Why City will be hard to stop from here

It was incredibly hard not to be swept up by the magnitude of Barcelona’s 4-0 destruction of Manchester City two weeks ago - especially on behalf of the vanquished.

Manchester City players

Manchester City's Pep Guardiola celebrates with his players after victory over West Bromwich Albion Source: Getty Images

Some were beginning to wonder if the magic of Josep Guardiola might just be wearing off, especially as they slumped to a home draw with Southampton and a League Cup loss to Manchester United the following week.

That capped off a six-game winless run for City, officially the worst run in Guardiola’s managerial history. The critics were stirring. Even salivating.

Now, going into Sunday morning’s match against Middlesbrough (Live on SBS, 1:30am), he’s lining up for a third win in all competitions.

Fortunes can change in the blink of an eye in this game. And in case you missed it, City are still on top of the Premier League.

Only those behind closed doors will know exactly what was said by Pep but if history is anything to go by, it’s unlikely he went on a foul-mouthed rant at his players. Quite the opposite.

One of the finest football books ever written, Pep Confidential, went behind the scenes of his first season at Bayern Munich in 2013-2014. If you’ve read it, you’ll know what I’m talking about it. If you haven’t, buy it.

The author, Martí Perarnau, was granted access to all areas. Guardiola’s obsession with perfection is detailed, excruciatingly at times, and even though Bayern coast from success to success, the book often feels as though it’s drama after drama.

A loss is treated as a puzzle tipped to the floor, especially one where the team didn’t perform. Guardiola spends hours and hours locked away in solidarity, or with a trusted lieutenant or two, to figure out what went wrong.

They won’t leave the room until a way forward has been identified. That’s a big difference from other managers, who are often just as eager to identify a scapegoat as a solution.

It’s at that moment where the work really begins - teaching the players, be they one or many, about how to correct any issues. He drills them on the training ground until they understand the concept back-to-front.

Guardiola may hit patches of fury, like anyone in his position, but it’s seldom at his players. He views their faults as opportunities - but only if he pulls the right rein.

Undoubtedly, this has contributed to the stress that occasionally threatens to overwhelm him, and arguably already has at various times in Barcelona and Munich.

But like all champions, he tends to find a way. This latest dry spell, which saw City’s supremacy challenged at home and abroad, has been answered magnificently this past week.

The 4-0 destruction of West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns last weekend was a 90-minute show of strength, one that served to inject fresh confidence back into fans and players alike.

“I had doubts and saw what we had to improve. It's the first time I have not won in six games,” he said after the game. “Always you have doubts, but not over the principles.”

And so the Catalan stuck to those principles as he again faced his former club in the return group match at Etihad Stadium. Humiliated at the Nou Camp, City couldn’t afford another disaster. He did, however, have to find a temporary solution.

This was Guardiola at his finest. Trailing 1-0 to who else but Leo Messi, Guardiola permitted his men to play a more direct style. They ended up winning 3-1, with the entire side looking rejuvenated. 

Ilkay Gundogan, after a brace against West Brom, scored two more and was superb. Kevin De Bruyne looked inspired. Sergio Aguero is in brilliant form. John Stones - who simply has to perform if City are to win in Europe or at home - looked a different player. Now City look ready to put rubber to the bitumen.

"We competed with Barcelona, but for now we did it in a different way. We played more long balls because we are still not ready to keep the ball and play like they do,” Guardiola told the BBC.

"They have been playing that way for 25 years. For us, it is three or four months that we have been trying to play in a different style."

Critics will say he abandoned his principles, but those who know him best will say he merely figured out a way to win.

Ultimately, isn't that what the best managers do?

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4 min read
Published 4 November 2016 at 1:00pm
By Sebastian Hassett