Josep Guardiola arrived in senior-level professional football with precious little managerial pedigree but it took him just ten months to prove his credentials.
Winning the treble in his first season at Barcelona, the Spaniard announced himself on the world stage and there was no looking back for him since.
Everything Guardiola has touched has turned to gold. In 12 years of top-flight level management, he has never endured a trophy-less season and has amassed 31 titles in this time. His rich haul includes multiple league titles in Spain, Germany and England along with two Champions Leagues and several domestic cups in the three countries he has managed in, the latest being the 2020-’21 Premier League title with Manchester City.
Number of trophies won by top managers
What has been remarkable is that Guardiola, unlike some of his peers, has achieved these triumphs with some swagger. Playing eye-catching football, Guardiola’s teams have been dominant from the word go and have held a reputation of destroying anything and everything that comes in its path.
His teams have breached the 100-goal mark four times and have crossed the 90-goal mark in eight seasons.
After a season of relative struggles during his debut campaign in the Premier League, Guardiola’s Manchester City stormed the league in the next two terms, amassing a total of 198 points, smashing records for most points, goals scored and wins recorded in a single Premier League season.
A rare blip
But when Jurgen Klopp’s swashbuckling Liverpool halted that march in 2019-’20, Guardiola’s all-conquering Manchester City seemed to be on a decline. With experienced players leaving the club, Manchester City needed a new spine and time to refresh, something the Covid-19 pandemic and its allied complexities barely provided.
After a short turnover between the two seasons, City continued to be in decline as Guardiola endured the worst start to his managerial career. His team won only five of their first 12 league games and looked out of sorts at either end of the field.
Guardiola’s Midas touch appeared to be waning as Manchester City were eleven points adrift of the top in December after a disappointing 1-1 draw with West Brom at the Etihad stadium.
“I didn’t like what I saw. I felt this is not the team I can recognise myself,” said Guardiola, speaking about those first few months of the season.
But five months on, Guardiola and City completed a remarkable turnaround to clinch an unlikely Premier League title with three games to go.
This one was not sealed with 100 points as in 2017-’18, nor did it go down to a dramatic final-day decider when City held off Liverpool a year later, but it may still be the sweetest given the adversity Guardiola’s men had to overcome in a rollercoaster campaign.
Not elegant but effective
After a break of just two weeks between two seasons changed beyond recognition by the coronavirus, City’s slow start could be forgiven.
Yet it was not fatigue that Guardiola noted as his side’s problem, but a desire to cover too much ground.
“We were running too much – to play football you have to run much less,” said Guardiola in the midst of a 21-game winning run in all competitions that followed those dropped points against West Brom.
“Without the ball, you have to run, but with the ball, you have to stay more in position and let the ball run and not you,” he added.
Guardiola adapted brilliantly to the circumstances as a pragmatic City suffocated their opponents’ attacking riches. He found a compatible centre-back pairing in new recruit Ruben Dias who was signed from Benfica for £62 million and John Stones who found a new lease of life at the Etihad this season after indifferent campaigns in the previous editions.
City have kept 18 clean sheets and have conceded just 26 goals., only 14 of which have come in the last 23 games after that draw against the Baggies.
Despite fixing the leaky defence, the Catalan had to find ways of scoring goals without their top Aguero who was injured for the most part of the campaign.
With Gabriel Jesus also suffering small spells of injuries and struggling for form, Guardiola decided to go without a recognised forward. His decision to deploy Kevin de Bruyne in a false nine role and unleash midfielder Ilkay Gundogan in a more advanced role paid dividends. The German scored 12 just three fewer than the combined tally of his past four seasons at the club.
Young Phil Foden too came to the party and Riyad Mahrez, after a few indifferent seasons, also rose to the occasion. Ferran Torres and Bernardo Silva all chipped in and alternated in the false nine role as City’s fluid and unpredictable attack was enough to send a stubborn City on a 12-game winning run that pretty much put them on course to being champions.
A season like no other
City’s strength in depth definitely played a part but few managers would have been as resourceful as Guardiola in the situation. Often criticised for winning titles with well-funded near-perfect teams, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager showcased his true genius in the 2020-’21 season.
“We will always remember this season for the way we won. I am so proud of this group of players. They are so special. To come through this season, with all the restrictions and difficulties we’ve faced – and show the consistency we have is remarkable. It is relentless” Guardiola said after City were confirmed as champions.
“This has been a season and a Premier League title like no other. This was the hardest one,” he added.
City and Guardiola are not done yet. Having already sealed the club’s fourth successive League Cup win, they have their eyes on the Champions League, a trophy that has so far eluded them. Manchester City have generally underachieved in Europe under Guardiola and face a Chelsea side that they have lost to twice in the last three weeks. But in a season like this, they’ll believe that nothing is impossible, not even a remarkable treble is beyond them.
(With AFP inputs)
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