Manchester City could become Premier League champions and reach the Champions League final in the next 72 hours. They are one of the best teams in English football, mainly because they have had to deal with an unprecedented match list and empty stadiums. This is how they did it …
SIGNATURE OF RUBEN DIAS
City were an easy touch last season, losing nine games due to errors at the back. No one was talking about Ruben Dias at the time compared to other Premier League goals like Kalidou Koulibaly, but City’s recruiting division trumped. Dias was influential in City closing the back door and was involved in 25 clean sheets even though he started the season at Benfica. I compare his influence to Virgil van Dijk at Liverpool, which makes the team stable. And he’s only 23, he could be there for another decade.
Pep Guardiola has created a Manchester City team that is one of the best English football clubs ever
With the signing of Ruben Dias (right), Manchester City got a player with Virgil van Dijk-esque influence
Dias’ arrival coincided with the rehabilitation of Pep Guardiola’s fellow center daughter John Stones
Too many managers throw out players after a bad season, especially if they have a large checkbook. Pep Guardiola has shown that if you listen and learn, you get a second chance.
John Stones’ transformation is the best example. He’s always had the ability, but his City career had fallen off a cliff with even Fernandinho ahead of him in the middle half pecking order. Guardiola did not give up on him or give Stones credit for putting the work into it.
Many of us thought Phil Foden needed a loan. Guardiola decided that he could develop better in-house and he was right. At the age of 20, Foden played in a variety of positions and plays like he’s been doing it for years. Bernardo Silva is another one out of the cold.
ADJUST TO NEW NORMAL
No one has handled this season’s unique demands better than Guardiola, both tactically and selectively.
He’s played differently and the plan for Joao Cancelo to move from the fullback to central midfield during matches has honed City defensively, helping them control games and enabling Ilkay Gundogan to come forward and score a goal.
Guardiola has adjusted plans for Ilkay Gundogan (left) and Joao Cancelo (right) this season.
Playing the traditional Pep way, full blast all the time, could have resulted in fatigue with this crazy Covid match list. Instead, City has prioritized game controls. Often playing with a false nine like Bernardo, Raheem Sterling or Kevin De Bruyne has helped. They’re used to playing deeper, so it helped City hold the ball better and longer.
City have won nine of their last eleven games, but have not scored more than twice in any of them. Their style suited the conditions in which teams needed endurance.
STRONG AND HAPPY SQUAD
City has the best group of players in the country, but also has the manager who uses them the best.
Most everyone on the squad is a big name, but you don’t see the egos because Guardiola has kept them on board all season. A club legend, Sergio Aguero barely played but was in the posse while everyone else celebrated the winner against PSG. He came back against Crystal Palace yesterday and scored the opening goal.
Likewise Sterling. The go-to man has been overshadowed by Foden and Riyad Mahrez for many years, but every time he’s called up he’s given his all. You don’t hear grumbling from the city camp.
Despite being overshadowed at times, Raheem Sterling (center) has always given it his all
Guardiola ruled from the start that he had to refresh the team regularly to keep up the distance.
City made eight changes for Palace to win 2-0, with Benjamin Mendy contributing to give others a break ahead of the return game against PSG.
EXPERIENCE AND PATIENCE
I thought City would struggle this season after being beaten 5-2 at home by Leicester. Things didn’t look too smart when they lost 2-0 to Spurs in November and slipped to 11th place.
But Guardiola did not panic or change his game plan. He was convinced that his methods would work, so there was no alarm bell or demand that his players try to score five goals every week. Over time, we have come to recognize his plan.
City won 21 games in a row in one phase – a staggering achievement. They did not blow teams away, but always crossed the line. Because Rodri protected the two middle halves, they gained strength.
The full backs didn’t have to bomb all the time as Cancelo or Kyle Walker appeared in midfield, allowing Gundogan and others to break forward.
It’s easy for a manager to look good after a win. The fact that Guardiola continues to trust in his system after setbacks underlines his genius.
DAZZLING DE BRUYNE
The very best teams usually have an excellent game changer and in De Bruyne City has the best player in the country.
Opponents should look up to him. Fast, powerful, elegant, poetry in motion. And the ability to wait for the right time to play that great pass, cross or shot. He seldom forces the matter or makes the wrong judgment.
In world-class Kevin De Bruyne (center), Manchester City has the best player in the country
De Bruyne influences the game from every position; central midfield, wide, No. 10 or false nine.
He can shoot with both feet, play intricate short passes like Cesc Fabregas or rake 60-yarders like Paul Scholes or Steven Gerrard.
I also like his mentality. He rarely gets confused or loses focus. In the really big games he will stay calm and influence the result, as he did against PSG with the opening goal.