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How Pep Guardiola's early-season clash with Kevin de Bruyne could shape Man City's title defence

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Manchester City's Spanish manager Pep Guardiola (R) embraces Manchester City's Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne as he leaves the pitch substituted during the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City at Wembley Stadium in London, on April 14, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Ian KINGTON /

Manchester City's Spanish manager Pep Guardiola (R) embraces Manchester City's Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne as he leaves the pitch substituted during the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City at Wembley Stadium in London, on April 14, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Ian KINGTON /

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Manchester City's Spanish manager Pep Guardiola (R) embraces Manchester City's Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne as he leaves the pitch substituted during the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City at Wembley Stadium in London, on April 14, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Ian KINGTON /

Had a camera crew been sanctioned to follow Manchester City’s players around this season rather than last and had it been agreed that the footage obtained showed the relationships that exist at this club in their truest form, then one of the more intriguing moments would have been the time in August when Kevin de Bruyne arrived late for a training session.

The makers of All or Nothing had presented Pep Guardiola in a fair light: a manager who tried to get the best out of players by showing sympathy, sometimes leniency. He appreciated their talents, related to their desire, and most of all – having been a player himself – understood what it is like when the pressure and noise is unrelenting in the pursuit of success. 

There was a change in mind-set over the summer, however, with Guardiola recognising the patterns that have trailed City’s previous titles under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, when other teams have been able to topple them quite easily at the summit of the Premier League and European campaigns have fallen short despite signs of promise.

Guardiola agonised whether it was right to adopt a stricter approach but to keep his squad alert, he judged it to be necessary and one of the new measures was a tighter fine system with a focus on time-keeping. When De Bruyne came in a few minutes later than anticipated following City’s opening day victory at Arsenal he became the first high-profile casualty of Guardiola’s different state, a state where Benjamin Mendy would fall – the left-back who Guardiola now wants to sell.

The immediate outcome for De Bruyne that morning was a knee injury, one described then as a “freak” but in real terms came because he approached the training session that followed fired up and in the mood to prove his commitment.

Whether or not Guardiola arrived at the right conclusion in the interest of the balance of the environment that he defines and while it might not even show De Bruyne in a particularly dim light once you get past the initial whiff of revelation, the story does reflect the shifts that managers have to consider according to the situations they find themselves in, placing in context the emotions and moods that both Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp are currently trying to harness and stimulate.

An impression has formed that at Liverpool the desire to achieve a title for the first time in 29 years is carnal and incontrollable,  capable of crushing aspirations if not managed. Klopp is doing everything he can to reduce the burden on his players – just as Guardiola did last season. When Klopp shuts down questions that relate to the potential consequences of just one result it is because he wants the discussion to be presented as being anything but era-defining or catastrophic should it go his way or otherwise.

When City lost their unbeaten run at Anfield last season, Guardiola’s team were already categorised as champions-in-waiting due to the fact there was still 15 points between themselves and second place. That gap alone reflects the job Klopp has done to take Liverpool to where they are now, still a position to overhaul City, though the challenge is made greater due to their narrow defeat here where two big moments did not turn in their favour, most significantly the one that should have resulted in Vincent Kompany's involvement ending in the first half following a red card.

An odd sort of pressure exists now on both managers and both teams, though it is each manager’s role to not make it seem that way and to manifest the idea that the pressures lying elsewhere are greater.

Perhaps it suits City that they. rather than Liverpool. have to chase.

Guardiola’s players now already know what can happen if standards slip. Meanwhile, though Liverpool would of course prefer to be ten points clear than four, maybe City closing in avoids absolutely the chance of complacency being an issue for Klopp to contend with. Ultimately, the pressure on both managers remains enormous. How they deal with it will determine how they are remembered.

Independent News Service