Pep Guardiola’s first month in charge of Manchester City was as entertaining and eventful as they come. For the first time this season, Rob Toole and Ciaran Murray pore over the last four weeks of on and off-field action, talking City’s summer signings, Joe Hart’s departure, Raheem’s resurgence and that man Guardiola.
Rob Toole: It feels good to be back. Even though the season is in its infancy it feels like there is so much to get through in this review of August. Five wins from five means that Pep Guardiola’s reign has started perfectly. Before we get bogged down in the detail I’ll start by asking what has been your highlight of the month?
Ciaran Murray: It feels great to be back and already there’s a much more positive feeling around this season than the malaise towards the end of Manuel Pellegrini’s tenure.
Where to start with my personal highlight of August? There’s just been so much to feel good about. The results have all been positive, nearly all of the players are showing improvements, we’re in the Champions League and the football has been breath taking.
I think my personal highlight was the first half of the West Ham game, if I had to pick just one. Wow. I mean, we’ve seen some great football in the past few seasons but this was just a cut above it all. It was pure alchemy. Every player seemed aware of their role and everyone contributed to some of the best football I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. West Ham hardly had a kick for 45 minutes.
Silva was his untouchable, majestic self; Sterling looked (and looks) revitalised under Guardiola and was dangerous every time he was involved; Nolito looks like a very useful bargain; Kevin de Bruyne, who I was a little concerned about, looked fired up and played with such creative freedom and the threat from Aguero was always there. And that’s just the attacking players! Stones looks so comfortable, Otamendi isn’t striking fear into City fans as much anymore, Zabaleta looks like he’s settled back into his old self and Fernandinho has picked up from where he left off after an excellent 2015/16 season.
There was a move late in the first half that was just sexual. The ball started with Caballero and involved every single player passing the ball slickly, moving in intricate triangles and, in a matter of seconds, playing out from the back ended up with City in the West Ham box. Sadly, it only resulted in a corner but it was absolutely sensational. I’m loathed to use the phrase but it really did exemplify Pep Guardiola’s footballing ‘philosophy’. I think it was the Match of the Day commentator who said it wouldn’t just have been goal of the season – it would have been goal of the century. This is only the beginning, like. It was frustrating how the Hammers got themselves back into the game so it’s evident there’s still work to do but, with time, further work and the return of injured players, it’s scary how good City could be.
I mentioned that there’s been an improvement in some of the players under Guardiola, none more so than in young Raheem Sterling. How impressed have you been with ‘Raz’ so far? What has Pep brought to his game and how good could he be for City? Have there been any other players you’ve noted an improvement in so far?
Rob: I have been hugely impressed with ‘Raz’. It is great to see him in this kind of form and he is probably playing in the way that we had all hoped for when we signed him from Liverpool a year ago. At times last season, it was hard to watch his fall from grace with the vultures circling around him waiting to take a bite out of him at any given opportunity. Sterling deserves credit for the turnaround as he obviously has a great work ethic and a tough mentality, but it is impossible to ignore Pep’s influence in the matter.
If reports are to be believed, Pep got in touch with Raheem whilst he was partaking in England’s shambolic Euro 2016 campaign and told him that he was part of his plans and that he had confidence in him. Whilst seemingly the whole world wanted him to fail it must have been such a boost to hear from his soon to be manager, especially when it is someone as illustrious as Guardiola. It obviously worked as he looks a man reborn now.
Whereas last season he looked ponderous and nervous, this season as soon as he receives the ball he moves, seems to have a clear plan and runs at his opposing defender. He had already got a few assists before the West Ham game (one of which Phil Neville criticised on Match of the Day, bizarrely) but it was fantastic to see him score. It felt as if that is what he really needed. Given that it was against a good opposition and it was the “crucial” first goal, that would have helped his confidence as well. And to top it off, that cute little finish to settle our nerves in injury time was just sensational. If that had been a player that is more popular I think a lot more would have been made of it, but who am I to say that most football fans are sanctimonious, biased, irrational cretins?
I can’t remember who said it after the game but they hoped that Sterling realised the booing from the City fans after he scored his second was ironic. I kind of hope that becomes his thing now; the City fans boo him whenever he does something good. It would just turn the whole thing on its head. Also, it would keep all those people that booed him last season and then wondered why he had no confidence at the Euros quiet, which would be nice.
As much as I don’t like to admit it, Otamendi seems to have made a massive improvement. Our esteemed colleague, Dan Burke, is convinced that he’ll come good this season and it appears that may well be happening. I am not his biggest fan and just can’t warm to him (Otamendi that is, not Dan Burke). I wanted to see him out the door this summer but I suppose I’ll live with it if he doesn’t put one foot wrong all season (Otamendi, not Burke). Not asking much, really. See above about football fans being sanctimonious, biased and irrational.
Now, I must ask you about Joe Hart. He is like the elephant in the room, or rather the elephant in Torino. How do you feel about Joe leaving? Given that Pep is the sole reason he is out the door, do you believe it is possible to be sad about Joe leaving but also like Pep, as our other esteemed colleague, Alex Timperley, believes? God, with all these esteemed colleagues we must certainly be in esteemed company.
Ciaran: I wrote about this issue a few weeks ago after that sad photo emerged of John Stones celebrating with Joe Hart after the victory away to Steaua Bucharest. I felt horrible seeing that photo after everything Joe has done for the club and what he represents for us. I wish it didn’t have to be this way.
