It was the winter of Pep Guardiola’s discontent. “I didn’t like what I watched,” he said. “I didn’t like what I saw.”
A Ruben Dias own goal at the Etihad had just earned a point for West Bromwich Albion, a newly-promoted side struggling so badly that it would be Slaven Bilic’s last game in charge, regardless of the result. But then things were not going particularly well for Manchester City, either.
After 12 games, City were in sixth-place and five points off the top. Their 20 points was the fewest that Guardiola had ever taken at that stage of the season during his exemplary managerial career of more than a decade. The following evening, reigning champions Liverpool beat Tottenham, the early pace-setters, to go top and become outright title favourites.
Guardiola called a meeting. His assistants, Juanma Lillo and Rodolfo Borrell, his right-hand man Manel Estiarte and his director of football Txiki Begiristain made up the sophisticated brains trust but the message was simple: back to basics.
“We had to reconstruct the team from that point,” Guardiola recalled a few months later.
“What we are as a team, how we had success in the past. We had to come back to our game, move the ball quicker, do more passes, stay in position, run less with the ball, do it together. We don’t have a specific player to win games, we have to do it together.
“Don't think we are in a position to win the Premier League or whatever,” he told his players. “We are not good enough to compete right now. Win the next game with our principles and see what happens.”
City won their next game, a tense, ugly 1-0 victory away at high-flying Southampton, which is still the only league game they have played in front of any fans this season. Then they won again, and again, and again until a little more than a month later, Guardiola and his players looked destined to win their third Premier League title in four years.
When he looks back on a campaign that has brought the ninth domestic league title of his managerial career, secured after Manchester United lost to Leicester City on Tuesday night, Guardiola will pinpoint those midwinter weeks as the turning point, the win at St Mary’s in particular.
“We were able to beat them and then we started the process of playing better,” he has since said. “We were far away from the top of the league, but then we started getting closer, training better, sleeping better.”
Up until that stage, City’s play had lacked its usual brilliant intensity but gained no greater defensive solidity in the trade-off.
Sources indicate that Guardiola had purposely dialled down some elements of their press-and-possess approach to manage the players’ workload and cope with the unprecedented demands of 'Covidball', with one eye on keeping his players sharp for the Champions League knock-out stages later in the season, but results did not follow.
What changed, then? Surprisingly, City started running even less - or at least, only at the right moments. Whereas many managers would look at an underachieving team and demand more energy, more intensity, more fight and greater spirit, Guardiola saw things differently.
“I have always believed completely the opposite,” he said once those changes had begun to bear fruit.
“The reason why we didn’t play too good, we move too much, run too much,” he said. “In football when you have the ball, you have to walk and run at the right moment and when we don’t have the ball, we have to run like it’s the last ball in your life.
“I think with the ball now we are more calm, we are more patient, we have more passes, everyone is more in the position. The players move less, stay in their position and the ball comes where we are.”
Guardiola also changed system, largely abandoning the 4-2-3-1 set-up which he had started the campaign with to revert to his tried-and-tested 4-3-3, but those “lists of telephone numbers” - as the City manager has been known to call such notations - do not tell the whole story.
Whereas City lined up in the 4-3-3 of old on paper, Guardiola began to ask at least one of his full-backs to consistently step inside midfield to form either a diamond or a box shape midfield, which would not only offer numerical superiority in the middle of the park but also help protect against counter-attacks.
These changes came at exactly the right time. Any later may have been too late. City’s campaign was about to enter a critical stage. On Christmas Eve, Kyle Walker and Gabriel Jesus returned positive tests for Covid-19, ruling them out of the Boxing Day meeting with Newcastle United.
Their absences did not prevent City from recording an impressive 2-0 win, displaying a level of control and authority rarely seen up to that point. “That is the tempo we need to play,” a clearly delighted Guardiola said after the final whistle. “Today our positional game was perfect”.
Yet the outbreak inside City’s bubble was growing. Two days later and only hours before the scheduled kick-off, the trip to play Everton at Goodison Park was postponed due to “an increase in confirmed cases” among the City squad. Three more players had tested positive.
