Pep Guardiola’s warnings to FIFA and UEFA mean Man City may have to change its transfer strategy.
Barely an hour had passed since Manchester City had just won the Champions League and Pep Guardiola was reminding interviewers of a familiar bugbear.
“I don’t have any energy to think about next season, it’s impossible,” he said on the Ataturk Stadium pitch. “We need a break, it’s too long.”
When he arrived for his post-match press conference shortly after, Guardiola was issuing a similar complaint to FIFA and UEFA, saying: “Our players have international games now. UEFA and FIFA, think about it. The Premier League finished two or three weeks ago, but now people have to come back. It’s too much.”
Guardiola is currently back in Catalonia getting some much-earned rest ahead of the treble defence, with seven competitions to compete in, plus a fortnight in Japan and South Korea on tour. In the manager’s absence, City have signed Mateo Kovacic to take Ilkay Gundogan’s place in the squad, while RB Leipzig’s Josko Gvardiol could well follow.
The current state of City’s transfer dealings will depend heavily on which players leave, with a number rumoured to be wanted by other clubs, or wanting to leave. Contrary to lazy stereotypes, City don’t spend drastically more than their rivals, and they don’t have two starting XI’s of world-class players.
Last season, City ended the season with 19 senior outfielders, two academy graduates, and a third goalkeeper. That remains the current makeup of the squad, plus the uncertain future of Joao Cancelo. It seems that Guardiola likes a smaller squad, made up of versatile players who can play multiple positions rather than multiple players who can play in each position.
When Guardiola looks at the schedule for City over the final two seasons of his contract, however, he and City may realise they have no option but to increase the numbers in the squad over the coming years.
Including City’s three pre-season fixtures, they could play a maximum of 67 games in 2023/24 across the Community Shield, Premier League, UEFA Super Cup, Champions League, Carabao Cup, Club World Cup and FA Cup. At a minimum, City will play 49 times next season, before most of their players compete in Euro 2024.
After a summer with a major tournament in it, City players will return for another pre-season tour, and depending on their success they could be competing in seven competitions again in 2024/25.
For a start, the season after next will be longer regardless due to the extended Champions League format (there will be eight group games rather than six) and the expanded Club World Cup format in the summer, where City are guaranteed to be competing. That will be another summer tournament, with a guaranteed three group games, and up to four knockout games taking City to July 2025.
So from July 2023, City could play up to 144 games over the next two years, with most players also competing in a summer tournament next year. It’s not just Guardiola who has warned of the increasing demand on players, with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne making it clear that there are too many games to play and not enough consideration for the welfare it has on players.
De Bruyne’s argument is that players are generally fit enough to play that amount of games, but the need for mental rests are continuously overlooked. De Bruyne is a player who played for weeks with a torn hamstring at the end of the season to get City over the line, and could miss the start of next season as a result.
City already face a fixture headache, with the Club World Cup in 2023 requiring three domestic fixtures to be rearranged, including a potential Carabao Cup quarter-final. However, there are no free slots to play that quarter-final before the semi-finals, while City would also have extremely limited options to play their two rearranged Premier League games if they reach the latter stages of the three cup competitions.
So the last thing City would need is to add another competition, but FIFA have hinted at adding a one-off competition in 2024 as the existing format of the Club World Cup ends in 2023 to be replaced by the expanded 2025 version. In March, FIFA approved the ‘strategic concept’ of a yearly club competition between the champions of each confederation, with the Champions League winner automatically qualifying for the final. So if City defend their Champions League crown next season, they will have another game to play as well during 2024/25.
Despite Guardiola’s warnings, the number of games City are expected to play only looks to increase each year. With City targeting the Super Cup and Club World Cup trophies now they have unlocked the Champions League, they will have to accept that with success will come more fixtures.
While Guardiola is thinking of his players’ welfare, chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak was thinking about more trophies when he spoke at the end of the season.
He said: ” You look at next season, and guess what? Look what we have next year. Look what we have this summer, we have the Charity Shield, we have the Super Cup, we have the Club World Cup. The Club World Cup. For the first time, this club is going to be competing in the Super Cup and the Club World Cup. And we want to win these. We want to win these and we want to add them to the history of this great club, to the legacy of this great club.
“Everything we do is setting new records and new standards. Today I’m speaking to you but I’m already thinking about next year. Even yesterday [at the Champions League final], I think, you know, there was a joke between me and Ferran [Soriano] and Txiki [Begiristain] and Pep, when we had had our moment, we looked at each other and it was, okay, now we’ve got to do it again.”
So with City determined to win every competition they compete in, maybe they will have to expand their own squad to cope with the increased workload. Guardiola may not like it, and it may go against his current transfer policy of keeping a small squad – but he might not have a choice.