Thursday, May 13, 2021

How Guardiola transformed misfiring Manchester City into champions-elect

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Man-management, tactical tweaks and rotation inspired run that means City can secure Premier League title on Sunday

Manchester City will claim a fifth Premier League title if they win at Crystal Palace on Saturday and Manchester United are defeated at home by Liverpool on Sunday. Behind this simple equation, though, is the tale of how in a challenging Covid-affected season Pep Guardiola transformed his side from their nadir 10 days before Christmas into a relentless winning machine that boast a 10-point lead with five matches left.

He did this via a seer-like football brain and austere man-management that eschews the touchy-feely style of, say, Ole Gunnar Solskjær. He did this via a rotation policy that shows the same XI never being retained in the competition. He did this without the club record goalscorer, Sergio Agüero, for long stretches, or the Argentinian’s deputy, Gabriel Jesus, for shorter periods (also because of injury and coronavirus), instead elevating his penchant for “ghost” No 9s to a rarefied level. And, just as pertinently, Guardiola placed City on the verge of a seventh English title with a regeared defence personified by the rejuvenated John Stones.

There is the subplot, too, of Liverpool’s tame championship defence, their 18-point triumph of last season now a 23-point gulf to Guardiola’s men. Yet the overriding narrative is how the Catalan bolstered his status as this generation’s pre-eminent manager, a feat in which timing was supreme: the fix he applied coming just before City fell too far behind in belief and points.

Following the 2-0 defeat at Tottenham in November, City were down in 11th, trailing José Mourinho’s leaders by eight points. Yet the moment that caused Guardiola to hit the reset button was a 1-1 draw with West Brom on 15 December.

Afterwards, he said . . .

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