Pep Guardiola is the big spender whose greatest triumphs came on the cheap, even if it may not make him the poster boy for penury. As he cited his cut-price Champions League wins, the impression he gave is that he sees them as part of football’s rich tapestry. Guardiola is set to become the first manager to field a £100m footballer in the Premier League – and if he has his way then Jack Grealish will only possess the status as the division’s record signing for a few weeks.
If Sunday’s game at Tottenham doubles up as a tug of war for Harry Kane’s services, money may form a familiar backdrop. Guardiola can be an alchemist of a coach and an inventive tactician, but he is familiar with the accusation he has become a chequebook manager. English football’s maiden nine-figure buy may be used in the case for the prosecution. Tottenham offered £25m for Grealish in 2018; perhaps Daniel Levy’s reluctance to go higher amounted to a false economy as, three years later, Manchester City paid four times as much for the Aston Villa captain.
Guardiola reasoned that City’s ability to bring in fees for peripheral players such as Jack Harrison, Lukas Nmecha and Angeliño, plus Jadon Sancho’s sell-on clause, reduced their overall outlay. “I said last year that we couldn’t spend £100m,” he said. “We have bought Jack Grealish because we sell for £60m, so in the end we have spent £40m. Otherwise, we cannot do it.” Sign Kane, possibly for a fee 50% or 60% larger than Grealish commanded, and City’s net spend would be substantially larger. Perhaps Guardiola’s argument would then alter.
His old employers may look on enviously. Guardiola is the Barcelona ball boy turned captain and manager whose former club’s overspending meant they could not afford to keep Lionel Messi. City are altogether more affluent now. The balance of power has swung to the nouveaux riches. “Each club has its own reality, its own history,” he said. “And every owner of every club decides how he wants to live. Our owners do not want to benefit, they want to reinvest in the team. There is Chelsea with [Roman] Abramovich and our club with Sheikh Mansour. They want to be in this world, they want to be buying into football. What is the problem?”
Guardiola referenced Silvio Berlusconi’s Milan as he maintained ambitious owners are nothing new. Yet he was keen to stress he did not buy success when his managerial career started with a flourish. “I had the best player I’ve ever seen in my life – Lionel Messi – but we won two Champions League at Barcelona with seven players who came from the academy,” he said, and if Gerard Piqué was bought back for a bargain fee, his broader point still stood. “The finals against [Manchester] United with seven players from the academy: zero cost. You can win with different squads, different players and different situations. There is no guarantee.”
Now, as City look to win again, it is without changing much. Kane was earmarked to replace Sergio Agüero but Grealish has taken the No 10 shirt from City’s record scorer. A strategy of deploying a false 9, more Messi than Agüero, may continue in Kane’s absence. “It’s actually quite a similar team to last season. Sergio has left, so Jack comes in but the rest are the same,” Guardiola said. “I don’t know if we will sign a striker; that depends.”
He was reluctant to discuss Kane, let alone his potential cost. The other big numbers he quoted were not transfer fees. “Two teams, Manchester City and Liverpool, raised the bar and we have had to have 90, 90, 90, 90 [points] to be champions,” he said. “We have a trophy in our cabinet but we start from zero this weekend.”
Last season’s stuttering start – again when few players began the campaign in peak condition – was followed by a surge that owed much to an expensive signing, in Rúben Dias, but also to managerial brilliance and a capacity to adapt in adversity. “That is why we had success: because we did not cry in the beginning,” Guardiola added. “The reality is what it is: adapt and go forward.”