Pep Guardiola: The inside story of his new Manchester City contract


It is October 16, and Manchester City have just lost their first official game of the season — 1-0 away to Liverpool.

As the visiting players approach the travelling fans to thank them for their support, they might not realise that in the away end at Anfield were Cristina Serra and Marius Guardiola, wife and son of City manager Pep Guardiola. Like the rest of those present, they clap the players in return before leaving the stadium dejected.

However, for them, that was only one moment of significance that week. The conversations they were about to have would have an impact on the next two years of their lives.

Before that Liverpool match, Guardiola had agreed to give his players three days off, as they did not have a fixture until Brighton & Hove Albion’s visit the following weekend.

Every squad member could choose where to spend their free time. The Guardiolas opted to travel to Scotland, where they were able to switch off from their daily routine and discuss future issues that were looming over them.

Contact between City and their manager over a potential contract extension had already started. The club were aware that for the 51-year-old it was important to make sure, alongside his family, this was the right step to take. Everyone in his inner circle had to be on board with any step forward.

Now, all the steps are completed.

Guardiola has agreed a two-year extension with City. He could now remain at the reigning, back-to-back champions until 2025 – although both club and manager are entitled to end his stay sooner if they wish to.

He will have been in charge at the Etihad Stadium for nine years if he sees out this new deal. City have become the only club in the world to convince the renowned manager to sign three different contracts with them.

Right now, Guardiola is in Abu Dhabi, home of City’s owners, where this new deal was sealed.

On his holidays during this ongoing break in the club season for the playing of the World Cup in neighbouring Qatar, the Catalan jetted to the United Arab Emirates to take part in the Pro Am Pep Trophy, a golf event he set up with the Guardiola Sala Foundation.

The City manager flew in at the weekend, and attended Formula 1’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday. He was pictured alongside Cristina, their children Marius and Valentina, and his brother Pere in the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team box.


Pep Guardiola and Manchester City are chasing a third straight Premier League title (Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Every high executive at City was aware these were meant to be key dates for their manager’s future. Sources involved in the negotiations confirmed to The Athletic that “a lot of progress had been made”, although several details still needed to be taken care of.

Guardiola and City had a gentlemen’s agreement in which they promised themselves to make a decision by January 1.

His previous contract had been due to expire next summer, but before signing a new one he wanted to be sure, alongside his family, that this was the right step to take — everyone in his inner circle had to be on board with the decision.

This week, in Abu Dhabi, City executives and Pere, as his brother’s representative, continued to discuss the details of a new deal with one sole aim: as soon as the manager gave the green light, a signature would be the only thing needed.

Guardiola did not talk about his contract with director of football Txiki Begiristain or chief executive Ferran Soriano. There was not much else to know from them — the manager is fully aware of how strongly backed he is, and to what extent both senior executives wanted him to stay.

“Our wish is for Pep Guardiola to stay at Manchester City forever. Why not? I think it’s possible,” declared Soriano on Catalan radio station Rac1 in May, after City retained the Premier League title to make it four wins in Guardiola’s six years.

Despite the extension being secured in Abu Dhabi, most of the hard graft in the process was put in well before this week, and Guardiola’s two friends and trusted directors played crucial roles.

As soon as Guardiola signed his previous contract, in November 2020, City assumed the race to secure his future beyond its 2023 expiry date was about to start. Begiristain had to lay the foundations by making the right calls and assuring dressing-room harmony was maintained, with the goal of creating an atmosphere that made Guardiola feel he still had a job to do there, and new challenges to tackle.

For example, Begiristain had been listening to Guardiola’s words of admiration for Aston Villa forward Jack Grealish. The Catalan had been stunned by the Englishman’s eye-catching displays after Villa got back to the Premier League in 2019 after three seasons in the Championship.

In informal conversations during training sessions, Guardiola had even pictured Grealish acting as a false nine in his system, something he tried out last season at Anfield. Results were not convincing.

Months before making Grealish the most expensive Premier League player in the summer of 2021, City had been exploring his situation and were aware of the £100million ($118.8m) buyout clause in his contract before the end of the previous year.

If getting Grealish was good news, missing out on Harry Kane was not particularly helpful.

City’s record goalscorer Sergio Aguero had left in the summer 2021 shortly before turning 33 and even if Guardiola’s team was thriving with a striker-less system, sources close to the manager, who wish to remain anonymous to protect their positions, admitted that “as an institution — and for the long-term project — this club needed a striker”.

