Disaster is not a word associated with much around the Manchester City training ground. But that is how the England team have been playfully described this season.
Not that England team. No, this is the homegrown group among Pep Guardiola’s squad. They were, for a lengthy spell, perennial losers in the sort of games that provoke a competitive edge before training sessions start.
The other three teams took great delight. These are muck-about mini tournaments, which might include a crossbar challenge or head tennis, all fairly simple stuff. Contests do not happen every day but often enough to give bragging rights.
Manchester City have seen off bitter rivals Liverpool and retained the Premier League title
Pep Guardiola has shown his coaching pedigree by leading City to successive domestic titles
England could not buy a win until they broke their duck recently. Kyle Walker set off around the City Football Academy in a wild celebration, a flashback to Nicky Weaver’s Wembley dance after the club’s Division Two 1999 play-off final win.
‘It was as if he’d won the title,’ one source laughed.
Walker has won another proper one now. Alongside a few others, it is his fourth in five seasons under Guardiola. Twice City have defended the Premier League – something that had not been done since Sir Alex Ferguson’s time at United before City first managed it in 2019.
They have again palmed off Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp, whom Guardiola counts as his greatest rival, during another relentless dash to the finish line.
Like three years ago, the margins are minuscule. The width of Rodri’s sleeve away at Everton – when the hosts were denied a late penalty – Liverpool might argue, although City will point at officiating during their 2-2 draw at Anfield in October and reason that you do not always get what you want.
The way in which City have gone on to lift this trophy is broadly akin to last year. A slow start, albeit not quite as slow, followed by a run of wins over the winter, albeit not quite as many.
They have ground out results, like beating West Ham 2-1 in heavy snow when there were fears that the quality opposition, coupled with the weather, spelled trouble. Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho, two elder statesmen who were no longer in Guardiola’s preferred starting XI, scored that day.
Later that week, as City grappled with Covid and injuries – they had just 10 fit senior outfield players – Raheem Sterling turned into what some at City saw as his ‘best game for two years’ as they just about left Aston Villa with three points on a febrile night.
When the star men do not show up, the cavalry have arrived during this manager’s tenure and there is something in that beyond mere ability. There is a way he keeps them on the edge – be it through lack of game time or lack of acknowledgment in the halls – that has served the team well.
City’s training ground is a competitive place and that fuels their performances on match day
Contests do not happen every day but often enough to give bragging rights among the group
In the minutes before battle, Walker will bark instructions in the changing room. Phil Foden will play a short game of two-touch to get a feel of the ball. Ruben Dias might assemble the group and Fernandinho picks his moments.
Guardiola says that, by now, he knows his players and they know him. As such, training has changed over the years.
‘He just lets them play more these days,’ one source said. The favored exercise sounds chaotic.
Three teams of six crammed on to a small pitch, flying into each other, the ball whizzing around like it is in a washing machine. A fourth, usually comprising academy kids, must sprint to replace the team that has conceded and it goes on and on, round and round, at unrelenting pace.
But City have not won the title because of training ground games. Or the electronic dart boards, the football table tennis in the gym, the Padel court or the sign outside the home dressing room that reads: ‘Set the whole planet shaking.’
In another chaotic drill, three teams of six are crammed on to a small pitch and told to play
They have not won it because Guardiola went to Scotland during an international break to recharge the batteries with his family, or because his backroom staff were rewarded for the team swatting away Manchester United with a short break at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, the five -star hotel that is now a club partner.
All of that helps frame the tapestry of City’s season, but they have won it because this is a stellar group who improve as a unit and embrace the daunting winter period like no other.
City have, of course, spent handsomely, yet money alone does not guarantee silverware – just look at Old Trafford’s trophy cabinet.
A smaller pool of players means the manager can come unstuck in the knockout rounds of cup competitions, but those numbers are his choice. Wherever possible, he never scrimps on league selection. If he had, Liverpool would be equalling United’s record of 20 titles.
Guardiola was asked this month how he wanted his legacy to be considered. ‘That we had fun,’ he said. ‘That is the best legacy. Our people who were born City fans can say, during that period, we were fun. ‘
But the criticism of Guardiola is that his football is robotic for the neutral, which ignores the majesty of Kevin De Bruyne or madness of Ederson.
The criticism of Guardiola is that his style is robotic for the neutral but their games are thrillers
It ignores two of the all-time classics with Liverpool and the comeback win at Arsenal on New Year’s Day, with Rodri’s stoppage-time winner. Beating Leicester City 6-3 on Boxing Day was thrilling.
What the sniping has done is solidify Guardiola’s relationship with the fans. The way he applauded the away end at Anfield is the most animated he has been since air-drumming along to their chant for him in a cup game in Leicester during his second season.
The scenes on Merseyside came weeks after he criticized the home atmosphere after victory over RB Leipzig. Since Leipzig, his praise of the fans has been effusive.
City had feared falling nine points behind the leaders at that time. with trips to Chelsea and Liverpool sandwiching PSG away in Europe.
They had labored to a goalless draw with Southampton and could ill-afford to slip up further.
Guardiola’s relationship with the Man City fans has also improved after previous comments
The September game at Stamford Bridge was one of the more complete Guardiola performances. Bernardo Silva dropped into holding midfield alongside Rodri and ran the show, Chelsea failing to register a shot on target at home for the first time in 18 years.
Silva’s display that day was every bit as good as De Bruyne’s four goals at Wolves on May 11, amid fears of dropping points after the crushing Champions League defeat at Real Madrid.
Silva, arguably their player of the season, wanted to leave last summer, homesick during the pandemic he spent in a city center flat. But Guardiola persuaded him to stay.
Last summer did bring change behind the scenes. There had been consternation among the squad at alterations in player care during 2020-21 but those have since stabilized, with Emily Maclennan running the first team after the popular Marc Boixasa left.
Bernardo Silva’s display at Chelsea was every bit as good as Kevin De Bruyne’s at Wolves
Young Dutch analyst Piet Cremers was promoted, with Under 18s boss Carlos Vicens, 39, given a role on Guardiola’s coaching staff.
Vicens, an economics graduate, revolutionized City’s set pieces – they now have the best record in the division – and has been poached to manage Heracles Almelo in Holland next season. He will be a loss.
Guardiola’s principles, however, remain the same. He takes a step back more often, not piling into his players as much, but is still ‘like a lion’ in the dressing room.
The future looks promising, too, with Erling Haaland to join from Dortmund in the summer
‘The way he approaches games might change from time to time,’ Gundogan told Sportsmail this month. ‘But I do not see him changing with us. He’s still very intense. ‘
There was confusion when he exasperatedly told players, ‘I can not do this anymore’ after they had beaten Bruges 4-1 in November. Murmurings about his future surfaced among the players, as it does most seasons.
Yet, here he is again – seemingly content – with another title, one more than Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger, level with Kenny Dalglish and one behind Sir Matt Busby. It’s some list.