Pep feels the pressure

Only five weeks to the EPL kickoff and this column looks at the leading contenders. Today it is Manchester City.

WHEN Pep Guardiola quipped that he could be sacked after Manchester City began to falter last season, it was treated as a joke. This season, however, such a scenario would be no laughing matter.

Despite Chelsea's unfettered dominance in 2016-17, it is City whom bookmakers have installed as favourites for next season's title; it is City whose chairman wants to "win everything" and City whose spending power makes Real Madrid look like they're on welfare.

Pressure? If Pep needed a year off after four seasons at Barcelona, should he flop again at the Etihad, don't expect to see him at another club this side of 2020. Not that the blue half of Manchester comes close to the Nou Camp for intensity, but when it came to Pep's appointment, their expectations were several stratospheres higher.

Nine years ago when, as the Barca B team coach, Pep was given the top job, Catalonia was unsure whether this eager rookie could handle it. Last summer when Pep was presented to the City faithful, you'd have thought the Messiah had arrived.

Eighteen trophies in Spain and Germany and the brains behind some of the best football ever seen was why. Then he signed Claudio Bravo. The flying start soon ended and there were reality checks in a 4-0 defeat at Barcelona, a pivotal loss to Chelsea and seminal hammerings by Leicester and Everton. It was not what it said in the messianic brochure.

But it wasn't just the losses that made you wonder if Pep was all he'd been cracked up to be. Besides the lunacy of the Bravo deal, he had four full-backs ready for the old folks home and did not buy even one replacement. Vincent Kompany was making Sicknote seem like Superman but only the wet-behind-the-ears John Stones came in.

Tactics and team selection also raised eyebrows but it was his general demeanour that made you think this guy can't be for real. As winter and the taste of defeat started to bite, you worried about his state of mind.

As he sat huddled on the bench as Everton put four past his beleaguered defence, he looked a broken man. Gone was Mr Cool, sharp suit, slim waistline, confident smile and there was only a bedraggled, wet, windswept bundle of the all-conquering maestro we'd been led to expect.

He also had a pop at the English game, feigning surprise at the relentlessness of its fixtures, inconsistencies of its referees and other idiosyncrasies that suggested this supposedly meticulous man had not done his homework.

Just when it had looked as if he'd have paid big bucks for a one-way flight to the Gulag to be put out of his misery, he told the world he was "happy in Manchester". His statements were becoming as irrational as his team selections and he gave a convincing impression of a tortured soul.

To be fair, he had a*se luck with injuries. Besides Kompany, Ilkay Gundogan hardly played and then Gabriel Jesus's electrifying start was cut short. Gradually, as the trophies slipped inexorably out of reach, he seemed to calm down.

Kompany even came back as did Jesus. And there was no great clamour from the fans for his head – just a shrug to the old 'It could only happen to City' era when even the best manager in the world can turn into a dud.

As for his football, even sympathisers had to wonder what the fuss was all about as we saw no more than fleeting glimpses of the famous passing that Alex Ferguson likened to a "carousel". Only the first half against United, the second half against Barca at home, the last 20 minutes against Monaco at home and at West Ham in the FA Cup did City show any real mastery of possession.

Pep is acutely aware a massive recruitment drive is expected and would have felt the pressure ratcheting up several notches when the transfer window opened on Saturday. He's already lined up deals for Monaco playmaker Bernado Silva and, yes, a goalkeeper in Benfica's Brazilan, Ederson. Not just the bookies have been impressed.

Fortunately for him, he remains a magnet for ambitious young players who see him as the manager best able to realise their potential. Whether he is still regarded as a Messiah by the club's bosses and fans is not quite such a given.

Of course, City chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak had to talk him up in his post-season address even if Sheikh Mansour and his hierarchy privately shared the supporters' overwhelming sense of disappointment. The very idea that the club would jettison him after a single season having courted him like a besotted lover for four years was a non-starter. But even Mubarak made it clear things have to improve.

One major trophy would seem the minimum requirement as well as more sustained periods of that high-pressing and slick-passing style. The Sheikh does not just want to dominate, he wants to do so with a flourish.

So, even if we write off last season as a learning curve, this time there will be no excuses. Pep is obviously a talented manager but the question is: has English football found his weaknesses? After all, Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and a certain Manuel Pellegrini have all won the league in their rookie seasons.

If he doesn't win it – or the Champions League – he will be sacked. It isn't just a year the City bosses have waited for him it is the lengthy courtship too. And making it worse, Pellegrini was only meant to warm the seat for him, yet managed to win the League Cup twice as well.