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Pep's putting in plans for City title challenge

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PEP’S PUTTING IN PLANS FOR CITY TITLE CHALLENGE

Seventy-two hours have not yet passed since the FA Cup final, but Manchester City are already signalling their intent. It isn’t unusual for the richest club in Britain to flex their financial muscle at this early stage, but this time they are sending out a message. Pep Guardiola has learnt his lessons and is ready to take the Premier League by storm.

Bernardo Silva is without doubt one of the most talented young players on the continent. The 22-year- old playmaker showed as much at the 2015 under 21 European Championships with Portugal; but it was his form this season in France, helping Monaco win Ligue 1 and reach the Champions League semi finals, that persuaded Guardiola and City to part with around £60million and lure him to England.

Creativity was hardly lacking for this side last season, with Guardiola often finding space for both Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva in his first choice side so often this season. The latter’s namesake, though, is nine years younger than him, and is a signing in the perfect mould of the City boss, who relies on technical players all over the pitch, who can attack in every sense, even when defending.

Guardiola had the toughest season of his coaching career this year. His critics will say that was always going to happen because he didn’t have a world-class squad to call upon as he did at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. It has felt at times that some, fed up with the 46-year- old’s constant success, amassing 21 trophies in nine years in the dugout, were willing him to fail and could not wait to jump on his back at the first sign of trouble.

The Premier League, they said, would shock him, and so would the size of the job he has at Manchester City. Even Guardiola must admit this is his toughest task, but the entire reason he came to the Premier League was to learn and grow. Although he has come up against the widest variety of playing styles in his career, and failed to add a title, it should be remembered that Guardiola has taught English football a lot too.

There can be little doubt that the Guardiola era at the Etihad Stadium has not lived up to expectations so far, but his critics have put him in a no-win situation. Despite having an apparently worse squad than ever before, in the world’s strongest league, he was expected to live up to his own incredibly high standards immediately.

City’s goalkeeping options are a stick used to beat them with. Almost immediately, Guardiola decided Joe Hart was not the man for him because of his inability to play the ball out from the back to the level the manager desired. His replacement, Claudio Bravo, could be sold this summer after a deal for Benfica’s Ederson was reported to be in motion. Bravo has made some high profile errors this season, but in some ways he typified the point of Guardiola’s tenure, to take risks. Ederson’s arrival would suggest Bravo was the wrong signing, but Hart wasn’t the wrong departure.

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Building an Identity

Inspired by Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff, Guardiola’s core belief is winning must be accompanied by his principles, which centre on ball possession and intensity. In England, winning is all that matters, and the time taken to implement a specific ideology counts for little if it isn’t successful, and the idea of Guardiola crediting his players’ performances after a draw when they could have won is alien to pundits and fans alike. The development of an idea is vital, and that is what he has shown.

In previous years, under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, the philosophy did not have so much importance and, while they both won Premier League titles, there was always a ceiling on what they could achieve. Success in the Champions League comes hand in hand with an identity, a style unique to that team, and that was the main reason Guardiola was brought in.

To build an identity takes time, and the former Bayern boss insists he won’t change his ways. City are not yet a big club, Guardiola says, and his performances would have warranted the sack at either of his former sides, but that is because this club are in the midst of reaching the elite level through his methods.

All that said, the next stage is clearly in motion. Not only have City all but signed two first team players before the start of June, they have also let a number of their aging players depart on free transfers. Most interestingly, though, most of those were still regular first team players, proving just how big a task Guardiola has to succeed.

More than any manager in the world, Guardiola needs a certain type of player to understand his methods. Positions on the field, for example, are not set in stone, as Lionel Messi, David Alaba and Philipp Lahm all prove having been converted from different areas. But only the most intelligent can put his plans into action, and that may well have been an issue over the past 12 months.

At times, the team did not look like Guardiola’s. It wasn’t until January, when Gabriel Jesus came in from Palmeiras, that the puzzle began to come together. His pace, technique and skill gave the team a new dimension, and from then, the likes of Leroy Sane and De Bruyne, by way of example, began to have more of an impact on the side.

City ended the campaign with eight games unbeaten, scoring five in two separate games in that time. The attacking flair and freedom on show laid the foundations for a huge summer transfer window, with the promise of an excellent second season.

Measuring Pep Guardiola’s time at Manchester City up against his previous clubs is both futile and unfair. The task in hand is completely different; for the first time, he is building a club, not just a team, and his efficiency so far in the transfer window shows the next phase is well and truly underway.

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