Premier League: Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola's insistence on improved defence at the heart of team's golden run

As the news of Manchester United losing against West Brom filtered in, Pep Guardiola was still on the golf course with his son. He did not want to spend the day in anticipation, some quiet time was needed before the inevitable materialised. As it turned out, the wait would not be longer. The grass was finally the greenest on his side.

As Manchester City’s title procession will go through the final five games, the side will have an opportunity to break a few more records. Notably, the highest points total in a season (currently held by Chelsea, 95 in 2004-05), most goals scored in a Premier League campaign (103 by Chelsea in 2009-10) and most wins (30 for Chelsea in 2016-17) lie in front of the Citizens.

File photo of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. AFP

File photo of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. AFP

City could have even broken the record for grabbing the title with five games to spare but a hiccup against Manchester United meant they could only equal it; United the only other side to do it in a 38-game season in 2000-01. Not to forget, though, City did scale a new mountain in English football for winning 18 games in a row.

The numbers, though, can impress only so much. While they reveal the chasm that City have left in their trail, there is much more to be said about the side’s success story. The overall pristine picture was stained by three defeats in a week at the beginning of this month but the reverses cannot overshadow Pep Guardiola and his players' achievements. A net spend of around £190 million certainly helped but City’s recruitment shone through.

Guardiola’s troubles last season arose from the defence. A central feature of the style of play professed by the manager is that defenders should be comfortable with the ball at their feet and be able to construct moves from the back. Long, aimless clearances are a strict no-no. However, as Guardiola found to his horror, the defenders at his disposal were trained differently and too old to change their ways. Hence, Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta, Aleksandar Kolarov, Gael Clichy, and Eliaquim Mangala were deemed ill-suited last summer. Goalkeepers Joe Hart and Willy Caballero were pushed out too while the diffident Claudio Bravo was no longer first choice.

An astronomical spending was required for a comprehensive overhaul; only the removal of a number of players would enable Guardiola to implement his vision. Furthermore, in the 2016-17 campaign, the former Barcelona manager had discovered that the Premier League’s hectic rhythms did not allow him to train his players adequately. Therefore, pre-season was key and Guardiola set about to work with his new recruitments.

Four of the City’s six most expensive signings this season were defenders while one of the remaining two was goalkeeper Ederson. Guardiola had responded to the problem effectively and in good time. Meanwhile, those players who were already there were asked to work harder. Nicolas Otamendi’s rejuvenation is credited to Guardiola’s personalised training of the defender for winning second balls better. The manager’s task was made easier by full-backs Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, who are tactically mobile and adept at transitioning from one phase of play to another. Guardiola remained vigilant; when Mendy became unavailable for a long time due to injury, the manager turned to midfielder Fabian Delph; his mistrust of Danilo suggesting the coach was averse to affect the base which eventually led him to his seventh league title in nine seasons.

Remarkably, City’s recruitment did not focus on the biggest stars in football. Rather, the club backed the manager’s vision and the performances this season have only improved the value of the players. To wit, such is the defensive security and tactical awareness possessed by Ederson, £35 million for the goalkeeper is among the deals of this season. With a relatively young squad at Guardiola’s disposal and the market volatile, the financial worth of the players is likely to go further up.

While the improved defence helped the manager to play the football he intensely desires, in the popular imagination, it is City’s stirring attack which is likely to be remembered for long. Bogged down by midfield congestion last season, Guardiola instructed his players to spread out the play this time around. City often targeted the channel on the outside of the centre-backs to hurt the opposition.

Guardiola made that possible by using Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane on the flanks. With Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva attracting the opposition in central areas, the players on the wings were asked to stretch space. This meant that the opposing defender was engaged by either a City forward or a full-back on the flank, leaving the unmarked player an opportunity to run directly into the box. This explains how Sterling time and again found the space to push forward and score while Sane could cut inside and pull the ball back for an onrushing teammate.

Although the move was predictable, the range of passing and the invention which City possessed flummoxed opponents time and again. Even though fellow title challengers spent plenty of money, they did not use their financial resources wisely. No other side had completed the puzzle like City.

The results were devastating. Minnows were swept aside ruthlessly while the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham Hotspur lost both times they played City in the league. Even though Liverpool and Manchester United achieved unlikely victories, the wins for Guardiola’s players over the former at home (5-0) and the latter away (2-1) were season-defining. City’s average possession for this league campaign is up to 71 percent now, 10 points better than last season.

Those hopeful of making a title push next year will have to spend considerably again; one suspects so will City, although in a targeted manner. Their defence could still do with not falling apart when put under considerable duress. In a season where City were barely tested, the problem had a limited impact. But Guardiola knows that further success is still a few steps away, particularly the Champions League trophy.

But the league title is a ringing endorsement of the manager’s philosophy. At the beginning of the season, Guardiola had remarked, “Success without playing the way you like means nothing to me.” The 47-year-old coach stuck to his way and that will be his side’s enduring legacy. The style of City’s football will live on.

Guardiola’s players, of course, are not the first bunch to utterly dominate the competition. Manchester United’s treble-winning squad in 1999 was arguably more efficient while Arsenal’s 2003-04 team will be remembered forever for finishing the league campaign unbeaten. Guardiola’s bête noire, Jose Mourinho, guaranteed the title for him on Sunday but he can legitimately claim to have been the architect of one of the greatest Premier League sides, Chelsea in 2004-05.

There’s more. A decade on from the treble, Sir Alex Ferguson masterminded the thrilling United team of the 2007-08 camapaign which could boast of the attacking talents of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and Carlos Tevez. Two seasons later, though, Ferguson’s weakened side was well beaten by Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea who set a record for scoring the most number of goals.

Guardiola’s team will certainly be named in the same breath but they have an opportunity to transcend the pantheon. City’s manager has given us a new way of thinking about football, a model which has also earned appreciation from his redoubtable peers. While nobody has achieved success like Guardiola in his time, many have attempted the sincerest form of flattery – imitation. If City can push on and achieve even greater success, there will be more. This will not put an end to the debate over the greatest side ever in English football. But Guardiola and his players can trivialise the question.


Updated Date: Apr 17, 2018 11:39 AM

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