At Liverpool in 1990 and Manchester United in 2013 an era of dominance became a spiralling freefall. After Kenny Dalglish claimed an 18th title for the Merseyside club, a 30-year drought followed. Sir Alex Ferguson led United to a 20th crown and the wait for a 21st will stretch into an eighth season. Both plunges occurred after the manager stepped away – Ferguson in May 2013, Dalglish in February 1991.
When Pep Guardiola one day departs as Manchester City manager, the history of their two fiercest rivals may resonate for those charged with replacing him.
Guardiola’s contract expires in June 2021 and the club’s two-year Champions League ban has renewed attention on his future. The coach insisted he was open to renewing his contract but so far he has never stayed at a club longer than his four years at the Camp Nou. The ban may be retained, reduced or scrapped but whatever happens City’s Guardiola endgame may be played out sooner rather than later. The appointment of a successor will be the most important strategic call of Sheikh Mansour’s ownership since Guardiola was hired in the summer of 2016.
Last Sunday Guardiola claimed his sixth major trophy with City by winning the Carabao Cup. He is comfortably the most successful manager in their history. And yet a high-ranking executive insists the Catalan is not the most important person at City. The declaration spoke to a long-term strategy overseen by Khaldoon al-Mubarak, the chairman, and executed by the sporting director, Txiki Begiristain, and chief executive, Ferran Soriano. Their task is to ensure that whether Guardiola or AN Other manager is in charge, City’s underlying philosophy is maintained: in broad terms this is to play stylish football while accumulating silverware.
Liverpool’s Boot Room provided them with highly successful managerial solutions in the past, and Mubarak, Begiristain and Soriano have in place an equivalent of sorts: the eight-club City Football Group, of which Manchester City are the flagship. In addition to offering Mansour a global reach, the CFG is a finishing school for prospective managers to take charge of its various teams.
Patrick Vieira moved from leading City’s reserve side to become New York City FC manager in 2016. Nick Cushing departed as City Women’s head coach to become NYCFC assistant manager this February, and Erick Mombaerts stepped down from Yokohama F Marinos in January 2019 and took over at another CFG club, Melbourne City FC later in the year.
The profile of the job, though, plus the pressure of following Guardiola, means if a homegrown replacement is desired to take over then rather than searching within, Mubarak, Soriano and Begiristain may look to lure back Vieira, who has been in charge of Nice since 2018, or Mikel Arteta, who was Guardiola’s assistant until leaving to lead Arsenal in December.
Among contenders with no links to the club are Mauricio Pochettino, who got the better of Guardiola as Tottenham manager in an epic Champions League quarter-final, and RB Leipzig’s Julian Nagelsmann. They appear to be similar spirits in footballing terms.
“City is one of the better examples in England of how a club can be run,” says the club’s former midfielder Dietmar Hamann. “They’ve promoted a lot of people from within; people who’ve been there 10-15 years ago in lower positions – they are in top positions now from when I was there [2006-09].
“They’ve created a spirit where everybody wants to be part of that journey. When a club is not run well, when there are too many people talking about who should be brought in, too many people talking about maybe even team selection, what do you do then? You attract the wrong type. And as a player you get a feeling when you speak to people at a club. You think: ‘Either something is growing or I go here because I get an awful lot of money and if it doesn’t work out, I will be off after 12 months.’”
To find a successful heir to Guardiola, Mubarak and City would have to be pioneers. A dynasty in the Premier League era is yet to be achieved. Ferguson’s feat was a generational success at United in the 1990s and 2000s but there was no smooth transition of dominance to an heir, as first David Moyes, then Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho failed to seriously compete for the title.
Ferguson’s departure occurred concurrently with that of the chief executive David Gill and was compounded by the removal of key coaching staff – Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen – by Moyes. The culture imbued by Ferguson across a 26-and-a-half-year reign vanished, and a vacuum of leadership and direction prevailed.
