On Sunday, Pep Guardiola became the first manager in the 122-year history of Manchester City to win his opening five matches in charge of the club when he oversaw his side’s 3-1 defeat of West Ham United.
The cynics among us might suggest that that statistic perhaps says more about his multitude of predecessors than it does him, but those of us with our glasses half-full would be well within our rights to take it as the earliest evidence that the Catalan is in fact the greatest manager ever to have graced these hallowed corridors.
Guardiola’s start to life at City may not have been absolutely perfect, but it’s been as near as damn it. He’s won all three of his Premier League matches so far and City go into the international break sitting atop the table on goal difference, while he and his team also navigated a potentially tricky qualifying tie for the Champions League with consummate ease.
But it’s more than just his results that have so quickly enamoured the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich man to his new supporters.
First and foremost, there are also the tactical innovations which have made every day watching Guardiola’s City a school day for keen students of the game. The so-called “inverted fullbacks” which baffled many inside and outside the Etihad Stadium on the opening day of the season have been something of a revelation around these parts and the way City’s whole system has made them a more composed and domineering outfit than they’ve possibly ever been has been a breath of fresh air.
After three years of head scratching about how Manuel Pellegrini’s City would manage to avoid becoming overrun without three men in midfield at all times, Guardiola has shown in five games that if you have a player as good as Fernandinho, you only really need one.
Meanwhile, Guardiola’s strict dietary regime and zero tolerance policy towards body fat has swiftly turned his team into a lean, mean, hard-working machine. City collectively ran 10 miles further in the 4-1 win away at Stoke than they did in the corresponding fixture last season and it showed. As the old saying goes, “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” and now the Blues have both of those qualities in abundance, they are a force to be reckoned with.
One player who’s worked as hard as anyone so far this season is young Raheem Sterling and Guardiola’s skills as a man-manager must have an awful lot to do with it. The 21-year-old has come out of the other side of a disappointing 12 months for club and country smiling, and again looks like the confident, freakishly prodigious talent he was when he burst onto the scene at Liverpool a few years ago. Of course, credit is due to the player for his goals, assists and excellent performances, but you suspect he probably couldn’t have done it without the trust and encouragement of one of the world’s finest coaches.
Or perhaps that’s selling Pep short, because anyone who could transform the mediocre left back liability that was Aleksandar Kolarov into a reliable, commanding central defender must be the undisputed best in the business. We knew he had a penchant for seeing something in players that even they didn’t know they had, but now he’s just showing off.
— Andy Hampson (@andyhampson) August 26, 2016
All of this – plus the fact he’s ostensibly instilled a greater sense of team spirit amongst his players and made pre and post-match press conferences worth tuning in for again – has done wonders for Guardiola’s relationship with his new supporters, who’ve wasted little time in penning a love song to him in return.
Not everything he’s done so far has been universally applauded, though. Jettisoning fans’ favourite Joe Hart in favour of new signing Claudio Bravo was always likely to be a controversial and divisive decision, but making big decisions is one of the many things he’s being paid the big bucks to do. You can’t please everyone all of the time, but as the results of this admittedly un-scientific poll show, the majority of people may not like what’s happened, but they at least understand why it had to.
Is Pep Guardiola right to replace Joe Hart with Claudio Bravo?
— Typical City (@TypicalCity) August 24, 2016
City’s vibrant, victorious start to the season has in many ways been as surprising as it has been enjoyable. One should never read too much into results and performances during pre-season, but City’s ill-fated tour of China and their matches against Bayern Munich and Arsenal gave the impression that they were under-cooked and ill-prepared going into the new campaign. If that was your reading of the situation, it would appear you could hardly have been more wrong. Pep Guardiola doesn’t do “transitional periods”.
If City’s poor pre-season didn’t cause a few small doubts to form in your mind about the new boss, the attitude of many people outside the club towards him possibly might have done. In spite of everything he’s achieved in his career, there still seems to be great deal of scepticism about Guardiola’s ability as a coach and a sense that he still has a lot to prove in the eyes of some. At times, it’s been difficult not to wonder whether they may have a point.
But it didn’t take long for the “he can only win when he has the best teams in the world at his disposal” brigade to change their tune to “well let’s see how he fares on a windy afternoon at Stoke” and when he took that particular challenge in his stride, the goalposts moved again. Now it’s “let’s see how he copes when the fixture list starts to pile up”, as if a guy who’s won six league titles and two Champions Leagues in just eight years of management is going to be completely flummoxed by the demands of the EFL Cup.
Nevertheless, it’s still early days and though the biggest tests undoubtedly still lie in wait, City have been improving incrementally in every game so far and you sense the best is yet to come.
It’s widely agreed that the first half against West Ham at the weekend was possibly the best 45 minutes of football any City team has ever produced yet the overall performance was probably only a seven or eight out of ten. Just imagine how good they’re going to be when they start hitting nines and tens on a regular basis. Truly mouth-watering stuff.
For now though, it’s five games, five wins and so far, so good. Jose Mourinho and Manchester United, you are next.
Written by Dan Burke
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