What is life after Pep Guardiola like for players?

No manager is universally loved. In fact, for the very best ones, upsetting players probably means

they are doing something right. But nobody can dispute Pep Guardiola’s standing as a member of

the elite. He has won trophies everywhere he’s been, pioneering modern ways of playing and

working with some of the best talent in the world.

 

It would be easy to claim that because Guardiola has worked for some of the biggest clubs and had

huge budgets to spend on his squads that he was always destined to be successful. He himself

admits that good players make a good team, and there is little doubting that he has benefited from

such an array of quality. But while every winning team needs good players, not every manager can

oversee consistency just because of what is at their disposal. Guardiola makes the difference in the

way he changes minds and develops players; at Bayern Munich, he walked into a treble-winning

team with nothing else to prove, but maintained their success in his own image. At Barcelona before

that and Manchester City since 2016, he has raised levels to a different stratosphere.

 

Speak to almost any player that has worked with him and he will lay out just how meticulous

Guardiola truly is. But his methods, while impressive and backed up by over a decade of incredible

results, are not always conducive to helping players express themselves. Personality is not

necessarily high on his list of desired traits when it comes to a player; he demands a collective

mindset above anything else, and often those on the pitch are seen more like cogs in a wheel, doing

their individual jobs to make it turn.

 

His teams may play some of the most remarkable football ever seen, but hard work is at the heart of

that, the most important thing. If you don’t commit fully to his approach, you don’t play. That is why

he is one of the greats; to work with the players and the egos he has, and seemingly never fall into

the trap of a crisis, can never be understated.

 

But working with Guardiola can take a toll, too, especially when a player wants more expression.

This summer has seen more change at City than at any point since the summer of 2017, before his

first Premier League title. Erling Haaland has arrived to give the team an entirely new focus, as a

striker where there previously wasn’t one. Since Sergio Aguero left the club, there hadn’t been a

focal point in the team, despite Gabriel Jesus’ presence. Even when the Brazilian played, he did so as

a wide forward, sacrificing what was once the main point of his game, box play, for the good of the

team. Haaland’s arrival signalled the end for him at the Etihad Stadium.

 

Wherever he’d be going, though, it was clear he’d become what he hadn’t under Guardiola, the aim

man. He wouldn’t be joining anybody for north of £40m to play a supporting role on the wing, and

sure enough, when Arsenal emerged as his destination, his new role became clear. Both Pierre-

Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette left the club this year, and they were lacking a real

potency, but not by choice like at City. Knowing Mikel Arteta, who was Guardiola’s assistant at City

until December 2019, meant North London always felt like a good fit for Jesus, and he has stepped

into a leadership role perfectly so far. But the pressure will be different to anything he’s experienced

before at City or with Brazil, where he has often blended into the background alongside so many It

name players.

 

He looks set to be joined by another ex-City teammate, Oleksandr Zinchenko. While he has dealt

with the spotlight as a key player in Ukraine’s side, it is very much a similar story for him. Despite

operating as a midfielder in his early career and for his national team, he has been used by Guardiola

most often at fullback. The manager sees something of a relationship between the two positions,

but he was never given the opportunity to flourish in a freer role like Phil Foden or Kevin de Bruyne.

It will be interesting to see whether the move to Arsenal will see him given more responsibility and

an opportunity to express himself.

 

Yet the most intriguing departure from City this summer is Raheem Sterling. Unlike both Jesus and

Zinchenko, he was trusted by Guardiola and a regular in his team. Arguably, too, he embodied his

coaching skills more than anyone else at City, developing from an inconsistent and flaky winger into

a proven Premier League goalscorer from wide positions. Only the evolution of the side and

Guardiola’s desire to implement more technical players in attacking areas saw Sterling feature less

before signing for Chelsea. All too often, he was told to work in a specific way to make him more

productive, and moving to Stamford Bridge could give him chance to show he has learnt to

contribute to teams in a more creative role, like he did at Liverpool, but maintain that consistency he

gained over the past six years or so.

 

All three players benefited from Guardiola’s way of working, but now they face a different challenge

away from the structure he implements. Pressure and expectation will be different, but so will the

freedom. So will they sink or swim?

Author: Lucas Carlson