Pep's record dominance and his continental struggles at City

EPL By: Ambrose Udeme | 16/04/2018

Manchester City's route to the Premier League title coronation has been in the making since they went top of the table in September their resolve to remain at the top has been untouched by any serious opposition.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho said his players were "masters in complication" after their defeat by bottom side West Brom at Old Trafford. The result saw Manchester City crowned Premier League champions, as they lead second-placed United by 16 points with five games each to play.

While many would argue Guardiola has been helped, of course, by Manchester City's spending power but it must not be ignored that rivals such as United, Chelsea and Liverpool have hardly had chequebooks that were gathering dust. All that remains is whether City can eclipse Manchester United's record Premier League-winning margin of 18 points over Arsenal in 1999-2000 to cap a spectacular title campaign.

The roots of such record-breaking brilliance are not just found in record-breaking expenditure, but also Guardiola previously suffering by far the worst results of his career. Manchester United's home defeat by West Brom on Sunday means Pep Guardiola's team have reached their target with only two league defeats, against Liverpool and Manchester United, and have not looked back since that 6-0 win against Watford at Vicarage Road put them top of the pile.

City and Guardiola suffered the pain of Champions League defeat as they lost convincingly 5-1 over two legs to Liverpool in the quarter-finals. Europe's elite competition is regarded as the Holy Grail by the club's hierarchy - but in a Premier League context they have been the untouchables.

So how has Guardiola transformed a first league season that was regarded as a relative disappointment into one of triumph the following year?

Guardiola was still going to need to be ruthlessly decisive himself if he wasn’t going to adapt, but there was no doubt about that either. That started at the back. Guardiola had to upgrade on Bravo with the same swift brutality he had upgraded on Hart.

There was sympathy for Bravo - as was to be intimated when the manager insisted on sticking with him and so praising him for the League Cup win. Guardiola’s theory was that Bravo had suffered from something the Catalan thinks unique to goalkeepers. The City boss believes that if their first game in a big opposition stadium is a bad one, something goes in their mind, and it is very difficult to recover from. Bravo suffered such a bad one at Old Trafford in September 2016, and didn’t look right for the rest of that season. He could barely make a save. Ederson has been the opposite. He has barely made anything close to an error, and one of his stand-out moments of the season was the effective game- and title-clinching late double stop in the 2-1 win back at Old Trafford in December. That was the win over United that was really won the league.

Ederson was also the opposite in terms of profile, something that is relevant to the wider debate over how much City have spent. Not much of it has been spent on established stars. Indeed, when Guardiola and director of football Txiki Begiristain put Ederson’s name to some of City’s main decision-makers, eyebrows were raised as they had never heard of him. Guardiola and Begiristain were insistent, however, that all of their scouting and analytics had emphasised that the then 23-year-old was “perfect” for how they wanted to play. So it has proved. Ederson’s record £35m fee is now seen as a bargain.

Guardiola, for all his Champions League and La Liga successes at Barcelona and his Bundesliga triumphs at Bayern Munich, was forced to learn lessons from a transitional first season that was a relative disappointment given the expectations that accompanied his arrival.

What initially looked like a relentless march to success after opening with six straight league wins stalled on several occasions and Guardiola was forced to accept the unaccustomed feeling of a season free from silverware. City finished 15 points adrift of Premier League champions Chelsea, gave up a lead to lose an FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal and - arguably most disappointing of all - conceded a two-goal first-leg lead to go out against Monaco in the last 16 of the Champions League.

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 no longer capable of the physical power he required. It is too important a position.

This also raises another important point about the money, and the manner it’s used. City’s win is far from just a case of Guardiola 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 introduced the squad to his vision of how a team should move in his first season, and getting them to try and comprehend the conceptualised map of a football pitch with 20 different zones to move between, Guardiola immediately began his second summer by concentrating on building play from the back. That was the main focus of preseason.

Guardiola's qualities as a coach are sometimes underplayed and the possibility that it might have taken time to ingrain such a specific approach into his players should not be overlooked.