Unable to get England captain Kane from Tottenam Hotspur, City were practically left with one option: Erling Haaland. Other names explored in the past, such as Dusan Vlahovic and Alexander Isak, failed to convince they had the potential to meet City’s standards.

There were no doubts with Haaland and he became the biggest target for City, in order to provide Guardiola with the missing piece in his jigsaw.

Haaland ranked so high on City’s priority list that they did not hesitate over making the Norwegian wonderkid the highest earner in the club this summer, slightly above Kevin De Bruyne’s wages. And the way Haaland has hit the ground running, and adapted to City’s style, is regarded by those within the club as a decisive factor in Guardiola’s decision to extend his contract.

But there was another signing in the most recent window that dispelled any concerns and provided extra assurances to the manager, proving to him that he was in the right place – Haaland’s Borussia Dortmund team-mate Manuel Akanji.

With 23 goals scored in 18 appearances so far, Haaland’s impact is incomparable with anything else.

Akanji’s arrival, though, proved to Guardiola that City were never going to doubt his instincts.

Guardiola had considered his squad for this season finalised… until August 21. In the third league fixture of the season, City played out a thrilling 3-3 draw away to Newcastle United, where they didn’t just lose two points, but an important part of their immediate plans.

Nathan Ake picked up a muscular tear at St James’ Park and had to be substituted after 21 minutes. Fellow defender Aymeric Laporte, who had undergone knee surgery in the summer, was still out and would be on the sidelines for six more weeks.

Suddenly, City, who usually operate with four high-performing centre-backs, were facing eight games in that span with only two first-team players for those roles: Ruben Dias and John Stones, whose own fitness problems have been highlighted by his manager.

Guardiola panicked, fearing the squad might not be able to cope with the rhythm required if a new centre-back was not signed.

After the Newcastle match City flew to Spain, where they were to play Guardiola’s former employers Barcelona at Camp Nou in a charity game to raise money to fight nervous-system disorder ALS. Their first stop was in Girona, where they paid a visit to the fellow City Football Group club. There, Guardiola set up a meeting with his backroom staff and club executives.

The manager made his concerns very clear. City’s chairman, Khaldoon Al-Mubarak had also been made aware of them. Conversations dragged on the whole week, and City as a club, alongside Guardiola and his staff, agreed they needed to consider a new signing in the final days of the summer window.

How many executive boards would have agreed with the idea of bringing a fifth centre-back to a squad with four elite performers in the same role?

City’s did.


City’s move for Akanji was a major factor in getting Guardiola to sign his new contract (Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images)

 

They looked for a sensible option in the market, but also understood that this was a reinforcement needed to keep Guardiola’s fire burning.

Akanji’s signing was then closed pretty swiftly, helped by the 27-year-old Swiss international having made it clear to Dortmund earlier in the year that he would not renew his contract.

Within a month of announcing his arrival, City executives were rubbing their eyes in disbelief at the bargain price of £17million they had paid. They remain convinced an asset such as Akanji, in normal conditions, should have cost them more than £50million.

If new acquisitions are mentioned, Julian Alvarez’s name needs to be on the table too. And behind the Argentinian forward, there’s another fundamental figure to build Guardiola’s happiness at City. His name is Joan Patsy.

Patsy is now director of football of the entire City Football Group, working on signings for any of the 10 clubs under that umbrella. He’s based in Argentina, but frequently travels to Manchester in order to keep close tabs on the City team, the club and Guardiola.

Guardiola and Patsy know each other from their Barcelona days, when the City manager was a footballer and their director of football was a journalist. The friendship has endured for more than 30 years.

There are few people who hold a connection with Guardiola like Patsy, who was also a close friend of Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff.

After scouting Alvarez at Buenos Aires club River Plate for months, Patsy was certain they needed to insert a clause into his signing to allow the 21-year-old striker to join City for a whole pre-season. There was the belief Alvarez would not only be a new weapon on the pitch, but also that he would fit perfectly in the dressing room and with the approach Guardiola has.

Alvarez is an exciting addition but the process of signing him and Haaland could not be completed without departures.

From a business point of view, City made significant sales; for example, Ferran Torres to Barcelona for €55million (£47.6m) in January, more than double what they had paid Valencia for the player 18 months earlier.