When Dalglish left, Liverpool believed all of this remained intact. A proud lineage that began with Bill Shankly’s arrival as manager in 1959 and ran through Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Dalglish, appeared safe when Graeme Souness became a fifth permanent No 1 in 32 years. Souness, a former captain who played under Paisley and Fagan and with Dalglish, was steeped in the club. With Roy Evans and Ronnie Moran on the coaching staff there was firm representation of the club’s vaunted Boot Room.
Yet the club became rudderless. Souness would later admit regret at not refreshing an ageing squad. John Barnes, a pre-eminent force in Liverpool’s last championship win and also integral to the 1987-88 triumph, says: “In terms of the training, methods, the philosophy, these came from Bill Shankly and Kenny had continued that. When you’re talking about a dynasty or an identity that’s hard to maintain. We maintained that from Bill Shankly all the way to the beginning of the Premier League [in 1992] but things had started to change – from training, to the attitude of players.”
Evans, who took over from Souness, says: “Continuity was a big part of our success because you were not getting major changes. When you’re changing managers for someone who hasn’t been at the club, normally it takes a while for them to blend in, though not too much with Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool.
“Jürgen seems to be one of those who gets Liverpool and the way they want to play. When you’re changing managers all the time it must be difficult for any club. We had continuity in my time but [vitally] we had mostly the same ideas.”
Hamann, who has a Master of Sports Directorship from Manchester Metropolitan University, also played with distinction for Liverpool and believes they have recovered their ground. “Liverpool is a brilliant example [too]. They’ve got Michael Edwards [sporting director], then Klopp. On the other hand, if you go down the road to Manchester United, you have a situation where Ferguson left and all hell broke loose. They’ve spent close to a billion quid and are probably further behind than they’ve ever been.”
Hamann cites another of his former clubs, Bayern Munich, as an example that might lend itself to the appointment by City of an outsider such as Pochettino. Hamann says Bayern’s approach is predicated on a variant of the “family and friends” model at City. Its version is to look outside for star coaches – as with Guardiola (2013-16), Carlo Ancelotti (2016‑17), and Van Gaal (2009-11) – who walk into an operation teeming with former players in on- and off-field roles.
Werner Kern was Bayern’s assistant manager from 1970-77 and also took charge of the reserves, returning in 1998 to oversee the youth academy before retirement in 2012. “When I started it was the era of [Franz] Beckenbauer and [Gerd] Müller,” Kern says of two Bayern greats who would manage the first and second XIs, respectively. “They remained in love with the club for a very long time. This is an important part – that we all [who are involved] love this club.
“Now there is Oliver Kahn [former Bayern goalkeeper] who will be the successor of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge [another club great] as chairman in 2022. Currently, Rummenigge is working with him for two years so he can learn.”
As at City, those who take strategic decisions adhere to club ethos. “Not understanding the culture of Bayern Munich is absolutely impossible,” Kern says. “Tradition plays a very important role, since the times of Beckenbauer and Müller.
“Without Ferguson, Manchester United would not have been the same. Success depends always on big personalities, and we had fantastic personalities a Bayern, and we will have in the future.”
Here Kern hints at the complexity of replacing Guardiola. A manager will be sought with the ability to continue Guardiola’s unparalleled success, the personality to allow deference to club philosophy and the courage to follow a genius.
As at Liverpool when Dalglish left, Barnes states that even with structures in place an appointment can backfire.
He says: “Let’s talk from a Jürgen Klopp point of view. He will leave a legacy if he [departs] in two years’ time – having won the Premier League, and taking Liverpool back to the top. But that was only for a three- or four-year period. A new manager coming in, he isn’t necessarily going to do things the Jürgen Klopp way.
“He may want to change it. It’s difficult now for clubs to keep an identity – Manchester City is the same with Pep Guardiola. If he leaves and somebody else comes [who they believe is right], he could say: ‘We don’t want to play this way, we are going to have different philosophies and different mentality.’”