What now for Pep Guardiola? The Spaniard was already a legend—a manager who changed how football was played with his great Barcelona team of 2008-2012. That team showcased the purest version of Guardiola’s footballing philosophy, which was—to borrow a phrase from Muhammad Ali—to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Modern football is already delineated by Barcelona’s paradigm shift: there is a clear ‘before Pep’ and ‘after Pep’ change in eras in European club football.
Now, with his Champions League triumph with Manchester City, he has become a footballing immortal. Not only has he emphatically delivered what he was hired to do—turn City into the world’s No. 1 club team—but he has done it while also winning only the second treble of major honours in English football. Only City’s great local rivals, Manchester United, have achieved the feat of winning the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Champions League, back in 1999. And Guardiola’s City have done it with a level of serene dominance rarely seen in football.
With this clean sweep, Guardiola’s trophy-laden record since he became City’s manager in 2016 beggars belief. 5 Premier Leagues, 2 FA Cups, one Champions League, four League Cups and two Community Shields is spectacular return, even for a club that is funded lavishly by the infinite coffers of an oil-rich nation state: Abu Dhabi. At this rate of trophy-gathering, if Guardiola sticks around for a decade, he may well overtake Sir Alex Ferguson’s record haul of silverware with Manchester United.
Which begs the question, what will Guardiola do next? His contract with City runs till 2025, and he has shown no signs that he would extend his stay beyond then. This is a man who famously walked away from his era-defining Barcelona team in 2012 citing exhaustion. He had said that being at a gigantic club like Barcelona felt like an eternity to him. Similarly, he walked at the end of his stint at Bayern Munich in 2016, after another trophy-laden few years. By the time his contract ends at City, he would’ve spent 9 years at the club.
And yet, it is highly possible that Guardiola might stay on. He isn’t just a fantastic football manager who likes to have his teams play with a blend of aesthetic beauty and attacking menace. That would be his mentor Marcelo Bielsa. Guardiola is also an extremely competitive man who is addicted to winning trophies. It is what drives him. And at City, he has built a second great team, with the deadly Erling Haaland – who finished the season with a remarkable 52 goals in all competitions -- at the sharp end. But he has also added a touch of pragmatism to his philosophy by using four pure defenders at the back to make his team incredibly difficult to score against. City are primed for years of world domination, especially with all that sovereign wealth at the club’s disposal.
Guardiola has been coy when asked about his future. “No, don’t talk, I need a break. My chairman said: ‘Oh, London is next season’s venue of the final,’ so I don’t tell you my answer to him. Now is time to celebrate. There are teams who win the Champions League and disappear. We have to avoid it. Knowing me it is not going to happen but it is a big relief to have this trophy. Now we don’t get asked about it,” he said at the press conference following the win.
Guardiola knows that City are on the cusp of something special. They could continue to win the Premier League for years to come. The club could also go on a Real Madrid-like run in the Champions League, and win a few on the trot. It would be difficult, but City are ideally placed to make this happen. As it is, Guardiola has the chance to add three new trophies very soon—the Community Shield, the European Super Cup and the Club World Cup. City will probably need to build, as Guardiola joked, a museum for all the trophies.
“…the entire world says if we don’t win the Champions League we will not be complete and I agree, I have to accept it, that maybe it is me that is wrong … People say I have to win trebles every season. I am good manager, Pep, but not that good,” Guardiola said during the same press conference. No matter what anyone else says, Guardiola himself would want to in the treble every season. He would also want to eclipse Carlo Ancelotti’s record of 4 Champions League wins. Guardiola now has 3.
Footballing greatness, whether for managers or players, has never been about just the numbers. Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp has won a fraction of all the silverware that Guardiola has. Yet, over the past decade, the two have been the two uber-managers in European club football, not just for their wins, but also for their contribution to the tactical evolution of the game. Diego Maradona had won a tiny fraction of all the silverware Lionel Messi has accrued. But the two will always be mentioned together for how they played.
Guardiola understands this better than anyone. But just as Messi has combined all the different attributes of what makes a great player and has added a ruthless nose for winning to complete the package, so too has Guardiola in the managerial realm. And it’s difficult to see how he could stop at City and start elsewhere.