From a football point of view, some departures have also helped to keep dressing-room harmony at an optimal level.

Raheem Sterling left for Chelsea in the summer but that was not the first time the club had been open to offers for the England forward.


Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling moved on in the summer as Guardiola freshened up the City squad (Photo: Matt McNulty – Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

A year earlier, for example, Sterling was offered to Barcelona, with their sporting director Mateu Alemany flying to Manchester in the final days before the deadline to explore how to strengthen the Catalans’ attack.

The move fell apart then due to a lack of time to bring everything together, not least because Sterling was not completely certain on such a sudden move so late in the window. Five months later, Barcelona decided to sign his team-mate Torres as they believed the Spaniard would adapt better to life at Camp Nou.

Sterling also played an important role in the Cristiano Ronaldo transfer saga, and his potential move to the Etihad Stadium that summer.

Key members of City’s technical staff, including Guardiola and his assistant Juanma Lillo, had doubts about how Ronaldo would fit into the team. Club executives, though, were very tempted by the possibility of bringing the then 36-year-old Portuguese superstar aboard from Juventus.

The technical team considered that Sterling’s exit would be the only way they could potentially entertain the prospect of signing Ronaldo. Sterling did not leave, and Ronaldo ended up rejoining City’s Manchester rivals United, 12 years after he had left Old Trafford for Real Madrid.

There are senior sources at the Etihad who believe that if Ronaldo had joined, Guardiola would not have stayed at City until the end of his then-contract in 2023.

Other key departures this summer were Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko to Arsenal, two players who were incredibly well liked and respected in the dressing room and who very rarely caused any problems. In both cases, however, they were tempted by the opportunity to have a new and appealing challenge under Mikel Arteta in London.

In Zinchenko’s case, City had made him aware over several years that they were planning to strengthen at left-back, something that did not bother the Ukrainian too much as he had no intention of leaving unless he received an exciting offer from elsewhere — which he did this summer.

All of that happened months ago, though, so why did Guardiola until now to finalise his new deal?

During an interview with Sky Sports in May, he said, “It has been many years (he has worked at City) and I have to see how the team and ourselves are together. I say I would stay for 10 more years, but we have to take time for that.”

The key was seeing the effort and commitment of his players in the first part of the new season. Not just in matches but their everyday actions, their levels in training, their ability and desire to work with the intensity their Catalan leader demands.

Apart from after their 2-1 home loss to Brentford in the final game before the World Cup break, Guardiola has been full of praise for his players the whole season. But there’s one particular game that epitomizes his feelings in the highest form. That was their 2-1 stoppage-time win, having played with men for 64 minutes, over Fulham a week earlier.

“It was the moment of my period here in Manchester so far and, of course, the goal at the end, celebrating with our people — we didn’t win the Premier League here today, of course, but this moment makes sense of our job for all of us,” he said after Haaland snatched the three points with a 95th-minute penalty.

“It was so exciting. After seven years, you always have doubts, ‘Do people follow you, are they tired, are people annoyed in their jobs?’, Many thousands of millions of meetings, training sessions and travel, but today you say, ‘Wow’, you see they are there. They still want to do it, they are still alive and they make us so, so proud.

haaland-guardiola


Ten-man City’s last-gasp win over Fulham this month may have convinced Guardiola to stay (Photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

 

“We won because my players are beyond exceptional in all departments.“

If there’s a way to confirm a contract extension without factually announcing it, that must be the best attempt ever.

In fact, Guardiola was so content that day he didn’t arrived at the post-match press conference until more than one hour after the final whistle because he decided to make an unusual speech in the dressing room, which delayed all his media duties.

“The way you played today is the reason why I am a manager. You made me so, so proud,” Guardiola said in his speech, as one dressing-room member revealed to The Athletic.

Now they are the reason why he is staying — no matter if some of them are facing decisions on their own futures, which is why City can be expected to be busy next summer.

Ilkay Gundogan’s contract is expiring at the end of the season, and the 32-year-old is waiting for a proposal to renew it. The club have offered an extension to Bernardo Silva, who has long held a desire to play in Spain at some point.

And new players will be coming in, with Dortmund and England midfielder Jude Bellingham tipped to be the name of the summer for any top European club — Guardiola, by the way, has never hidden his admiration for the English teenager.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, there is now one certainty: City’s backbone, and arguably their biggest asset, is staying.

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)





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