Pep looks beyond City title woe
For a man whose coaching career has been defined by brief, intense and trophy-laden tenures, Pep Guardiola has offered uncharacteristic hints towards a long-term future at Manchester City over the past two weeks.
Of course, the headline phrases of him not having "any reason" to leave the Etihad Stadium and him being "open" to a stay beyond the end of his current contract have been heavily caveated. If Guardiola remains with his back-to-back Premier League winners until his current deal expires in June 2021, he will have led City for longer than his four years in charge of boyhood club Barcelona or three at Bayern Munich.
The temptation might be to regenerate a team and begin a fresh cycle – something greats such as Alex Ferguson were celebrated for doing and a challenge the cut-and-thrust of the modern game rarely allows even the finest tacticians. Just ask Mauricio Pochettino. Saturday's evidence at St James' Park, where Kevin De Bruyne and Jonjo Shelvey exchanged second-half howitzers meant City twice conceded leads in a damaging 2-2 draw, suggested version 2.0 of Guardiola's Mancunian machine might need to be hurried through the developmental phase.
Back at the ground where their title hopes looked to have suffered a terminal blow last season, City dropped more points to hand further initiative to the Liverpool juggernaut. The imperious 14-match winning streak that saw them outlast the Reds last season looks entirely beyond the champions in their current guise.
Raheem Sterling's opening goal came following some genial work from David Silva, but seeing City's masterful playmaker lift the tempo was an exception against a Newcastle backline that clogged the pipes of this spluttering City. Interplay was frequently laboured, balls chipped hopefully towards the penalty spot were repelled by the three central defensive pillars of Federico Fernandez, Ciaran Clark and Paul Dummett. Gabriel Jesus cut a forlorn figure in their shadows before springing on to a shaft of Silva-flecked light and shooting too close to Martin Dubravka in the 68th minute.
That was the first time City had really looked like scoring since a well-worked 25th-minute equaliser from Jetro Willems. Was this really the team that beat Watford 8-0 two months ago, having taken a 5-0 lead inside the first quarter of an hour? It was certainly the team who have been flat and one-paced far too often since Silva made way for his presumed heir Phil Foden, a keenly awaited transition that will take time. There are batons that City and Guardiola must ensure pass smoothly next year and beyond.
At the end of this season, Silva will end a decade-long association with the club as arguably their greatest ever player. Fernandinho is out of contract in 2020 too. The Brazil international turned in another fine performance at centre-back, until the foul that lead to Shelvey's leveller. He finds himself permanently stationed there nowadays, City's midfield devoid of his irresistible bite, since Aymeric Laporte's knee injury followed Vincent Kompany's departure.
Leroy Sane is also sidelined for the long-term, while fellow winger Riyad Mahrez took a step backwards after last week's decisive goal against Chelsea. The only major signing to arrive in between the consecutive title wins, his has been a frustrating City career of fits and starts.
The same can also be said for Jesus, who does not look like the successor to Sergio Aguero he once did. Currently sidelined, City's all-time record goalscorer is out of contract, like Guardiola, in 2021. Any certainty Sane and Laporte will lift City when they return - for a tilt at a maiden Champions League crown that must now become their priority - is undermined by Benjamin Mendy's re-emergence. Fit again after two bouts of knee surgery, the France left-back was utterly abysmal at St James' Park. Again, these things can take time.
The individual and collective problems Guardiola needs to address feel like a large part of the reason why he is looking to the longer term. The next challenge already seems like the most pressing, with the dream of three in a row having almost certainly slipped out of reach.