As Pep Guardiola celebrated that landmark 16th successive league win on Saturday, with the manager having made clear to everyone before the game that propelling it against a side like Tottenham Hotspur would mean so much more than just a record run, there were some in the higher-level Manchester City boxes that were celebrating with even more satisfaction.
That was because they couldn’t help thinking how much this meant to Guardiola himself, and how really different things were to a year ago.
At that point in 2016, City were in a run of form that would see them lose four of eight games, and also conceded four goals in separate fixtures against Leicester City and Everton. It brought the worst results of Guardiola’s career, a lot of questions from outside the club about his entire football principles and personality - but also a lot of doubt within it.
Most conspicuously, the decision to replace Joe Hart with Claudio Bravo had been a disaster. In front of the goalkeeper, the highly expensive John Stones was trying to play the type of expansive football that Guardiola demanded, but only seemed to keep getting caught in high-profile mistakes. Stones even admitted his own doubts about whether he could play that way to the manager himself. Some of the most influential figures at the club were at that point also admitting to doubts about why they spent so much on Leroy Sane. Guardiola was insistent to them the German would turn out brilliantly, but they also all saw that this was a far from brilliant time for the Catalan himself.
He was hugely frustrated, and suffering some “low lows”. They could see how much this was paining him, how much he was scrutinising everything about his work. He had just never experienced anything like this before. If Guardiola is an “artist”, as some of City’s hierarchy describe him as a coach, he at that point only looked like a tortured one. The Catalan privately admitted he might have underestimated the competitiveness of the Premier League, mostly as regards how energy-sapping the schedule was, and how that just didn’t give him time to do any proper coaching.
It didn’t, however, lead to any personal doubts about how he coached. Instead, Guardiola only doubled down. Rather than adapt, he was going to go the opposite direction, and apply his principles to the fullest degree possible. He was going to place even more faith in them. He was even more determined and focused.
If he was not going to adapt, though, Guardiola was going to need to be ruthlessly decisive. That started at the back. He had to upgrade on Bravo with the same abruptness he had upgraded on Hart.
There was a sympathy for Bravo, and Guardiola’s belief was that he had suffered from something that is unique to goalkeepers. The City boss thinks that if their first game for a club in a big opposition stadium is a bad one, something goes in their mind, and it is very difficult to recover him. Bravo suffered such a bad one at Old Trafford last September, and didn’t recover. Ederson has been the opposite. He has excelled in every big game. He was also the opposite in terms of profile. When Guardiola and director of football Txiki Begiristain put Ederson’s name to some of City’s main decision-makers as a potential signing, eyebrows were raised as they had never heard of him. Guardiola and Begiristain were insistent, however, that all of their scouting and all of their analytics had emphasised that the then 23-year-old was “perfect” for how they wanted to play. So it has proved. His record £35m fee is now seen as a bargain.
No one would quite say that the £130m spent on full-backs Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo was a bargain, but that just represented more extreme decisiveness. Guardiola knew his system just wouldn’t work in the same way with full-backs closer to the end of their career and no longer as physically powerful as they once were. It also raises another point about the raised standards at City.
Guardiola has been allowed an almost unprecedented amount of money, and a key fact is that it has allowed him to effectively keep throwing cash at problems until they are solved, in a way that most other managers just can’t. That will naturally greatly help.
Another key point with that, though, is Guardiola has looked to absolutely maximise that money. It’s far from just a case of putting them out on the pitch and letting them play. He by contrast looked to improve on every single little detail in what is a grand overarching plan.
Having in his first season introduced the squad to his vision of how a team should move within the conceptualised 20 different zones of a pitch, Guardiola immediately began his second summer by concentrating on building play from the back. That was the main focus of preseason.
In particular, Stones had specifically been told to ignore any criticism, any shouts from the stands, any instructions from earlier in his career. The young centre-half was told to always - always - play the ball on the ground; that he was to never, ever punt it long, no matter what. This was why Guardiola had last season made such a point of publicly praising Stones’ “balls” - and not the type of passes he was playing. It was again having the courage and faith and trust to keep playing a certain way.
Guardiola was meanwhile already proved right on Sane, Raheem Sterling was enjoying a similar improvement, but the City hierarchy were most struck by the effect on the band of players aged between 28 and 32 like Fernandinho and Nicolas Otamendi.
They better understood his overall plan, but also benefitted from the manager's specific individual instructions. Fernandinho was shown movements and little tricks Guardiola himself did when he played in that pivot position, while Otamendi did a lot of work on winning second balls in both boxes. Some at City now believe the Argentine is the best centre-half in the Premier League.
The best example and biggest improvement, however, came in Fabian Delph. Guardiola’s mind from the first season was somewhere between releasing him and retraining him as a full-back, but the manager found he just didn’t have the time to do the latter. The squad’s generally superior comprehension of his core approach allowed it this term, and the results have been there.
So, the results on the scoreboard began to follow… and now keep going and going.
One slight irony in all of this is that many of the City coaching staff felt from the summer that United have a really strong squad and that they could really go far. That just ended up being another motivation, though.
And that is the deeper point about this run.
City have broken a historical record and are winning nearly every game - with the completeness of the achievement only emphasised by putting four-plus goals past Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur while winning at the homes of the champions, Chelsea, and their main rivals, United - because nearly everything about the team is at top level.
A supreme squad now completely understand their manager’s grand plan, but have also had every little detail perfect, and are bolstered by full faith in an idea. Guardiola has radiated that faith, and really acted upon it.
That is why this run is about more than immense resources, and why City want to keep him at the club as long as possible.
It is why they are going to win the league, and why keep on winning so many games.
It is so different to this time last year, but it is the specific response to that has put them on a different level to anyone.
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