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City emerging from the shadows to become Premier League challengers

The appointment of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona in 2008 is often cited as a landmark moment in modern footballing history. Currently in charge of Man City in the Premier League, Guardiola was handed one of the biggest jobs in sport despite lacking any kind of notable top-level managerial experience, the La Masia graduate transformed an aging team that were finding it increasingly hard to remain challengers, into one of the best club sides we’ve ever seen.

Still, though not to do a disservice to his genius, the fabric of his philosophy had been knitted years before by the likes of Johan Cruyff. While Guardiola took such ideals to new levels, the blueprints had already been laid. Which is why the current state of his Manchester City side is so interesting.

Clearly, his City teams of 2017/18 and 2018/19 did not make as much of an impact as his Barcelona ones on a European stage but, in those two glorious seasons, his challengers set a new benchmark in the Premier League.

Perhaps victims of their own success on that front, the malaise that set in last season initially looked to be dragging on into this one. Even after the Spaniard signed a new contract in November, the idea of an exciting rebuild  under his watch seemed a daunting task.

With a managerial career dripping in success, anything less than weekly footballing exhibitions seemed an anomaly, questions in regards to his suitability for such a job seemed fair. Could a man of such intensity and micro-management really gee himself up for another mammoth project?

Much has been a motif throughout Guardiola’s career, it seems like he can. The process, however, has been one of refinement rather than reinvention. Indeed, City still rank second in the league for possession amassed and shots taken per game, as well as boasting the highest passing average amongst the English elite. No matter the players or what phase this City team are in, they are simply the fundamentals to his set-up.

However, it is the improvement in defence that has been the most impressive development at City of late and which has brought them back into contention as Premier League challengers. Breaking attacking records may have been what we’ve come to expect from them but the fact they recently kept six clean sheets in a row for only the second time in their history is equally as impressive.

They’ve conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League, a direct consequence of them allowing the fewest shots against Ederson. While Guardiola famously described himself as ‘not a coach for tackles’, the 2020/21 campaign sees City rank second in that metric action across the division.

Sure, the £62m addition of Ruben Dias has helped and, obviously, not every club in the world is capable of paying such a big fee (particularly in a post-COVID landscape) but the true sense of refinement comes from John Stones.

A talented, if somewhat error-prone defender, the England international looked like City’s fall from grace in human form. Flimsy and soft-centered were often words plastered on social media to describe Stones since the 14-game winning run that won the title in 2019 and the 26-year-old’s time looked up.

This season, though, he’s proven indicative of City’s new-found defensive solidity. His current record of 1.6 interceptions per game is amongst the highest average in his career and his 2.6 clearances over the same period are the most he’s managed in almost half a decade at Premier League.

Coached into re-establishing himself as one of England’s best central defenders, City now look to have a base from which to grow into Premier League challengers, if not favourites. Much of the attention in regards to the title race appears to be centred around Liverpool and Manchester United, allowing City – for once – to operate in the relative shadows with Guardiola as their puppeteer. A scary image and an even scarier prospect.

 


 

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