He is an advocate of religiously following a pattern of play until it is second nature to his players. It is designed to eliminate mistakes, positional errors and poor decision-making - and it is noticeable how Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, in particular, appear to have been the beneficiaries of this approach.

It is simple and complicated in turns, offering a level of understanding as to why Guardiola was not, and perhaps never going to be, an instant success. So what were the other changes and developments that turned City into champions?

Manchester City's uncharacteristically flawed succession planning left Guardiola inheriting a squad weakness it would take him a season to cure - namely a crucial, ageing area of his team.

Guardiola had quality defenders and fine servants at full-back in Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna and Aleksandar Kolarov, but all are well into their 30s and no longer capable of the energy and athleticism he requires in those positions. Zabaleta, in particular, has almost legendary status at City but the quartet left in summer 2017 as Guardiola continued his reshaping process.

Guardiola's faith in Raheem Sterling has been unbreakable even in the darker moments - as he proved by texting him during his miserable Euro 2016 campaign with England in France to reassure him about the key role he would play in Manchester City's future. Sterling took uncertain early steps at City following his £49m move from Liverpool in July 2015, with questions being asked about his failure to reproduce the sparkling form that almost took the title to Anfield in 2014.

And yet this season, under Guardiola's close tutelage, Sterling has answered the questions with the most consistent season of his career and most successful goals return. When Arsenal introduced his name into discussions about a potential deal for Alexis Sanchez in January, the prospect was dismissed immediately.

Sterling's previous best goal tally in the Premier League was nine from 33 games in 2013-14. Two seasons at City yielded only 13 goals from 64 games. This season he had 15 league goals in the first 25 games. He had matched the previous best in eight league games and eclipsed it in 11 as he became a key component in Guardiola's attacking weaponry. Knowledge of Guardiola’s ideas - particularly the 20-zone map of a pitch and how to move within it - was now second nature to the City squad, but was boosted by a key second quality: full and unwavering confidence in those ideas.

In real visible terms on the pitch, it meant the following tactical approach. Technically perfect controllers like De Bruyne and the sublime David Silva would command the centre of the pitch and so much opposition attention, while two of the wide players - either the wingers like Raheem Sterling or wing-backs like Walker - would go very wide to take the other side’s full-backs with them and create a space outside the opposing central defenders. The two wide players who didn’t go wide would then move into that space, giving those midfield controllers an abundance of potential passing options... and that for controllers like De Bruyne and Silva who are capable of an abundance of different types of divine passes. It was precision, with pace, with proper organisation and then emboldened by the most wondrous imagination.

City already saw significant progress from last season, and can now fairly anticipate more progress next season. Everyone says they can feel it. So many key players are still so young. Players like Sane and Sterling will be older and De Bruyne closer to his prime and the feeling is they can become an even more complete team. The idea is there now, fully formed, and so is the Premier League trophy.

Guardiola's personal charisma and virtual guarantee of success is a magnet to attract the biggest names - along with City's financial firepower. And he has utilised both weapons wisely to bring the title back to Etihad Stadium.

The result has been a Premier League title that has been achieved with wonderfully entertaining football and no serious threat from those hoping to be Manchester City's rivals.

Guardiola bravery

With the Premier League title won and the wounds from the Champions League exit still raw, there are areas City’s manager must address to improve his team.

This may be counterintuitive after City were dumped from the Champions League quarter-finals, 5-1 by Liverpool, but Guardiola must not lose courage in his quest for ever more perfect football. Given how invigorating City are to watch, next season’s fascination will be whether the Pep way can conquer Europe, while he tries to retain the Premier League crown.

To do so he has to solve the issue that plagued him at Bayern Munich, between 2013-16, and in two continental campaigns at City: how to fill the gap in the XI where he fielded Lionel Messi for his double European Cup-winners, Barcelona.

The Argentinian was Guardiola’s genie in a bottle, his go-to when the club needed to pull away from an opponent who came at Barça, just as Jurgen Klopp’s men did at City this month. Guardiola has to find another way, and if he maintains the brave desire to always dazzle, the result could be a Messi-less City who are even better than his gilded Barca.
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