The year was just a few days old but word of disharmony in the Manchester City camp had spread far and wide. It was even being discussed at other clubs.
The start of 2023 was rough for City. Yet they have emerged from that period emphatically, storming to a third straight Premier League title thanks to 11 victories in a row — even if they had Arsenal’s defeat away to Nottingham Forest to thank for getting them over the line.
Such has been their resurgence, powered by Erling Haaland’s 36 goals in 33 Premier League appearances, they could lay claim to being the best of manager Pep Guardiola’s great City teams. If they go on to win the treble — Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League — in June, they will go down as one of the best sides in history.
But to put the resurgence into context, it is important to understand how difficult January and February had been, with Guardiola repeatedly discussing the “body language” and “mood” of his players and the club being accused of more than 100 counts of breaching the Premier League’s finance rules.
The manager’s revelation that England international Kalvin Phillips had reported back from the World Cup in November and December overweight was one insight, but until Joao Cancelo left on a surprise loan to Bayern Munich on transfer deadline day at the end of January, few outside of the football bubble could put their finger on exactly what was going on.
No doubt, Cancelo’s exit is regarded as perhaps the key moment of the second half of this season within the City camp — but it went much further than that…
Masseur Mark Sertori had been at City for nearly 15 years, and had close relationships with numerous members of Guardiola’s squad, as he did with various others from the club’s modern era.
To give an idea of his popularity in the dressing room, Sertori is set to take up a new role at Championship winners Burnley ahead of next season, such is his close relationship with long-time City captain Vincent Kompany, now the manager at Turf Moor.
News of his departure from City by mutual consent following the World Cup break put a lot of noses out of joint among the squad, to such an extent that Guardiola became alarmed at what was unfolding. Some players wanted Sertori to stay, and weeks after he had left City he attended a home match sitting in one of the players’ private boxes. City have never publicly clarified the reason for his departure.
Senior club officials held meetings with the team’s group of captains — club captain Ilkay Gundogan, vice-captain Kevin De Bruyne, plus Rodri, Kyle Walker and Ruben Dias — during January to try to resolve the issue and the players also took it upon themselves to organise a dinner at The Ivy restaurant in Manchester for themselves, backroom staff and other employees at the club’s first-team hub in a bid to improve chemistry at the training ground.
According to those close to Guardiola, this was one of the major reasons for his regular public hints at the mood of his players.
It was also the backdrop to City’s shock defeat by relegation-bound Southampton in the Carabao Cup on January 11, after which Gundogan said, “it feels like there’s a special ingredient missing; the performances, the desire, the hunger is maybe not as it was in recent years”.
Last week, Guardiola called it “the lowest game” in his seven years at the club.
Three days on from the Southampton defeat, City lost a Manchester derby to United at Old Trafford, after which the players held an inquest in the away dressing room. Five days after that, Guardiola tore into them as they trailed 2-0 at half-time of a home game against Tottenham. City went on to win, 4-2.
That was the night when Guardiola went public with his concerns, feeling he needed to make a last-ditch attempt to stir up some fight in his players.
Arsenal, at that point, were five points clear at the top of the Premier League, having played one game less than City.
“If we play in that way, Arsenal will destroy us, they will beat us,” he said during a 20-minute press conference dominated by questions about his players’, and the club’s, lack of fire.
Cancelo had started that mid-January Manchester derby, an attempt by Guardiola to get him back onside, but it will most likely be the last game he plays for City.
The Portugal international, by his own admission, is not happy unless he plays in every game and had returned from the World Cup angry at being named as a substitute for his nation’s two knockout ties against Switzerland and Morocco.
His application in training was off from the moment he arrived back in Manchester and, as a result, he missed more and more games. This led to a vicious circle whereby the more he did not play, the more agitated he was, and he often complained openly about those who had taken his place in the line-up, including teenager Rico Lewis.
Cancelo wanted to leave and Guardiola was more than happy to oblige. Looking back to that time, the City manager and his staff believe it was a crucial decision in improving team harmony.
They are grateful for Cancelo’s efforts — particularly for playing in a big game against Arsenal last season 24 hours after he was assaulted in a burglary — but City needed to ship out somebody who had come to be regarded as an unwelcome influence in training. Sertori’s exit was still being felt, and many players were struggling in terms of form and fitness following World Cup duty.
Farming Cancelo out to Bayern on loan, despite him being one of only two senior full-backs in the squad, had a direct impact on the overall attitude of the group in two ways.
Firstly, it removed an ‘ally’ of other players who had become unhappy with their own playing time, so weakening the position of those who had found common ground in complaining about the manager. Secondly, it reminded everybody in the squad exactly who holds the power at the Etihad Stadium.
After City beat visitors Aston Villa 3-1 on February 12, Guardiola was asked about the mood in the camp since he delivered his withering assessment after the Tottenham game, and he said it had been better “over the last seven to 10 days”. It was surely a coincidence, but at that point it was just over 10 days since Cancelo had been moved on.
