Where do Manchester City go from here? How Pep Guardiola aims to improve his record-breaking champions
When you smash all the records, how do you even know what to aim for next? That is the question facing Pep Guardiola and Manchester City this morning and over the long next three months, as they pack up and move on from a season that will be remembered forever.
City produced the dream climax to their remarkable season on Sunday afternoon, Gabriel Jesus’s winner finally pushing City up to 100 points with the last kick of their last game. That is a signature achievement which means that whatever City do for the rest of the Guardiola tenure, whether one more year or two, they will always have this.
The next challenge is for City to retain the Premier League title, something that no one has done since Manchester United’s second ‘three-peat’ of 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09. Guardiola did not make any promises about trophies in his final press conference of the season, in Southampton on Sunday afternoon, only that his City team will try to be competitive for as long as possible next year. “Always our targets is arrive in April and May, playing for the titles,” he said. “Next season this will be our main, main target. With our consistency, to arrive at end of season being there.”
But there was a warning too. It is statistically very unlikely that City will get 100 points again. The margins are so thin: City only dropped 14 points from a possible 114, and so a few surprise defeats at the start of the season would give them almost no margin for error left. This means that they will likely have to face with unflattering comparisons between this season and the next one. Guardiola told his team not to let that weigh them down.
“So next season, in November and December, people will say ‘Manchester City have less points than last season’. That is going to happen. We are going to lose all, all, all days to compare with this season, all of them. That will not be important.”
The key for Guardiola is remembering that the numbers can never be a target. “Always the numbers are a consequence of the way we play and the mentality.” City did not start this season aiming for 32 wins, 106 goals and 100 points, even though they got there in the end.
“When we started this season, nobody spoke about how many games you have to win, how many points you have to get, how many goals you have to score,” Guardiola said. “That would be a big mistake. So we didn’t. Just in the first game in pre-season, try to play good and improve and improve. Bad moments, recover as quick as possible. Game by game, that’s the only way. If you think next season, it will be ridiculous to overcome what we have done this season.”
So while Guardiola has given up on pushing these numbers further, he does not want to give up on improvement itself. Not while a football team is still made up of 11 imperfect, improvable footballers. If you can improve the parts, you can improve the whole.
“A team is individual players. Always you can improve individual players. Go to the training session and do it. When you analyse the numbers, I will say, can we improve the numbers? No, we cannot be better in terms of numbers. In terms of playing football, yes. Because the players can do better. The manager, the group, the team, we can do better.”
And Guardiola knows that there is one particular challenge where City have to improve. More and more they are facing deep, packed defences who only want to stop City from breaking through. He bemoaned the fact that yesterday, against Southampton’s muscular five at the back with two holders in front, his team only managed “two or three shots on target”. In truth, City barely looked like scoring until they did in added time.
“Important is focusing how we can improve, when we play against teams so deep,” Guardiola explained. “To attack more fluently, better. We are working on that, to continue to be a good team.”
In the second half on Sunday City switched from their 4-3-3 to a 3-3-4, with Bernardo Silva and Leroy Sane on the wings and Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus through the middle. It brought an instant improvement, and eventually the goal from Jesus in the last minute. But it was also reminiscent of the last time City were desperately chasing something, in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Liverpool on 10 April. That night at the Etihad, City, needing to start fast, played a 3-3-4 again with Sane, Jesus, Sterling and Bernardo as the front four. They started well but did not do enough to go through.
But that night, and on Sunday afternoon, both pointed to a new approach City will use next season, a glimpse into the next stage of their development. They are unlikely to rack up as many goals, wins or points. But Guardiola will not give up the hope that they will be different and maybe even better.