The question was delivered by one of his staunchest critics. “After nearly €600m spent on players, is two trophies in two years a good enough return?”
Pep Guardiola spotted the insinuation: “I am so, so happy with what we have done this year. So, so happy. I can assure you one thing – I know the intention of your question – it’s impossible to play the way we play, the results we achieved, without top players. It’s impossible.”
The journalist in question, Duncan Castles, then asked the Manchester City manager whether he would simply spend more money to fix a team that had been so ruthlessly taken apart.
“We are still in the Champions League,” Guardiola asserted. This was last Friday, after just the first episode of City’s horror trilogy. “So, next Tuesday night, I invite you to see a magnificent game here at the Etihad Stadium. Afterwards, you can ask me the question and I am going to analyse about the Champions League if it’s good enough or not enough.”
So, after the nightmare defeat to Manchester United and the frantic but ultimately failed turnaround against Liverpool, where exactly is Guardiola’s Manchester City project right now?
Guardiola was not exactly open with his answers when the inquest came on Tuesday night, but his position was clear.
Castles did not take up his invite but there were plenty of searching questions from other members of the press. Guardiola batted away the first, and all that followed.
“We make 10 months, my friend, amazingly,” he argued. “I would say the exceptional thing is, in 10 months, just losing one game. Winning and winning and winning. That is exceptional.”
Guardiola was clearly saving his criticisms for the confines of the dressing room, if he had any at all.
He did not admit to any concerns that his players were tired, either physically or emotionally, and he did not entertain the idea that their reaction to adversity in these past three games has been poor.
Instead, he repeatedly referred back to City’s fine season overall. With plenty focusing on their recent struggles, he was probably right to do so. After all, only a remarkable collapse a failure to actually clinch the Premier League title – could seriously tarnish this season.
Do three bad defeats undo the 18 consecutive league victories, the most ever recorded in English football? Do City’s brittle performances in the last six days cancel out the breathtaking ones over the past eight months? Of course not.
What these games have done is highlight that City are very good, often brilliant, but not yet truly great. We now know that they are not yet good enough in the Champions League, as Guardiola actually acknowledged on Friday.
And thanks to the collapse against United, sandwiched between the two Liverpool games, we know that City’s problems cannot solely be put down to Jurgen Klopp’s Kryptonian tactics.
The type of failings that undermined last season have resurfaced when it most matters. Previously reliable individuals like Ederson, Nicolas Otamendi and Raheem Sterling have made mistakes. Collectively, the team has failed to recover from set-backs.
And then the managerial misjudgements. Guardiola deserves credit for his role in covering Benjamin Mendy’s absence this season, as well as the countless other tweaks that have led to City’s commanding domestic position.
Yet in a bid to counteract Liverpool’s pressing at Anfield he changed a winning formula, replacing Sterling with Ilkay Gundogan and moving Kevin De Bruyne to the right. It did not work and he was forced to chase his tail for the next two games, experimenting with new systems and demands at a crucial moment of the season.
Guardiola’s defiance in the face of defeat is certainly reminiscent of last season; publicly he stressed all was fine, privately he set about making improvements.
So while City are not perfect, and neither is their manager, they need just two more wins to seal their position as the best team in England, and the over-zealous critics would do well to remember that there is probably much more to come.
After all, City came unstuck with such regularity last season that even a top-four finish was in question this time last year.
Back then, you were just as likely to hear confident declarations that Guardiola would fail in England as you were predictions that City would win the title this year, never mind by playing the brand of football that would supposedly never work over here.
And yet here we are. City have improved hugely upon last season, and who’s to say they won’t do so again?
Most of City’s players have improved dramatically under Guardiola already and most of them are young enough to keep getting better, to keep learning.
And, yes, as was mischievously suggested last Friday, City will spend again in their pursuit of greatness, but it is not expected that they will splash out like they did in the last two summers, when major changes were needed.
This time they are in the market for a defensive midfielder and a winger. Those are the positions they wanted to strengthen in January, conscious of the fact they would need help at exactly this stage of the season. It’s not as if all of the past week’s shortcomings came as a surprise to the club.
So, can Guardiola be happy with his work at Manchester City so far? Of course he can. Will he be quite as defiant in private as he is in public? Probably not. And that doesn’t bode well for the chasing pack.