Pep got a fair bit of flack over his decision to let Hart leave but I think it’s a complex issue on a human level but quite a straightforward issue on a footballing level. We sometimes attach emotions to this little hobby we have and I suppose at times that’s ill-advised. I hate the idea that “football’s a business” and that we have to #TrustPep and just move on. Joe Hart is a modern day City legend and has been one of the top performers for a number of years. We’re embarking on one of the most exciting eras of our history and it really saddens me that he’s not going to be a part of it.
At the same time, Pep’s judgement hasn’t been wrong too often, has it? As much as we can remember save after save from Joe Hart along with a ream of clean sheets, he’s just not the one he wants. Pep’s a cold-hearted, ruthless winner and we are privileged to have him at our club. This is what City are all about now and playing style, results and trophies are paramount; sentimentality and emotions are way down the pecking order as far as Guardiola is concerned.
Football fans are a fickle bunch, at the same time. Watching that exhibition against West Ham, there weren’t too many thoughts of who was between the sticks to be honest. I welcome Claudio Bravo, who seems like a great keeper and a good guy and I wish Joe Hart all the best. He ended on great terms, was dignified and professional at all times and, with Torino, has joined a club that City fans can get on board with. Near, far, wherever you are, I believe that Joe Hart will go on.
It’s Deadline Day as I write this and, like many, I’m going through the ritual of watching Sky Sports News all day long. Weirdly, unlike past seasons, City have all of their business done in terms of incomings but we’ve said goodbye to Hart, Nasri, Bony and Mangala as well as a host of young players. What have you thought of City’s ins and outs in this window? Who are you excited to see play for us and which, if any, of the outgoing players are you sad or surprised to see depart?
Rob: Of the new players to join that I haven’t seen play for us yet, I don’t really know much about them. I have never seen Leroy Sane play and have maybe seen Ilkay Gundogan play a handful of times, so whilst I am curious to see them in sky blue I would be lying if I said they were exciting me as I have nothing to base that on. Given the whole saga with Hart, I suppose I am most eager to see Claudio Bravo play. I imagine that I will be hyper-critical of his passing ability but he seems like a good guy and I hope he does well.
Nolito has been the only signing that we have really been able to see a decent amount of and he has been a great little purchase, I think. I’m not sure he’ll start every game but he will certainly be useful given that he is dynamic and hugs the wing. I also like how he kind of looks a bit like Aguero. If Kun were a Simpsons cartoon, Nolito would be the Family Guy equivalent.
I must admit that I am sad to see Nasri leave. The rest of the departures were all to be expected, apart from Hart, obviously. I was kind of resigned to the fact Samir was going to leave for most of the summer but after he played really well against West Ham and Pep was nice about him after the match I had renewed hope. I thought he would be exactly the type of player Pep would love given how well he keeps the ball, but it was not to be. Thanks for everything, blue. His bleach blonde hair and leather shorts will give pleasure to the people of Seville, I’m sure.
Before we put our conversation on hold for another month I must ask you about Kolarov. I thought he was a dead cert to be out the door when Pep came in but it turns out he is a pretty decent central defender. How bizarre is that? Surely no one saw that coming. Do you reckon this transformation makes Pep the best coach in the world at the moment?
Ciaran: AK 47! How is he still here? I think he’s been quite fortuitous throughout his City career, ya know. It seems like every time his form has dipped, the fans are fed up with him and we think he’s going to be shipped, he manages to stick it out. He obviously raises his game under a new regime and must talk a good game so he’s impressed both Pellegrini and now Pep. Classic tactic.
That’s being unfair, to be fair. He’s certainly got ability and when you think about it he does possess a lot of the qualities that would suit a ‘Pep style’ central defender. He’s very comfortable and composed on the ball, physical but not rash, great in the air, can adapt and play different positions, is an accomplished set-piece taker, pops up with the odd goal, has a wicked left foot and has the vision and accuracy to splay passes all over the pitch. I mean, when you list it out like that, why have we not suggested putting him at centre-back before?!
Did you read the interview with him in the MEN where someone asked was he revitalised under Guardiola? He seemed surprised at the question and retorted: ‘I always did my job properly…I’m doing my job in my seventh year here. That’s it.” I mean, I’m sorry like but there were times when he just definitely was not doing his job. He has been caught napping so often in the past and you’ll often see a goal conceded because Kolarov has basically just jogged back. He’s a proud man but even he must acknowledge that Guardiola has had a major influence on him; both through the change of position and the increase in the Serbian’s concentration, intensity and confidence.
Pep’s amazing. Just look at what he said after Sunderland: “I think Kolarov today had one of the best performances I have seen in a central defender.” He’s just out of his mind, isn’t he? Such fascinating man management and it seems to be paying off. He’s worked wonders with some of the defenders he’s had in his past teams, that’s clear. It’s also no secret that he wanted Bonucci and Laporte in the summer. If, by failing to land those two targets, he’s been forced to turn Aleksander Kolarov into the best central defender out there, then yes, he’s the best coach in the world. That’s going to be an interesting sub-plot to watch out for this season.
It feels like we’ve under-covered half of what’s been an intensely busy, intriguing and enjoyable month, with an obvious tinge of sadness. I was interested to hear your take on the Champions League draw but I guess we’ll chat more about some of those fixtures once they’ve actually been played. Derby in September too – it’s all so intense. Until next month.
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