In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Pep Guardiola discusses the decision to allow Joao Cancelo to leave and lessons from Johan Cruyff; watch Tottenham vs Manchester City live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm
Sunday 5 February 2023 17:39, UK
Pep Guardiola's incendiary comments following Manchester City's win over Tottenham last month dominated the discourse. His scathing assessment of his players' hunger was designed to raise standards, to stop things going wrong before they went wrong.
Buried within the 16-minute stream of consciousness that was his post-match press conference, in the embargoed section that did not appear until later that week, Guardiola acknowledged that he had been there himself. As a 23-year-old Barcelona midfielder.
"I won four Ligas in a row in Spain when I was a football player. In the fifth I was not the same. In the sixth I was not the same. I was not starving enough. Caviar. Madrid beat me. The fifth and the sixth. I understand the players. But I am here to do it."
Speaking to Guardiola before the rematch with Spurs, in a side room at the club's training ground, the air is thick with talk of Joao Cancelo's surprise departure. But the City head coach is in a more relaxed mood. It is a chance to reflect on those parallels.
Did he know at the time that the haul of silverware under Johan Cruyff had sated his appetite, that the hunger did not burn as before? "I realised a little bit later. It is difficult for a player to realise in real time exactly what is happening," Guardiola tells Sky Sports.
"It is ridiculous how small the margin is between winning and losing. You have to pay attention. I tried to do my best. I never doubt that players do their best. But at the same time you think, 'OK, I have done it, I have won.' After, to be on top again, it takes time."
Guardiola did not see it back then. But Cruyff did. "Johan had many great attributes but one of them was that he knew exactly how you were going to feel before you felt it, before it happened. That is why he was a genius. He would tell us, 'Now this will happen.' Fortunately or unfortunately, most of the time it did."
Like this City, that Barcelona had every reason to believe they were the best. Romario had won the World Cup with Brazil that summer, claiming the Golden Ball as the player of the tournament. Bulgarian strike partner Hristo Stoichkov won the Golden Boot.
They both returned to Barcelona in body but Romario's spirit stayed on the Copacabana Beach and the so-called Dream Team were never quite the same again. "Now he is a politician, an important person in Brazil. I could not have expected that," says Guardiola.
"I have incredible memories of him as a player, of course, but also as a guy. Easy-going. A lovely person. I would love to see him again."
All of which is an enjoyable diversion from the subject exercising the minds of Manchester City supporters right now. They need not worry about Ederson embarking on a mid-season sojourn to the Rio Carnival as Romario once did, but there are other concerns.
There is the fact that they are five points adrift of an Arsenal team that - going into the weekend - have one game in hand at the top of the Premier League table. There is the fact that while others spent money in January, City allowed Cancelo to leave the club for Bayern Munich.
Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko all moved on in the summer but this was the most jolting of the lot, coming as it did, late in the transfer with no time to replace him. Guardiola is trying to rebuild, trying to find new energy, but it still jars.
If he is reaching for an example from his playing career it is because this is new territory as a coach. He has huge experience, of course, with huge success too. But at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich, the stars of his first season were still there at the end.
Guardiola introduced Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets to the Barcelona team. Along with Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi, these players would go on to win yet another Champions League together long after the coach had moved on.
At Bayern, Philipp Lahm was captain before Guardiola arrived and after he left. Manuel Neuer and Thomas Muller are still there now. It is a different challenge to build a great team, break it up and then build another one. Guardiola is into his seventh season at City.
Five of the six top scorers from that first title-winning team are now gone. If his reaction after beating Tottenham in January was an attempt to spark his squad into life, his mood before this next meeting is designed to bring some calm to everyone else.
"It has happened. We change, everyone changes. It is normal. Most of the time it is the players who decide they want to leave. The club is always open to do it. There are other clubs where the release clause is the most important. Someone has to pay it or you stay.
"I completely disagree with that.
"Always, when they are not comfortable working with the manager, the staff, the club, the city, whatever, they have to try to move on. Of course, there has to be an offer. But if you come with an offer, I am pretty sure we are going to reach an agreement."
That does not make it easy, though?
"Absolutely, because there are feelings," he adds. "We live many things together through the good moments and the bad moments. Those attachments are something special, of course. But at the end of the day it is all part of it. There is a natural way.
"I was born in Barcelona. Barcelona is my everything. But I still left. And Barcelona had success after I left, Bayern Munich had success after I left. After I leave here, City will have success. It is part of life. I don't think it has to be a big drama."
And yet, this is Cancelo. His form has dipped, his importance not quite so obvious as before, but he had been pivotal to the previous two title wins. Those outside-of-the-boot passes, that ability to make the play from midfield. It is some loss when City trail Arsenal.
What does he say to those who might argue that his squad is weaker now than it was just one week ago? "For many years people say we are weaker. I know that expression. After we won the league with 100 points, people said we were weaker."
Publicly at least, he has no intention of accepting what many would regard as a statement of the obvious. He is happy to be explicit about the reason why.
"Firstly, I don't admit it. Secondly, if I did admit it I would be admitting that my players are not good enough. I never understand a manager who says his team are not good and they need seven new players. I have to talk with them. I have to train them.
"Tell me which one is not good? All of them are good. If we are able to play in our system that we believe in, the individuals will rise. So I do not accept the players are not good. Of course they are good. It is my job to make them feel good, play good and develop."
The ability to come into midfield from the full-back position was not exclusive to Cancelo. Kyle Walker did it before him, Rico Lewis will do it after him. "We have players who can come inside. Outside, maybe Sergio [Gomez] is the only one," says Guardiola.
"But we played a holding midfielder, Fabian Delph, there and won 100 points. We played with Alex Zinchenko for many years in that position when he was a No 10. If everyone is open and everyone says they can do it then it is not a problem."
Is there a midfielder in the squad who can do it now?
"Yeah, of course."
Who? "You will see."
He smiles. The message is clear. The show will go on.
City will find a way. He will find a way.
"It is not a drama," he stresses once more.
"For example, Gabriel, Alex and Raheem have gone this season. I could not be more grateful for what they have done for me and for this institution, winning 11 trophies in five years. It is just amazing. Believe me, I wish the best for them personally and professionally.
"It is the same with me when I leave. One day they are going to bring in a new manager with his own passion and his own ideas.
"Everything is going to move on."
And with that, he returns to a thought from earlier. A reminder that the skill of management is to be ahead of that curve, to know when is the right time to allow a player to leave, when a squad needs stability and when it needs to be refreshed.
"With the decisions, you have to do it like Cruyff told me then. You have to do it always one month before it is going to happen. You have to anticipate it. This is my job.
"It is going to fail. I have failed. And it is going to succeed."
Watch Tottenham vs Manchester City live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm