Scottish Daily Mail
HOW CITY RECLAIMED THE CROWN
PEP’S NEW DEAL, DIAS AND A DITCHED DOUBLE PIVOT...
THEY tell a tale around Manchester City with a hint of exasperation, one from a couple of years ago that developed slight infamy and resurfaced in light of recent events.
A senior club employee was talking staff through goals and objectives and how best to engage with fans to ultimately enhance the City brand.
But there was an element of surprise when they were told it was time for the club to devote more effort to promoting the product globally rather than locally. Don’t forget about them, but focus less on typical fans from Stockport and more on enticing newbies worldwide.
Stockport is a City heartland and was referenced deliberately in that briefing. A few present have been reminded of the remark in the wake of the botched European Super League, to which City showed resistance but signed up for regardless.
Against that backdrop, there is an irony that Phil Foden — a young fan from Stockport — has played such an instrumental role in a third league title in four years.
And, for all the clamour to win the Champions League — earning the additional global pull that presents — finishing the domestic season top has remained Pep Guardiola’s primary aim, albeit there was little expectation they would do it this time.
Liverpool had been so far clear in 2019-20. City were behind the eight ball from the off, starting late after a non-existent pre-season and no friendlies. Here, too, was a campaign beginning just weeks after the embarrassing defeat to Lyon in August. Even though Guardiola was afforded a freshening of his squad, with three major exits and three arrivals, including the £62million capture of Ruben Dias from Benfica, an air of fatigue lingered. Players bemoaned the minimal rest.
Yet seven months later, they are set to win another Premier League crown if they beat Chelsea today.
It is easy to forget now — having set an English record of 20 consecutive wins in all competitions — that Guardiola’s future was uncertain up until signing his two-year contract extension in November.
And yet, eventually, after rejecting PSG’s persistent advances, he was ready to commit after discussions with his family. He and chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak held constructive talks. Guardiola (right) signed a new deal days later and bounced through the training ground with an energy absent in the months prior.
Performances until that point had not been good. Maybe it was a Project Restart hangover. Players noted their boss was holding fewer team meetings, devising less intensive sessions, going easier on video analysis. City were ordinary in the season’s third match, a 1-1 draw at Leeds, and Kevin De Bruyne is believed to have raised concerns about team selection. The error-strewn 5-2 home defeat by Leicester in the game prior had shocked them to the core. The dressing room was fraught. While progression was still weeks away, Dias made his debut at Leeds and City have conceded just 17 goals in the subsequent 31 league games. Nobody knew the effect he would have as a defender and leader back then. Nor that Guardiola was planning a delayed assault on the division, having realised City could not press opponents with any intensity in the earlier weeks for lack of fitness and fear of injuries. Moods sunk further, some levelled accusations of selfishness at team-mates. An unhappy camp contributed to City’s worst start since 2008. Eleventh in the table after eight matches, winning just three and having lost 2-0 to Spurs, days after Guardiola signed his new deal. ‘They’ve only got themselves to blame for being short of strikers,’ said Roy Keane. ‘I don’t see City winning the title this year.’
But Guardiola’s genius has always been that ability to manage egos and star quality at his disposal while simultaneously coaching the vast majority of them to be better players.
Able to rule with impunity, Guardiola keeps them on the edge. ‘It was “adapt or die” for some of them,’ a source says.
Not all of them share Ilkay Gundogan or De Bruyne’s similarities with the boss.
Gundogan is seen as a model team player — putting collective interest ahead of his own — and has been given increased responsibility. Others, like Raheem Sterling and Aymeric Laporte, watched from the sidelines for lengthy spells.
This squad needed a jolt — and the emergence of a captain who
It was adapt or die for some of the players after manager agreed to stay
actually wanted to lead the group. Taking over from the departed David Silva, Fernandinho helped steer this season away from the precipice to potentially the club’s finest.
A meeting between the players after the Spurs loss refocused minds. The message to take responsibility rather than apportion blame elsewhere was initially heeded yet didn’t translate into dominant performances for another month.
Fortunes changed greatly after the draw against West Brom, when City were awful. They had enough chances to win and, in public, Guardiola agreed their opportunities came too late in the game. Privately, he screamed at the players: ‘This isn’t us, I’m not proud!’
Later, he spoke to sporting director Txiki Begiristain and head of player support Manel Estiarte on what must change. Although City then went and beat Southampton, Arsenal in the Carabao Cup and Newcastle, attitudes were still not right.
‘On New Year’s Eve, we had this training session,’ Fernandinho explained. ‘It was not good. The body language, the effort from some players. Not running, not looking interested.’
The Brazilian demanded another summit with the players. ‘It was an emergency,’ he said. ‘It was very honest. After me, the others spoke their minds, too. We needed to be shaken. Our next game was at Chelsea, who were flying. I thought: “If these guys don’t run here, that’s it, I’m done”.’
City won 3-1. Dance music blared afterwards in the jubilant away dressing room. De Bruyne produced a barnstorming display shortly after being dissatisfied with the club’s recent contract offer. Then the season flipped.
The double pivot in midfield had been ditched. Gundogan moved further forward and became a serial goalscorer, Rodri suddenly dominated opponents — Dias bounding over to congratulate him for starting a move that led to a goal rather than the scorer.
City were not ‘back’, but they were different. The 5-0 win at West Brom, a month after that dismal draw, was one of the most breathtaking displays of attacking and tactical mastery of Guardiola’s reign.
Joao Cancelo operated as a pseudo right-back and forward. City hammered Liverpool and Spurs on their way to the top and that is where they have stayed.
Dias and John Stones rapidly blossomed into an enviable centre-back partnership, aided by Rodri in front of them.
Mistakes were eradicated, a paltry 37 shots on target conceded in 20 wins. Guardiola called on big characters to deliver pre-match team talks to freshen the message.
City had gone back to basics. Goals have not always flowed but Guardiola’s order to his forwards in December to simply run less in possession had borne fruit.
He turned 50 in January, in the middle of their record-breaking winning sequence.
Reaching at least the semis of every competition, City have not had a midweek off all season.
On the ropes in November, their achievements since are scarcely believable.
‘I wasn’t seeing what Pep was seeing when he signed the contract,’ a source confided recently. Neither did we. How wrong we were.