Pep Guardiola has always had fabulous players to work with at Manchester City – it was the same at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and it comes with the job at all three of those clubs.
This season, though, it’s different. Everything City have done on their way to securing Guardiola’s third Premier League title in four years is down to him and the way he has got them playing.
I normally wouldn’t give this amount of praise to a manager but what Guardiola has done has changed the game, and he keeps on evolving. He had to, because the way City started the season wasn’t working for them.
Yes, he has an amazing squad at City, but he is not alone there. It’s the way he has used his players – individually, as a team and a squad – over the past few months that has taken them to the next level and made them champions, again.
This is how he did it.
‘Guardiola thought of it, and he believed in it’
If you’d told me last September that City would win the title after spending almost the entire campaign playing without a recognised number nine, I’d have laughed at you.
Yet City are playing without a proper striker most weeks, and still battering teams. Think about that – we’ve not seen anything like it over the course of an entire season in the Premier League before.
Instead, Guardiola has gone with a playing style based on keeping possession, with playmakers all over the pitch – in defence, midfield and attack.
Their goals come from pretty much everywhere, from whoever has got forward, and defensively everyone works incredibly hard together to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible.
It’s that system which has put City in this position, with two trophies in the bag and the Champions League in their sights.
Guardiola thought of it, believed in it, and he drilled his players to do things his way. It took a bit of time but the moment it seemed to click for them was after the 1-1 draw with West Brom in December.
Since then, it’s really hard for me to pick out any outstanding individuals because literally everyone has done their bit.
One of the things I’ve got used to while working on City’s matches this season is getting the team before kick-off and seeing that Guardiola has rotated his squad again.
In the past it might have worried me when certain players were rested, but not any more. For example, even when Kevin de Bruyne has been missing, City have still played some of the best football they have ever played.
When you dive into the numbers, and see Guardiola has made an average of five changes every game in 2020-21, it’s staggering to think it has hardly affected their performances. There have been one or two games where their levels dropped, but that’s it.
‘I wasn’t convinced by Cancelo – I was wrong’
There are so many players who have impressed me while I’ve watched City this season but I’ll start with Ruben Dias, because of the impact he has made since joining in October.
Dias adapted instantly to the Premier League and has played more than any other City player in that time. He has been exactly the centre-half they needed.
The Portugal international has made a difference because he just wants to defend and does not take any risks. He is rock-solid and that has clearly helped the people around him like John Stones, who has also had a superb campaign.
That’s meant City have been much-improved at the back but it’s typical of Guardiola that he is looking for his defenders to offer more than just stopping the opposition.
With Stones, Aymeric Laporte and Joao Cancelo, he now has several defensive playmakers to call upon – and with Cancelo I think he has found the player who has perfected the role of a full-back in a Pep Guardiola team.
When Cancelo joined City in August 2019, in a player-plus-cash deal with Juventus that saw Danilo move the other way, he was valued at £60m and that seemed a lot.
He was clearly an accomplished player but seemed nothing spectacular. When you consider the waves that Liverpool’s full-backs were making around that time, I wasn’t convinced by him going forward. I was wrong.
Cancelo does not have the same pace or defensive capabilities as Kyle Walker, City’s other right-back, but when he comes inside and into midfield, he has the passing ability to help control the game and open the opposition up from there.
He looks so effortless while he is doing it too. He’s operating in the middle of the pitch, not out on the flanks, but he always seems to have so much time and space on the ball.
There’s been a few surprises…
All of this wouldn’t count for much if City couldn’t score goals, but they have found a different way of doing that too, which is why Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus often struggle to get into the team.
I guess the biggest surprise of City’s season is seeing Ilkay Gundogan as their leading scorer instead of either of those two or Raheem Sterling. But I always thought Gundogan had more goals in him, just not this many.
I did some analysis on him for TV before his burst of goals started because I’d noticed he was making more and more runs into the box, at just the right time.
He has always been such a clever player, I wanted him to become more selfish and start shooting when he got into those positions because he would score more, which is exactly what has happened.
Then you’ve got Phil Foden, who is off the scale at the moment with the things he is doing. Obviously we knew he was an incredible player, but he is still only 20.
Being honest, I didn’t expect as much from him in the really important games, but he has been incredible. I don’t stay in my seat very long when he gets on the ball.
Along with Foden, Riyad Mahrez has been almost un-droppable at times – even with Guardiola’s squad rotation.
They are both able to create space and chances for others as well as take them, but City have plenty of other players like that, even when he does rest that duo.
It is what has made them so hard to beat, and the challenge now for the rest of the Premier League is to find out a way of stopping them.