Villa’s visit was also City’s first game after they had been charged by the Premier League with more than 100 alleged breaches of financial rules between the 2009-10 and 2017-18 seasons. The top flight’s investigation leading to those charges took four years and its final outcome is not expected to arrive for at least a couple more. Were City to be found guilty, however, it would tarnish their many successes since the 2008 Abu Dhabi takeover, though the most senior figures at the club have been adamant since the charges were first levied that they will prove their innocence.
City had been blunt in defeat away to Spurs the day before the charges dropped, with chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and chief executive Ferran Soriano going into the dressing room after the match at a time when retaining the title had never appeared further away. By the end of that week, thanks to Guardiola’s defiance in a press conference, a siege mentality was in place and the atmosphere around the club transformed.
They beat Arsenal 3-1 away three days after the Villa game to re-establish themselves as title favourites, but then only drew 1-1 at relegation candidates Nottingham Forest in their next fixture, a game they could have won 5-0. The players spoke again.
“We had a conversation,” Rodri says. “It’s not enough to play good, you need to punish. From that moment, we switched on and you see it now, the behaviour and the character of the team. We identified the fact that we needed to punish our rivals.”
Guardiola had been telling his players they needed to stay in touch with Arsenal at the top of the table before the north Londoners came to the Etihad in April, and that if they did so they would be well in the race.
City have won all 11 Premier League matches since that day at Forest, on top of progressing to the FA Cup and Champions League finals. In fact, they have won every home game in 2023, in all competitions, on their way to clinching the title.
They had not won more than three league games on the bounce, though, until beating Liverpool 4-1 at the Etihad at the start of April. As a sign of Guardiola’s shift in confidence regarding his own players’ ability to compete, he had predicted before that game that another winning run was in the works.
“The feeling I have right now is quite similar to that I had in previous battles with Liverpool, when we were able to win 17 or 18 games in a row to be champions,” he said. “I have the same feeling.”
It was a stark contrast to when he reflected after the controversial defeat at Old Trafford and the comeback to beat Tottenham that, “I don’t care if we don’t win anything — I’ve said in the last years, ‘I want to see my team’.” In short, the bare minimum he wanted was to see his players fight and perform as they have done for the vast majority of his reign.
“I have an incredible feeling about my team,” he said last week, ahead of their 4-0 dismantling of holders Real Madrid in the second leg of a Champions League semi-final.
What a turnaround it has been.
The team meals, dressing room inquests and Guardiola’s eye-catching comments (not that every player necessarily agreed with him) all played their part in getting City from those dark days to the brink of history, but there was more to it than that.
“There were talks,” Gundogan says, “but sometimes it clicks on the field.”
By far the biggest dilemma Guardiola has faced on the pitch this season is how to get new striker Erling Haaland into his team without sacrificing the control of matches City have had in the past two seasons, when they used a midfielder up front.
It might seem strange considering Haaland has broken all records in his debut year, but his arrival has asked questions of Guardiola.
“Many times in the previous seasons we played with a false nine and had an extra player in the middle,” Guardiola said at the start of January. “Now the extra player is in the (opposition penalty) box, so we have to adjust something.”
At that time, though, he had not really found the answer. The approach that has been evident all season, broadly speaking, is to offset Haaland’s remarkably direct threat by slowing down the rest of City’s game, so they could retain control of matches and strike at the right moment. Ahead of the season starting, at least one first-teamer was concerned that City did not have enough players in the squad who could make runs in behind, but this is not something that Guardiola sees as vital.
In Haaland and De Bruyne, though, Guardiola has two players suited to exploiting wide open spaces, always looking to make something happen.
To ensure that City do not become too adventurous in possession, attempting runs, passes and dribbles in behind that could result in a damaging counter-attack, Guardiola has filled his team with tempo-setting players such as Gundogan, Rodri and Bernardo Silva. Even his choice of wingers is dictated by this quest for balance, with Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez usually getting the nod.
“When the action is clear, of course, we have to attack,” says Bernardo, “but when we feel that the action is not clear, to try not to force it. Because if we force it too much, then we don’t give time to our defenders to join us and then to control the counter-attacks.
“And when you give time to the defenders to join us, then you can recover the ball quicker and then attack again. That’s what we try to do.”
There were certainly high points before the World Cup break — City routed United at the Etihad and secured a last-gasp victory with 10 men against Fulham, which helped convince Guardiola to sign a new contract until 2025. But fans had become accustomed to a more patient — many suggested duller — style of play.
Although Haaland racked up the goals, they had lost a little bit of spark, and could not string a run of victories together.
Amid the Cancelo situation, Walker’s struggles and other injuries, though, Guardiola did find a player who made a massive contribution to how City turned their season around.
“Without Rico this season? Hmm,” Guardiola reflected at the start of May, discussing 18-year-old full-back Lewis. “It would have been more difficult, the step that we made as a team – that I’m pretty convinced (of).
