Manchester City are Premier League champions: How Pep Guardiola did it
Manchester City’s route to the Premier League title has been untouched by serious opposition – a coronation in the making since they went top of the table in September.
Manchester United’s home defeat by West Brom on Sunday means Pep Guardiola’s team have reached their target with only two league defeats, against Liverpool and Manchester United, and have not looked back since that 6-0 win against Watford at Vicarage Road put them top of the pile.
It has been an impressive feat of management by Guardiola to turn a 15-point deficit to deposed champions Chelsea last season into a runaway triumph.
Guardiola has been helped, of course, by Manchester City’s spending power but it must not be ignored that rivals such as United, Chelsea and Liverpool have hardly had chequebooks that were gathering dust.
City and Guardiola suffered the pain of Champions League defeat as they lost convincingly 5-1 over two legs to Liverpool in the quarter-finals. Europe’s elite competition is regarded as the Holy Grail by the club’s hierarchy – but in a Premier League context they have been the untouchables.
All that remains is whether City can eclipse Manchester United’s record Premier League-winning margin of 18 points over Arsenal in 1999-2000 to cap a spectacular title campaign.
So how has Guardiola transformed a first league season that was regarded as a relative disappointment into one of triumph the following year?
Guardiola learned lessons of tough first season
When Pep Guardiola’s appointment at Manchester City was confirmed on 1 February 2016 – shortly after Manuel Pellegrini announced his departure – it was the perfect fit for the ambitious plans plotted by the club’s Abu Dhabi-based owners.
This was a house built and waiting for Guardiola to take occupancy. It was already home to City director of football Txiki Begiristain and chief executive Ferran Soriano, who worked hand in glove with Guardiola at Barcelona.
And yet even Guardiola, for all his Champions League and La Liga successes at Barcelona and his Bundesliga triumphs at Bayern Munich, was forced to learn lessons from a transitional first season that was a relative disappointment given the expectations that accompanied his arrival.
What initially looked like a relentless march to success after opening with six straight league wins stalled on several occasions and Guardiola was forced to accept the unaccustomed feeling of a season free from silverware.
City finished 15 points adrift of Premier League champions Chelsea, gave up a lead to lose an FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal and – arguably most disappointing of all – conceded a two-goal first-leg lead to go out against Monaco in the last 16 of the Champions League.
These were chastening moments, repeated again as they came up short against Liverpool in Europe, but, according to former Manchester City defender Danny Mills, their title success should not have come a surprise – nor should Guardiola’s reshaping of his resources for this season’s success, which also includes the Carabao Cup.
And even after that occasionally rocky first season there was certainly no panic or uncertainty at Manchester City as they accepted this was a period of relative upheaval with a squad that needed renewal. The club’s faith in Guardiola to deliver what they desired never wavered.
Mills told BBC Sport: “I said all along Pep would get it right but that it would take him time. The Premier League is unlike any other league in the world with its sheer competitive nature that means bottom can beat top.
“If teams go 2-0 down they don’t give up. They retain a belief they can win. The competition, even from game to game is fierce, and that is something you may not experience in other countries, even if you are coaching those elite clubs like Barcelona or Bayern Munich.
“Maybe he found the intensity a little bit surprising and also he didn’t quite have the personnel right.”
Mills added: “He probably grew to realise it was a little bit more competitive and challenging than he thought but people like Guardiola, Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho are high-class managers, proven time after time.
“He hasn’t got where he has without being a very good coach and manager and he made the big decisions and big changes to get City to where they are now. I did think it would take time but I knew he would get it right.”
Guardiola’s qualities as a coach are sometimes under-played and the possibility that it might have taken time to ingrain such a specific approach into his players should not be overlooked.
He is an advocate of religiously following a pattern of play until it is second nature to his players. It is designed to eliminate mistakes, positional errors and poor decision-making – and it is noticeable how Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, in particular, appear to have been the beneficiaries of this approach.
It is simple and complicated in turns, offering a level of understanding as to why Guardiola was not, and perhaps never going to be, an instant success.
So what were the other changes and developments that turned City into champions?
Bold and brave enough to replace Bravo
Guardiola’s instant replacement of two-time title-winner, England goalkeeper and firm fan favourite Joe Hart was a bold and ruthless first statement of intent.
Hart’s City career was over from the moment the Spaniard stepped through the doors of the Etihad Campus, an uncertain Euro 2016 seemingly confirming that he was surplus to the new manager’s requirements.
It was a move that was not immediately a success as Guardiola turned to Chile international Claudio Bravo, signed for £15.4m from his former club Barcelona.
Bravo subsequently became the symbol of City’s defensive struggles, a goalkeeper who was not as proficient with the ball at his feet as many assumed, even earning an unfortunate reputation as the shot-stopper who did not stop shots.
After the 2-2 draw against Tottenham at Etihad Stadium in January 2017 and the 4-0 loss at Everton the previous week, Bravo had conceded six goals from the last six shots he had faced. It also meant he had conceded 16 goals from the last 24 shots he had faced.
In 22 league games last season, he kept only five clean sheets and made 33 stops with a save ratio of 55.9%.
Guardiola, despite a continued loyalty to Bravo that ensured he played a crucial role in this season’s EFL Cup win, decided he had to make the change.
In came Ederson from Benfica in a £35m deal and the 24-year-old Brazilian has been a resounding success, not only making crucial saves but giving City the extra attacking dimension Guardiola craves from his keepers with his calmness with the ball at his feet and the accuracy of his short and long-range distribution.
Burnley manager Sean Dyche said after City’s 1-1 draw at Burnley: “It’s like having [former Netherlands defensive great] Ronald Koeman in goal. He gets the ball and spins it around the pitch, all over the place, and that adds to City’s game plan massively because he defuses the game.
“They give it back to him, he’s nice and calm and then he’ll clip one into midfield or clip it wide. There’s not many keepers I know who can do that. It’s a massive weapon for them.”
Mills believes Guardiola’s move to marginalise Bravo is another sign of his courage and willingness to alter strategy.
“He made decisions on what he thought was going to work, bearing in mind he’d never worked in this league at a close up level before, and some didn’t quite work out,” says Mills. “The change of goalkeeper is the perfect example.
“He was quite open by doing that. It was a massive decision and that takes a lot of bravery, holding your hands up and saying: ‘You know what – I got it wrong.’
“He dropped England’s number one, sent him out of the football club and brought in a goalkeeper in Claudio Bravo that didn’t quite work.
“And rather than sticking with it to save face, he accepted it hadn’t quite worked and he hadn’t got that decision right and bang – changed. That is what top managers do. They don’t mess about. They take the big decisions.”
BBC Sport pundit Mark Lawrenson agreed the Ederson upgrade has been crucial.
“Distribution, shot-stopping, decision making – everything about him is a step up,” said Lawrenson.