How Guardiola has transformed Manchester City
London — A full 11 points clear atop the Premier League and on an unprecedented 16-game winning run, Manchester City have produced one of the most stupendous half-seasons in English football history.
At the same stage last season, City were seven points behind ultimate champions Chelsea in third place and finished the campaign 15 points off the pace.
The boldest move manager Pep Guardiola made in his maiden season at the Etihad Stadium — axing long-serving goalkeeper Joe Hart — proved to be his least successful. Hart’s replacement, Chile international Claudio Bravo, was ill-suited to the English game and his error-strewn displays cost City points.
Guardiola took a punt in the close season, authorising a £35m move to sign uncapped Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson from Benfica, but it has been a masterstroke. The 23-year-old is a sturdy presence between the posts and, perhaps more importantly, his superb distribution has enhanced City’s capacity to play out from the back.
After City shelled out close to £100m to sign Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, Guardiola began testing out systems in which the width in his team was provided by the full-backs.
But when Mendy ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in a 5-0 win over Crystal Palace in September, he had to change tack. Guardiola recalibrated his team by deploying Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane wide on each flank and the pair has responded with scintillating performances. Mendy’s misfortune has also opened the door to Fabian Delph, who has excelled in a left-back role.
In a prophetic remark at the end of last season, Guardiola said: "The team understands the ideas clearer now and next season, we will go all out."
City’s dazzling possession-based approach, orchestrated by the brilliant David Silva and the peerless Kevin De Bruyne, has yielded some huge wins and a staggering 56 league goals.
John Stones endured a difficult first season at City, but Guardiola’s faith in the elegant centre-back has been rewarded as Stones has blossomed into one of the finest defenders in the Premier League, decisive in the tackle and authoritative in possession. Nicolas Otamendi has prospered alongside him, meaning Vincent Kompany’s injury problems have not unduly affected the team.
Sterling is fulfilling his vast potential, his newfound effectiveness making him City’s top scorer with 15 goals.
City’s football over the season’s first three months was jaw-dropping and when they lost momentum, the players’ belief in Guardiola’s methods allowed them to continue grinding out results.
They eked out four 2-1 wins in succession, with three of those secured by goals scored in the 83rd minute or later.
"The most important thing is probably the belief in the dressing room," Sterling said. "The manager sets a plan for each game. He gives us the blueprint. Then you can see everyone else buying into it. Everyone is on board."