adding some younger players) until their contracts expire, then they’ll all make way for a new regime who will rebuild.
City don’t care about letting players go for free (certainly not a 33 year old De Bruyne). They understand that financial flexibility is more important. Once their wages are off the books they can spend wildly in the summer of 2023 to replace them.
This all just reminds me of late Sir Alex Ferguson’s career where he dragged an aging squad to the top at the table with make weight youngsters like Tom Cleverley, Anderson, and Danny Welbeck. He did it by limiting how often he called upon his older players and thus maximizing their effectiveness.
Pep will be looking to do the same thing. Pretty soon De Bruyne won’t be able to play twice a week week after week. City don’t have anyone better than him but if they can mix and match the Foden’s and Torres’ into the team and thus allow De Bruyne to only have play three out of every five games.. he’s going to be a lot more effective! Thus he’ll be able to maximize and possibly slightly lengthen this current City teams window.
It’s not a rebuild. This is Pep just trying to get every last drop out of this City side.