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The Financial Express

From gallows to glory: How Pep turned City’s season around


From gallows to glory: How Pep turned City’s season around

"Ah Shit! Here we go again", Raheem Sterling's tweet after winning the title speaks volumes of Manchester City's recent dominance in the English Premier League. The nature of the premier league has changed massively over recent years. Who would have thought, the most competitive league in world football would turn into a one-horse race?

With Guardiola eyeing his long-coveted Champions League supremacy, this success could raise the confidence in the squad. Manchester City has secured their title with three games in hand after Leicester City punished a young and inexperienced Manchester United side at Old Trafford.

This is Guardiola's third premier league title in four complete seasons with Manchester City, Matching Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho's records. Sir Alex Ferguson (13) seems to be untouchable though.

Unlike the last three terms, the Citizens (as Manchester City is sometimes called) were not scoring too many goals early this season. In fact, even if they were scoring, they were struggling to hold on to the lead by conceding goals. Every team they played against tried to sit back, defend and capitalise on their mistakes.

Missing Silva

The brightest of instances could be the game against Leicester City at home. The game was intense and eventful. It was a tactical battle, which Brendan Rodgers, the Leicester boss, won. The lack of creativity in City midfield was obvious. This hints at City missing a certain maestro from Spain- David Silva.

The creativity was never a problem when two world-class midfielders like Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva were operating in the midfield. Although they both played in similar positions effectively, they were different types of players and contributed to different aspects of the game. David Silva was a more cunning and technical player who controlled the tempo of the game. On the contrary, Kevin De Bruyne's class was gifted with precision and vision.

Without David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne became the engine. While everyone likes to see De Bruyne more up the pitch linking with forwards and scoring goals, he played in a deeper position whenever he felt marked heavily or his teammates failed to reach him.

Kevin De Bruyne's average position was at central midfield. He was often seen dropping deeper in order to create something, and against Leeds, it was one of those games. De Bruyne accounts for roughly 33 per cent of the expected assists this season for Manchester City. The creative burden seemed heavier than he could shoulder.

The Citizens never looked a menace in that period. The forwards were just running and hoping that De Bruyne would provide them with some magic. The team spirit had long gone, Gaurdiola was on the verge of losing the dressing room. At times, senior campaigners like Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguerio felt they were undermined.

As Guardiola pressed, "I don’t like the team, I don’t like the way we play. The results don’t matter, I don’t like it, I don’t recognise my team and the way we play… I don’t like at all what I’m watching."

Changed structure

In the presence of David Silva, City used to stick to what is in Spain called La-pausa. La-pausa is a method that allows teams to slow down the tempo of the game and wait for the right moment to unleash a decisive pass. David Silva controlled the tempo and was deemed a la pausa machine.

However, after his departure, City changed their game. Guardiola adopted a more modern tactic-work and run hard. Their work rate was admirable, they played at a high tempo. But, this was a significant departure from Guardiola's philosophy of football. The irony is that the modern tactic backfired in a modern era.

"We ran too much,” admits Guardiola, "we were not in position, we ran too much, everyone moved right-left, left-right, moving without knowing exactly what we have to do with the ball.”

Cancelo comes in rescue

Guadiola seemed clueless, undecided and short of ideas. But luckily, it was for a short period. Perhaps, the genius of Guardiola came into play early this year, in a desperate time, when the need for adjustments intensified.

Man City found their tricks working when Joao Cancelo and Ilkay Gundogan were deployed in a more advanced position, bringing the centre back duo to more wide areas. The plan was risky and it had flaws. As we saw, teams with quality wingers wreaked havoc at times.

But the risk was worth everything. The idea was to put more bodies in the box. At the heart of the tactic was Joao Cancelo. What Cancelo offered was special. Putting aside the monster Kevin De Bruyne, he created more goal scoring chances than any other City player. One of the most important parts of his game is his versatility. Although it was the inverted fullback role where he excelled the most, he also played as a left-back sometimes. He was lethal, made key passes, involved in most attacks and became City's most active player in build-ups.

Cancelo was more mature in reading the game as well. His work ethics can be compared to many elite midfielders in the premier league. He averaged two tackles, two recoveries and more than 60 passes per 90 minute this season. Playing his own role perfectly, he also made his teammates' game much better, especially that of another tactically important figure- Ilkay Gundogan.

Pep mastermind

Until late December, Gundogan's game was limited to only the role of a holding midfielder. Being a deep-lying midfielder, his job was to shield the defence, allowing fullbacks and advanced midfielders to move forward and attack.

However, Guardiola brought some changes in his requirements after a draw against West Brom pushed them to the lower part of the table. Gundogan became more advanced and attack-oriented. The move yielded success, thanks to Gundogan's quality. He formed striking chemistry with forwards and exploited spaces in the box to score goals.

At one point in the campaign, City lost their two centre forwards, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, to injury and Covid-19. Guardiola experimented with Sterling on some occasions, but it didn't work out. At times, City used Ferran Torres there, but both the players' had shortcomings and struggled to shine in their out of position roles.

The lack of aerial threat and positional awareness ensured it was a poor decision by the manager. Then a false nine strategy was adopted with De Bruyne sacrificing his natural game and lifting some burdens off himself in the process. The change of tactics worked wonders for Guardiola. Players swapped their positions, had clear ideas about where their teammates were and were positive in their approach. Before they lost to Manchester United at Etihad, they recorded a 28 game unbeaten run in all competitions.

Contrary to what everyone expected, Raheem Sterling was slowly replaced by Phil Foden. Regardless of his playing position, he always delivered. On average, the talented English youth was the most creative player whenever playing for City. His introduction brought instant success for the team. He was brilliant overall, looking like what City was missing on the pitch--reminiscent of Bernardo Silva of the 2018-19 season when City was Bernardo and 10 plus--a leader in the making.

It is never easy for a manager to sort things out so quickly unless he is a genius himself. Guardiola smartly handled whatever Manchester City went through early in the season. One of the main forces behind the success was John Stones' revival as a world-class defender. The partnership between him and Ruben Dias served Giardiola's purpose very well. Dias probably was the player of the season.

What's it like to manage two born leaders? Better, ask Gaurdiola. Ruben Dias was what Virgil Van Dijk to Liverpool and probably more important as City were devoid of a vocal and agile personality on the pitch.

Guardiola knew how to regroup them again and bring the best out of everyone in the squad. That is what he is the best at, to make everyone feel at home, to keep everyone happy despite the lack of minutes. There were lows in the season which may have made the taste of success even sweeter. As Guardiola resonates, "This has been a season and a Premier League title like no other."

Tofael Mahmud is a third year student of Economics at University of Dhaka.

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