Everton released a strongly-worded statement expressing their regret at the postponement and requesting “full disclosure” of the reasoning behind the decision but a private call between Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti was much friendlier, with his Everton counterpart sympathetic and understanding.
Supporters of rival clubs argued that the postponement offered City valuable rest at the busiest point in the schedule but Guardiola would vehemently disagree and point to the fact that, other than that week which saw the training ground closed and club besieged by the virus, they have not had a free midweek.
There has not been the time to work on tactical changes and tweaks in training. “I cannot train, I’m not a manager,” Guardiola recently claimed. “It’s just videos.” It was the same over this decisive winter period, when his players had to pick up these new adjustments to the style of play especially quickly.
It all came together at Stamford Bridge. Eight days after the Newcastle win and six after the Everton game was scheduled to be played, City travelled to Chelsea missing four senior players due to positive Covid tests - Jesus and Walker, plus Ederson and Ferran Torres with young midfielder Tommy Doyle also self-isolating.
And yet despite all that, they blew Chelsea away, leading 3-0 after 34 minutes and producing the type of statement performance against a fellow contender that had looked so far away only a few weeks earlier. “That was the moment we believed if we can do it there, we can do it every day,” Guardiola has said. “Chelsea made us feel like we could do it like we have done in the past in previous seasons.”
To his mind, the adversity only galvanised those who were available to play, pushing them on to greater heights. “Sometimes human beings in difficulty make something extra,” he said last month, before facing Chelsea again at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-finals. “They said we had incredible problems at Stamford Bridge against one of the toughest opponents and everyone gave extra.”
The commanding nature of the win at Stamford Bridge had the added effect of raising standards. “When players came back from Covid they had to join that rhythm. Then it was one more game, winning, winning, winning with that rhythm. That’s why we are in the position that we are.”
Three straight home wins and three clean sheets followed against Brighton, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa, with Bernardo Silva’s controversial late breakthrough in the last of those wins carrying the air of potential champions.
Not only were City rallying at this point, but their rivals began to fall away. Tottenham’s early-season form had deserted them, United were pushing but not winning consistently, while Liverpool’s dramatic unravelling was key, with the defending champions going five games without victory after Boxing Day and ultimately winning just three of their next 14.
In late January, City faced West Bromwich Albion again, now managed by the previously out-of-work Sam Allardyce. After City had conceded seven goals in their first three games of the campaign, a clip of BeIN Sports presenter Richard Keys suggesting - ironically, he insists - that Guardiola should hire Allardyce as a specialist defensive coach went viral across social media.
Even if it was meant as a joke, it reflected a common distrust of Guardiola’s defensive methods, reminiscent of the controversy during his first season in English football when he admitted he does not “train tackles”.
The argument was that City’s sparkling, effervescent attacking play was being constantly let down by preventable defensive errors, which could be solved by taking the back four to one side and carrying out some good old-fashioned shape and positioning work, or perhaps signing a new centre-half.
City had in fact just broken their club transfer record to do just that. Dias, who joined in a £64m deal from Benfica, has been an outstanding addition, bringing authority and leadership to a defence that was previously lacking on both of those counts. He is a leading candidate to be named PFA Player of the Year. His influence cannot be denied.
Yet Dias played in the draw at Leeds, after which Keys made the Allardyce remark. He played in the defeat at Tottenham in November, which sparked the first doubts about a City title challenge. It was his own goal that earned Albion's point at the Etihad. Dias has played a crucial role in this season’s success - it may not have been possible without him - but City’s transformation cannot be put down to any one player.
It is instead a triumph of the collective and how Guardiola reshaped that collective to solve the problems which dogged his side during the early months of the season. By changing the shape, asking his players to run less when in possession, bringing his full-backs into midfield to offer greater stability and protection, he restored the dominant, suffocating City of old, transforming them more than a single signing or specialist defensive coach could.
City dismantled Allardyce’s Albion, hitting five unanswered goals past them. Since the disappointment of the reverse fixture at the Etihad a little more than a month earlier, they had won all seven league games and conceded only once, and even that was just a late consolation.
This seventh victory put them top of the Premier League table for the first time this season. They have remained there ever since.
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