Pep Guardiola now knows what he must do to succeed at Manchester City
If Pep Guardiola didn’t fully appreciate the subtleties of how a season with Manchester City might differ from one at Barcelona or Bayern Munich, he does now.
When you’re working with players unaccustomed to winning trophies on a regular basis, the requirements for success go way beyond the realms of an over-riding philosophy or game-by-game tactical strategy - no matter how good the information is.
The Sky Blues have dominated play to an extreme that the Premier League has never witnessed before
In essence, the football City have played this season is barely any different to Guardiola’s beginnings at the Camp Nou and Allianz Arena. The Sky Blues have dominated play to an extreme that the Premier League has never witnessed before. They’re on course to become the first team to average more than 60% possession over 38 games, exceeding the previous highest recorded figure by almost 2%.
But the outcome, and thereby the overall impression, has been starkly different. With five weeks of the campaign to spare, City already know they will be trophyless and most probably outside the top two, while their participation in next season’s Champions League remains anything but a forgone conclusion.
The devil can be found in what Guardiola refers to as "the details", meaning the decisions made in both penalty boxes. City’s problem is one of mentality.
City in a parallel universe
The difference between success and failure is Kevin De Bruyne hitting the underside of the crossbar from two yards out against Chelsea. It’s not defending a routine inswinging free-kick late on against Monaco. It’s hitting the woodwork twice in the second half of normal time against Arsenal. The same thing keeps happening, usually when it matters most, and City keep being punished.
In a parallel universe, everyone is smiling. City seized upon those critical, game-changing moments and took charge of their own destiny. In that world, they are currently top of the table, neck and neck with Chelsea, whom they will face in the FA Cup final, and the biggest dilemma now facing Guardiola is how to rotate his squad for the run-in around a blockbuster Champions League semi-final tie with Juventus.
The principal difference here is the background of the players he is working with and the psyche of the club he is working for
It’s not that absurd. Guardiola has encountered variations of this scenario at this stage in five out of his previous seven seasons. The principal difference here is the background of the players he is working with and the psyche of the club he is working for.
For City fans, the FA Cup semi-final defeat to Arsenal last weekend followed a painfully familiar pattern. Blinding chinks of light had pierced through in a thoroughly impressive 3-0 win at Southampton the weekend before and belief had come surging back.
The team were in good shape, key players were returning to full fitness and barely anybody who made the trip down to Wembley could conceive the idea that City might lose to an Arsenal side against whom they had completed the rare feat of coming from behind to beat when at a particularly low ebb last December.
Yes, the officials were bad, Arsenal were dirty and losing David Silva to injury in the opening quarter was a blow. And yes, of course, the combined efforts of Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling to put the ball across the line in the first half should have resulted in a goal.
Yet, in spite of that tough luck, every City fan still believed the game was theirs to win. The frustration that followed, in many cases amounting to hysterical accusations of FA conspiracies, is merely displacement from a reality that is much more difficult to stomach.
A self-fulfilling prophecy
To serial winners, adversity is empowering. Bad decisions, losing key players, going behind - these are all opportunities to reinforce your supremacy and remind everyone of an undisputable pecking order. They are hurdles to be overcome. The bigger the stage, the better.
Every time you dig out a victory against the odds, it stores as a reaffirming memory to draw upon in the future whenever the going gets tough. Becoming a team that never knows when it’s beaten is a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes your players, the opposition and, yes, even referees, gravitate towards the same inevitable outcome, time after time.
When the mentality isn’t right and players perform without total conviction - be that conviction in the game plan, the habit of killing teams off when on top, or rolling with the punches and navigating any bad breaks that occur - then small details become a big problem. The difference between what should occur and what actually does is vast.