• That is 198 points over the course of the last 76 games now — an average of 2.61 per match — and nobody is likely to rival the consistency of this set of players for a long, long time.
• A Monday might bring a hug and a kiss from Guardiola. But he might not say a word to you on Tuesday.
An hour after lifting his second Carabao Cup in February, Pep Guardiola stood inside a plush Wembley hospitality suite agitating to get away. Manchester City had laid on a winners’ reception for family and sponsors to joyously toast another trophy, but their manager had already moved on.
Guardiola was pleasant, polite and graciously took the congratulations, yet his mind was elsewhere. He wore an occupied look and all those present knew it.
Three more trophies were on the line at that stage. The biggest, and most significant, of those was the Premier League title - and retaining it. Liverpool still needed catching, two points the deficit. Guardiola longed to be back at the training ground studying videos, and back at his city centre restaurant, Tast, drinking tomato juice and plotting his next move.
What has happened this season is testament to Guardiola, the first man since Sir Alex Ferguson in 2009 to retain the world’s toughest league after Sunday’s win at Brighton, where City equalled their own record for most victories in a campaign, 32. He told his players back in August to expect a Liverpool onslaught and was proven correct, the level of Jurgen Klopp’s wondrous team kicking City on to achieve a staggering 98 points.
That is 198 points over the course of the last 76 games now — an average of 2.61 per match — and nobody is likely to rival the consistency of this set of players for a long, long time.
“I didn’t expect to get the points we have this season so far after what we did last season,” Guardiola said. “Normally the tendency for human beings is to relax a little bit.”
His drive can be traced back to last July, in the wind of Chicago, when those around the first team noticed this workaholic of a manager had somehow upscaled his efforts even further on City’s pre-season tour. Even with the majority of his players on holiday recovering from the World Cup, Guardiola was unrelenting.
The Catalan puts this achievement down as one of his greatest in management. Retaining the Premier League title was his absolute focus and he made it plain the squad should pay similar amounts of attention. Bernardo Silva flew out early to America after Portugal’s campaign in Russia at the manager’s request and has since flourished, arguably becoming the club’s most reliable player. Leroy Sane was treated differently, cradled by his manager — afforded extra time off after his omission from the Germany squad — but appeared morose.
The winger soon fell out of favour, dropped from one squad completely after poor performances in training and general sullenness, and has struggled for starts all year. Despite his enviable goals and assists record, Sane is now firmly behind Bernardo in the pecking order. If you’re not on board, City will simply place faith in others.
The campaign has, in many respects, been a triumph for man-management. The City dressing room has been described by first-team sources as ‘extraordinary’, and the best environment cultivated since Sheikh Mansour’s money arrived in east Manchester. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” one said.
The squad play card games on the way back from matches, rather than sit in isolation with headphones in. Bernardo’s terrace chant - ‘Ber-nar-do; Sil-VA; running down the wing, Sil-VA’ - is a favourite singalong on the team coach. Players of different nationalities mix freely over compulsory breakfast and lunches at the training complex, with no real cliques.
The absent Benjamin Mendy FaceTimed Vincent Kompany to congratulate his captain after that thunderbolt winner against Leicester. Birthdays of players or staff members are celebrated in unison after matches. Kompany spent an hour consoling a tearful Sergio Aguero in the dressing room after Champions League elimination, that night hitting the older players hard.
Not every club fosters this atmosphere and fewer manage to sustain it. Just look at the team across town. For that, Guardiola’s large backroom team deserve credit. Mikel Arteta is well-liked by the players as well as Brian Kidd, whose arm around the shoulder brings comfort at opportune moments.
This has been a season full of tribulations, not least that chastening night at St James’ Park in late January. Beaten 2-1 by Newcastle, squandering an early lead and, according to the coaching staff at the time, squandering the title.
“It is over,” one said solemnly that night after a defeat that gifted Liverpool the chance to go seven points clear. Guardiola was so angry at his side’s passive performance that he even told some coaches not to bother entering the dressing room for what proved a 30-minute dressing down. He would deal with the players himself.
Guardiola questioned his players’ desire. Their emphatic answer was 14 straight wins, four short of the record they set the previous season.
There have been other difficulties to overcome along the way, particularly City’s injury list. Kevin De Bruyne has barely played and Fernandinho has missed key games. Mendy’s fitness problems persist and he is also attempting to clean up his act off the pitch.
A few players have moved homes. Mendy is out in Cheshire in an attempt to avoid city centre distractions. So too Gabriel Jesus. John Stones, who has started two of the last 13 games, is now living in Guardiola’s lavish apartment block after a very public breakdown of a relationship with his long-term girlfriend. Some switches have come on the advice of staff and manager.
Crucially, there is reverence for their boss. “You can feel Pep in the room,” another source said. “He has an aura about him." Players are unsure whether his methods are instinctive or planned, but they work. He is not mates with any of the squad and refuses to have favourites. One player has said that treating them all ‘more or less the same’ garners respect.
“We don’t love each other too much, the players and the staff,” Guardiola said. “We don’t let them breathe, but it’s the only way.”
A Monday might bring a hug and a kiss from Guardiola. But he might not say a word to you on Tuesday. Team selections are rarely explained. Always remaining on your toes, and the healthy competition for places stimulates this talented squad. Kyle Walker has occasionally opted against bringing luggage with him when City stay overnight at the training ground the day before a game. Squads are only announced after all players have arrived and Walker did not wish to tempt fate on his spot, despite being an obvious regular.
Guardiola has tried to make them think more. Jesus has hired a personal trainer, for fitness and diet, from Brazil. Danilo has spoken of becoming more analytical when watching matches on television.
Training drills are generally kept to 10 minutes, with Arteta keeping them fresh to avoid boredom. City players barely had a genuine day off from November through to April. Afternoons post-training or the nights spent with families before matches are, therefore, cherished.
The night after the Newcastle defeat, Guardiola attended the musical Jersey Boys with his family in Oxford Road’s Palace Theatre in Manchester rather than watch Liverpool’s draw with Leicester. He was at the Royal Exchange Theatre to see West Side Story earlier this month too.
A large number of the players have tried to keep away from Liverpool’s games in the run-in. Ilkay Gundogan had Fenerbahce’s 1-1 draw with Galatasaray on during the trip back from Crystal Palace last month while Liverpool beat Chelsea. Others chose to watch the Masters. Raheem Sterling has joked he ignored Liverpool’s games until it looked like they might drop points, only for them to score when he turned the TV on.
The scene inside City’s dressing room at Old Trafford on April 24 has been described by one source as the tensest atmosphere they had ever witnessed before a match. Players were seen pacing, heads bowed and conversation was minimal. Many wore that look Guardiola had two months earlier at Wembley. City beat Manchester United 2-0. Turns out it was not nerves, it was steely determination.