Will Pep Guardiola end up at Man City, Man United, Chelsea or Arsenal?
Editor's note: This piece was first published on Dec. 16 and has been updated to reflect Pep Guardiola's decision to leave Bayern this summer, Jose Mourinho's exit and Guus Hiddink's interim appointment at Chelsea.
MUNICH -- Among the myriad things on offer at Bayern Munich's fan shop at the Allianz Arena is an illustrated advent calendar for kids with chocolate stars behind every window. Supporters of the German champions won't quite have to wait until Christmas for the biggest reveal of all, however: the club have already made an announcement on the future of Pep Guardiola.
Now that Guardiola has told the club that his days in Germany will come to an end in May, the speculation about his next career move will go into overdrive. Here, then, is a look at the likely destinations for the world's most sought-after football manager.
Sources close to the 42-year-old believe that living in London would be hugely appealing to Guardiola and his family. "Footballistically," as Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger would say, the Gunners would seem a natural fit for him as well. Among all the Premier League clubs, they play a brand of possession-oriented, short-passing football that's closest to the Guardiola blueprint, at least as far as the attack is concerned. Without the ball, Arsenal don't employ any of the systematic, concerted pressing in the opposition half that has been a key component of Guardiola's transformative success at Barcelona and Bayern.
Arsenal don't need a serious overhaul, only a few tweaks and expensive strategic additions. What they will require, however, is a new, more flexible mindset -- Guardiola expects his team to vary their approach and formations in accordance with the specific needs of every single game -- and a much harder dressing room culture in which any finish short of titles and trophies will be considered a grave disappointment.
The key question is whether the club itself would buy into the Catalan's obsession with winning, and the various demands, in terms of set-up and transfer-market dealings, it entails. All the indications are that owner Stan Kroenke is entirely happy with the stability and financial prudence under Wenger and not at all in the market for a more driven manager. Wenger's current good run in the league and his strong power base make Guardiola's arrival next summer more unprobable still. He might be persuaded to spend a year on sabbatical, waiting for Wenger's contract to run out in 2017, but who at the Emirates has either the mandate or the courage to make such an offer as long as Wenger is around? The answer is: no one.
It's almost forgotten now, but when Jose Mourinho, the self-proclaimed "Happy One," returned to Stamford Bridge in 2013, he found that all the furniture had been rearranged by owner Roman Abramovich in anticipation of another co-habitant. The squad list then was a thinly disguised love letter to Guardiola, drafted to entice the Catalan to West London. But it was Mourinho who ended up in charge of a side that had become much more technical, with more flair players, since his departure six years earlier.
Elements of Chelsea's current malaise can be traced back to that mismatch. Mourinho has always preferred soldiers to artists. Even though the Blues won the Premier League without breaking into much of a sweat last season, this campaign has seen the worst of both worlds. Creative players such as Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas have underperformed dramatically, and the much more physical threat of Nemanja Matic, Diego Costa and co has been greatly diminished, too. Chelsea, on the whole, are low on inspiration.
Mourinho has now paid the price for a disastrous season with Guus Hiddink arriving until the end of the season, but there's seemingly little to attract Guardiola to the job. The squad need loads of work, Chelsea might soon be playing their home games at the cold and corporate Wembley, and the supporters would continue to sing the praises of Mourinho, his arch enemy, at the merest hint of a defeat. Add a volatile owner and no Champions League for next season (unless they win the current edition, which is very unlikely), and what you have is not exactly a compelling proposition.
In the spring of this year, sources close to owner Sheikh Mansour revealed that Guardiola had agreed to take over from current manager Manuel Pellegrini at the start of the 2015/16 season. Guardiola, however, stayed in Munich, and Pellegrini's contract was renewed for another year.
The "Guardiola to Man City" rumour kicked into high gear again this autumn, with a slight change of starting date (2016/17) amid reports of contracts being signed.
There's no doubt that Guardiola enjoys an excellent working relationship with Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, the former Barcelona officials now occupying the roles of director of football and CEO, respectively, at the Etihad. And there's no doubt that both of them have been trying hard to lure him to Man City. What's far less clear is the question of any firm agreement being in place.
What's more, seasoned Guardiola watchers in Spain talk of his capriciousness and note that he has disappointed associates with last-minute changes of plan before.
That said, the combination of a weak incumbent coach, vast resources to create a second Barcelona and people he trusts at board level, still makes City the most realistic prospect. The squad, centre-backs aside, has been significantly rejuvenated and refreshed this summer, and Guardiola's presence would not only provide a huge upgrade on existing and former managers but also add a significant amount of star dust that neither Roberto Mancini nor Pellegrini possesses. Getting Guardiola is seen as a short cut to becoming an elite club, both in terms of perception and output, which explains why City are pushing so hard.
In Marti Perarnau's seminal account of Guardiola's first season at Bayern, "Pep Confidential," the manager talks of his admiration and respect for England's record champions. This has led to plenty of speculation over the years, and these particular flames have been further fanned by sources at Bayern, who believe that United, due to their heritage and status, would be a better fit for the manager after Barcelona and Munich than, say, Man City.
Following in Louis van Gaal's footsteps for a third time -- the Dutchman laid much of the groundwork for Bayern's step up the food chain in recent years -- would make sense at a tactical level, but it's fair to say that United's progress has been much slower than anticipated. United would likely welcome Guardiola with a bulging war chest, but does the club have the competence to target the right players beyond the three or four superstars Ed Woodward has been trying to sign, to no avail, since the end of the Ferguson era?
Given the recent tumult at United, the club have become a bigger challenge to put right than their neighbours City. Guardiola would effectively embark on a rebuilding project and shelve any ideas about winning the Champions League for at least a couple of years. For all the glamour and romance of being manager at Old Trafford, it's not the most attractive scenario right now.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.