Manchester City will claim a fifth Premier League title if they win at Crystal Palace on Saturday and Manchester United are defeated at home by Liverpool on Sunday. Behind this simple equation, though, is the tale of how in a challenging Covid-affected season Pep Guardiola transformed his side from their nadir 10 days before Christmas into a relentless winning machine that boast a 10-point lead with five matches left.
He did this via a seer-like football brain and austere man-management that eschews the touchy-feely style of, say, Ole Gunnar Solskjær. He did this via a rotation policy that shows the same XI never being retained in the competition. He did this without the club record goalscorer, Sergio Agüero, for long stretches, or the Argentinian’s deputy, Gabriel Jesus, for shorter periods (also because of injury and coronavirus), instead elevating his penchant for “ghost” No 9s to a rarefied level. And, just as pertinently, Guardiola placed City on the verge of a seventh English title with a regeared defence personified by the rejuvenated John Stones.
There is the subplot, too, of Liverpool’s tame championship defence, their 18-point triumph of last season now a 23-point gulf to Guardiola’s men. Yet the overriding narrative is how the Catalan bolstered his status as this generation’s pre-eminent manager, a feat in which timing was supreme: the fix he applied coming just before City fell too far behind in belief and points.
Following the 2-0 defeat at Tottenham in November, City were down in 11th, trailing José Mourinho’s leaders by eight points. Yet the moment that caused Guardiola to hit the reset button was a 1-1 draw with West Brom on 15 December.
Afterwards he said: “We cannot score a goal but we have to be optimistic.” The team spurned 26 shots, their radar awry enough for Guardiola to order Agüero to join Jesus for the last 14 minutes in a rare two-pronged attack that still yielded no goals. But what troubled the arch-tactician was occurring on a structural level: City had become a ghost of the side that 18 months earlier won a domestic clean sweep.
What Guardiola oversaw seems barely credible for a man 13 years into a trophy-studded career. But his assessment was that players were “running too much” and not remaining in their designated zones, so were unable to execute a gameplan that rests on zigzag passing and lightning raids. And the ball was not being recycled enough – a particular oddity for any Guardiola team.
In January came the confession. “We started to rebuild and reconstruct from that point [West Brom],” he said. It worked. Dramatically. City embarked on a 21-match winning sequence (15 in the league) that illustrated the manager’s keen eye for on-field deficiencies and was a testament to his handling of footballers, which reaped a rich dividend.
City’s squad view Guardiola as the ultimate “my way or the highway” manager, the Guardian has been told. The approach works because a lack of chumminess leaves players clear on where they stand, and his policy of avoiding confrontation (where possible) means fewer flashpoints, less chance of the damaging fallouts that plagued one of his predecessors, Roberto Mancini. The correlation is hunger is retained – a difficult act when balancing elite footballer egos – so, when called upon, even those on the fringes are fuelled by a desire to prove the boss wrong. This is vital because it allows Guardiola’s rotation policy to be high-functioning.
Raheem Sterling and Aymeric Laporte are prime examples. Before this year both were certain of being relied on for the most crucial matches. Now, each expects to read his name in the substitutes column. Yet Guardiola retains faith. Sterling was chosen for the Carabao Cup final last Sunday and was in A-list form, earning the free-kick that created the winner against Tottenham and which was converted by Laporte.
City’s status as champions-elect can also be traced to Laporte’s displacement by the summer signing Rúben Dias, who has formed a fine central defensive partnership with Stones. If the suspicion remains that they are vulnerable to the quick counter or high ball, Dias’s £65m acquisition – a club record – filled a Vincent Kompany-size vacancy (he left a year before), and Stones vindicates Guardiola’s tenet that anyone can prove themselves again.
Stones has cast aside “personal problems” (mentioned by his manager unsolicited, more than once) to finally become the playmaking defender Guardiola told Txiki Begiristain, City’s sporting director, he must acquire from Everton before taking over in the summer of 2016.
Central defence is also where Liverpool’s hapless recruitment had aided City. First, Dejan Lovren was sold last July and not replaced, which left only the injury-prone Joe Gomez and Joël Matip as partners for the captain, Virgil van Dijk. Then, when Van Dijk suffered his season-ending injury in September and Gomez followed in November, the board failed to sign a high-end replacement in January despite Jürgen Klopp’s team entering the window as leaders.
All this was compounded when Matip’s campaign ended the following month. Why Liverpool’s owners failed to back a manager who had returned a first championship since 1990 (and the Champions League the year before) is a puzzle. Clearer is how Agüero’s infirmity (and Jesus’s, to a lesser extent) were overcome by Guardiola. In speaking about his star act, Kevin De Bruyne, this week the manager might have been characterising how he replaced Agüero, who has 257 City goals.
“His [De Bruyne’s] influence is so important for us – some periods he was injured but we solved it with other players,” said Guardiola, who in Agüero’s absence often eschewed Jesus because he does not rate him in the same class.
Instead Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez, De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gündogan and Ferran Torres have been preferred at the supposed tip of the team. “Supposed” because, as Mahrez said recently, when Guardiola chooses one of them in the position the idea is to drop in as an extra midfielder, forming what is really a 2-8 shape when City launch a sortie, due to the full-backs – usually João Cancelo and Kyle Walker – drifting in and upfield.
Foden’s impact – again, handled impressively by Guardiola – ranks as a City high point. So good is the youngster that David Silva’s departure last summer feels an age ago, and Sterling’s demotion has become the natural order, underlined by Foden’s displays against Spurs at Wembley and in the 2-1 Champions League semi-final first leg win at Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday.
When Guardiola signed a fresh two-year contract on 19 November it caused scrutiny. City were 10th, six points off the pace, and about to lose against Spurs. The question was simple: why did a man exuding weariness agree two more seasons?
The answer is what followed. Guardiola appears a manager in the mould of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United: what he constructs in the blue half of town is beginning to appear a mini-version of Ferguson’s empire–building at Old Trafford. Guardiola will not last close to Ferguson’s tenure of more than 26 years but an impending third title in four seasons is a ratio that places him in the Scot’s class.
This is how great Guardiola is proving.