Tuesday 20 August 2019

Drive to be better has put relentless Guardiola on the verge of greatness

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola

Jason Burt

To do it better. That was what Pep Guardiola was saying privately when he was asked at the end of last season how Manchester City could emulate their 100-point Premier League title triumph. Now he is saying it publicly. This season is all about being better.

The City manager wanted that century of points because he knew it had never been achieved in England and the way in which he celebrated Gabriel Jesus's late winner against Southampton in City's final league game a year ago tomorrow, even though the title had been long won, showed just how much that meant.

"It is not enough to win," a source close to Guardiola said and although today's match away to Brighton is all about winning, it would also mean a team had claimed back-to-back titles for the first time since Manchester United did so in 2009. And it would be the first time City have done it. It would be another piece of history; another sign of doing it better.

There have been moments along the way when Guardiola has been fearful, gripped by doubt, that Liverpool would actually prove too strong and that reached a head when the sides met at the Etihad Stadium on January 3.

City had to win and those close to Guardiola say he was even more on edge before the game than usual, which is saying something. "We know who we have faced for 11 months, being behind them by seven points - nearly 10 - but being there all the time," Guardiola said on Friday. "I am really surprised, but to take the credit we need to win on Sunday. But, yes, Liverpool are a really incredible team."

City won then and, after the anomaly of losing away to Newcastle United, have gone on an extraordinary run of 13 successive league victories with the "understanding" that has developed in the team evident.

Guardiola has installed a mental toughness which comes partly from his own intensity and relentlessness - and ruthlessness, as some have discovered - but also by hammering home that winning one title is not enough.

"It's not just a job. It's a way of life," the source explained. "It's how you live. This is a way we see Manchester City today. The way they get along, the way they celebrate, the way they win in the last minute. It's because they believe."

That work has benefited from a significant overhaul of the City squad which has been strategically planned not just to provide more depth but deliver players who are younger and more capable of playing the way Pep wants.

One thing that irritates the Spaniard is the accusation that when he came to England he thought it would be easy; that City would dominate. He challenges anyone to provide evidence of that although that first campaign, 2016-'17, did end up being more difficult than he expected as City struggled to make the top four.

Even so, Guardiola came out of it believing the players got the "basics" but also that new players - not least full-backs Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy - would make a difference while Sergio Aguero was under pressure from Jesus and had to fully commit himself to working harder. Which he did.

Guardiola also felt he had to shake it up. By the second season, the players understood and so Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Leroy Sane felt like new signings, and the hard yards of training-ground work were paying off.

"I think my speech will be zero," Guardiola said when asked what his final address to the players would be before they face Brighton. "They want to win the league. What I saw in the training sessions . . . they want to win it. Knowing we can lose it. But we want to win and we are going out there at Brighton to win the game."

Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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