The Irish Times - Sports Weekend

How Manchester City got back in the groove to put them on the brink of a title

Guardiola changed his system to prove his greatness as a manager Crystal Palace v Manchester City

- Jamie Jackson

Selhurst Park, 12.30 Live on BT Sport 1

Manchester City will claim a fifth Premier League title if they win at Crystal Palace today and Manchester United lose to Liverpool tomorrow.

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 , 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.

Reset button

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 December 15th.

Afterwards he said: “We cannot score a goal but we have to be optimistic.” The t eam spurned 26 shots. 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).

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 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 upon 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 £ 65 million 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.

Playmaking defender

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 2016.

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 fullbacks 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 against Paris Saint- Germain on Wednesday.

When Guardiola signed a fresh two- year contract on November 19th 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. – Guardian

‘‘ City’s squad view Guardiola as the ultimate ‘ my way or the highway’ manager. The approach works because a lack of chumminess leaves players clear on where they stand

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