“Rico, with that movement he does, he makes many things fluid in the team. After that, Kyle realised it, and John (Stones) played that position, by watching him. Because, in that position, he’s exceptional.”
Lewis featured in six of the seven league games immediately after the World Cup, lining up at right-back but moving into midfield next to Rodri, ensuring City can still create overloads while they are bringing the ball out from defence.
One of the drawbacks of having Haaland — and they are clearly outweighed by the obvious benefits — is that he cannot give City the same overloads in attack, compared to a midfielder who is deployed as a false nine.
In short, Haaland can link the play but with nowhere near the same effect as Phil Foden, Bernardo or Gundogan, for example, and while Guardiola had been picking wingers who have to take care in possession, he had also been deprived of the ability to manipulate teams with constant passing in the final third.
Without being able to create overloads around the opposition penalty area as they had done last season, City needed to rely more than ever on combinations between individual players — such as Mahrez and/or Bernardo playing in De Bruyne for a cross near the right byline — to create their chances. While they were hardly struggling, the coaching staff’s main concern before the World Cup was a slight drop in fluidity, especially against deep-lying, compact defences.
After overcoming the off-field issues in January and February, they have been able to focus on finding solutions on the pitch.
In that sense, Lewis walked so Stones could run. The youngster’s specific movements in midfield, and his ability to step even further up the pitch, have been developed by Stones, via a brief experiment with Bernardo at left-back.
“The other players have a lot of things that Rico doesn’t have,” Guardiola explains. “Experience, and many, many things, composure during the game. But this is why the team grows in many cases.”
And yet even Stones’ current role was only defined last month. After weeks of tucking into midfield from right-back, against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals, he stepped up from centre-back.
That home game against Real Madrid on Wednesday was a perfect example of the difference this has made to City’s overall game in that period: Stones is a modern-day libero, not just defending and stepping into midfield but carrying the ball right up the pitch to become the extra man in attack City had been looking for all season.
The other key reason for their explosion into life over the past couple of months has been out of their control: the opposition’s approach.
From the 7-0 Champions League thrashing of Leipzig on March 14 through the 4-1 domination of Arsenal on April 26, seven of City’s nine games came against sides who tried to press them, play through them or both. As a result, City have not had to worry quite so much about what Haaland does not offer compared to what he does provide — they have been able to let him and De Bruyne, in particular, combine and wreak havoc in the open spaces that were not always there earlier this season.
That new-found ability on the break is one major difference between this City and their teams of the false-nine era, but Guardiola believes there is another one that is possibly even bigger.
“The defenders are proper defenders,” he says. “They defend well and that helps us to be solid.”
Nathan Ake was considered City’s most reliable, consistent defender earlier this season and the Dutchman has surely been one of the best defenders in the Premier League. The only reason he is not such a clear-cut choice for City’s best one in recent weeks is the re-emergence of some of his team-mates, including Stones and the imperious Dias.
Walker has also stormed back into the reckoning in recent weeks after another period out of the side, and Manuel Akanji has been particularly impressive at left-back while Ake has been injured.
City are delighted with their £15million purchase of Akanji from Borussia Dortmund as an emergency option late in last summer’s transfer window, and they believe he has played a big part in a defensive line with higher levels of concentration compared to recent years.
City have made things look easy in recent weeks, with players stepping up when needed. “I’ve seen a few tweets and been joking with Gundo that he turns into prime Zidane in the last few months (of a season),” Walker said during the week, after the German scored two goals for the second league game running.
Grealish has become integral to the side and there is an enormous amount of appreciation behind the scenes for Rodri. That was already the case last summer, when City signed Phillips from Leeds United in part because they knew Rodri would be the main man in midfield and that Phillips would be more content with a rotation role. But the England man has had a disappointing first season and Rodri has played far more than planned, and done so at an incredibly high level.
“People talk about Erling, but what a year Rodri has had,” Guardiola said on Wednesday. “I don’t know if there’s a midfielder better than him right now.”
One major complaint among Guardiola’s staff in recent weeks, however, has related to the state of the pitch in several key away games. At Fulham, Everton and Real Madrid, the grass was very dry, which can have a sizeable effect on a team as meticulously detailed as City. If balls take longer to arrive with your wingers, for example, the opposition midfielders have just that bit longer to get back into position and defend.
After overcoming such internal strife at the start of the year, though, trivial details like that were not going to stand in their way.
City have overcome similar dressing-room disharmony in other title victories: in 2018-19, Guardiola left Mahrez and Leroy Sane out over attitude concerns, and banned Benjamin Mendy from the first-team facilities over his attitude to injury rehab. In 2020-21, City won the league and reached the Champions League final despite several players seeking transfers, many of them having gripes with Guardiola.
This was perhaps the most volatile season of the lot, and yet they are stronger than ever.
One down, two to go.
(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images/design: Eamonn Dalton)
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