Man City set for fifth Premier League title in six years – we reveal secrets behind their success
Manchester is not what it once was. Although forever cold and painted by drizzle, the place has a burgeoning reputation across the world. Suddenly, it has become an area to explore. And not just for a football team on the east side who are winning trophies with a style never seen before and will, in all likelihood, win the Premier League this weekend.
Lonely Planet listed the city as England’s must-visit this year, sharing company with Nova Scotia, Umbria and El Salvador. In 2021, Time Out readers chose only San Francisco and Amsterdam as more desirable destinations.
There has always been the Northern Quarter’s artwork, the museums and gigs, but it is the high-end cuisine that has improved most drastically.
Manchester City’s players may well spend Sunday night celebrating as a group in The Ivy, an Instagram-friendly restaurant fashionable with 20-somethings, but their manager would rather be three streets north.
Pep Guardiola’s new haven is Musu, a lavishly exclusive Japanese eatery that opened in October and where a seven-course menu costs £110. Guardiola often pops in for his lunch and to think, and headed there the day after City had pummelled RB Leipzig 7-0 in March.
Man City are rocketing towards a Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble
Pep Guardiola had a belief in his side that was hard to fathom as Arsenal rose up the table
Eatery Musu was the sight of a possible celebration after City’s 7-0 demolition of RB Leipzig
He sat at the bar, ordered omakase (meaning you leave the dishes up to the head chef, in this case Andre Aguiar) and appeared content. City were nine games in to a 23-match unbeaten run in all competitions.
The season had by no means been perfect, City still five points behind leaders Arsenal, yet Guardiola saw signs that his players were clicking into gear at precisely the right moment.
Two months later, they stand on the verge of becoming only the fifth club to lift three consecutive top-flight titles. Guardiola will be the second manager, after Sir Alex Ferguson, to achieve that.
They have done so by evolving patterns of play, harnessing world football’s new pin-up striker and using the Premier League’s charges of alleged financial impropriety as a galvanising tool, with a few bits in between.
How things can change. Just weeks prior to that sushi lunch, after a draw at Nottingham Forest, Guardiola was asked if City’s attackers were taking enough risks. He launched back with a seven-minute monologue, defending his team and himself.
Hours before City blew a lead at Forest, Arsenal had summoned a last-gasp victory at Aston Villa. At the time, it seemed seismic. Big calls came thereafter — Aymeric Laporte has made one league appearance in the subsequent two months.
‘What do you expect?’ Guardiola asked. ‘That we won a lot of games away from home last season and everything will be the same? With that, Liverpool and Manchester United should win the leagues every year because of the 1980s and 90s. If we draw or lose, I’m wrong — I know that. What can I say against Forest? It was a 0-5 game, honestly.’
He was right. City had wasted a ridiculous amount of chances that day, Erling Haaland surprisingly the chief culprit. Generally, though, the City spark was missing.
A defeat against Tottenham in February was a low point, marking City’s then-inconsistency
Erling Haaland seemed to be a piece that didn’t fit into the side’s puzzle after early promise
Cohesion within the group and a singular desire to win has been credited with turbo-charging City’s dominance in the latter half of the season
There had been a riotous 3-1 win at the Emirates but only after a drab defeat by Tottenham. Performances were not consistent. From the day after that speech, they were — starting with a 4-1 cruise at Bournemouth.
In the squad’s spin room at the training ground, there is a huge message on the wall which reads: ‘Marty says pedal, man.’ It’s an in-joke, a nod to board member Martin Edelman’s contribution to the opening of the City Football Academy in 2014, and from Bournemouth there was no stopping. A Peloton without an off switch. The music doesn’t appear to have one either, with Nineties and Noughties dance — the likes of Ghetto Supastar by Pras — deafening as they cycle.
City drowned out the rest. Arsenal and Liverpool went for fours, Real Madrid too. Bayern Munich conceded three. City started battering teams in a way they had forgotten for a period either side of the World Cup.
After coming from behind to beat Liverpool straight after the March international break, the injured Haaland ran around the Etihad from his hospitality box to greet each player in the tunnel. Four weeks later, Bernardo Silva made a beeline for match-winner Julian Alvarez at Fulham. Something was happening and that had not seemed possible as City’s players came back from their international travails before Christmas.
Riyad Mahrez, Cole Palmer, Rico Lewis and Haaland were the only first-team outfielders not at the World Cup and went on a warm-weather camp to Abu Dhabi with Brian Barry-Murphy’s Under 23s. Haaland, injured after a shock 2-1 defeat by Brentford on November 12, spent the majority of time undergoing rehabilitation with strength and conditioning coach Simon Bitcon.
What followed was a bitty six weeks. They dropped two points against Everton on New Year’s Eve, Arsenal failing to go 10 points clear by then drawing against Newcastle. Things needed fixing.
At Stamford Bridge on January 5, Guardiola told his side there were 66 points to play for and Arsenal could be caught. At that point, Haaland might have been quieter on his Snapchat group with fellow Norwegians Martin Odegaard and Sander Berge.
Guardiola made extravagant team selections against Chelsea — Joao Cancelo on the right wing, Rodri at centre half — in a move that did not work. Goalless, he ripped it up at the break, hooking Cancelo and Kyle Walker, with Lewis then prominent as Mahrez and Jack Grealish changed the game. Txiki Begiristain and Khaldoon Al Mubarak congratulated the team in the dressing room as Haaland danced in his pants.
The manager was dissatisfied, though. He disliked the body language of some players in training, with the main focus being Cancelo, whose time at the club was coming to an end.
Aymeric Laporte (right) has been a casualty of Guardiola’s risk-taking as he reshapes the side
Relations became strained between Joao Cancelo (right) and Guardiola due to attitude issues
Cancelo locked horns with his parent club in Bayern Munich colours after a hasty loan move
A furious Cancelo, in danger of developing into a distraction, held heated talks with the manager over playing time and was jettisoned to Bayern Munich on loan. The 45 minutes at Chelsea was the beginning of his demise, before starting City’s abject Carabao Cup defeat at Southampton and the controversial 2-1 reverse at Old Trafford, when City felt let down by the officials and VAR.
Six players — including Silva — have filled the left-back role this term. Without Cancelo, City went from having half a left back to none whatsoever and this is where Guardiola really earned his money. He tweaked the shape, allowing Nathan Ake to flourish as a left-sided centre back.
Lewis is credited with altering the course of the campaign in that regard, playing the quasi-right-back-central midfield role with intelligence beyond his years which then allowed John Stones to study the position and eventually take over. Stones has been exceptional ever since, and Manuel Akanji, an emergency £15million signing from Borussia Dortmund last August, has surpassed expectations. Rodri has barely missed a minute, imperious weekly, with Kevin De Bruyne regularly doing De Bruyne things.
There are always moments you can pinpoint as defining. In November, Guardiola’s address to the squad, described by sources as ’emotional’ after beating Fulham with a man down for 64 minutes (Cancelo saw red), sealed by Haaland’s stoppage-time penalty, could have been one. But then they lost to Brentford the next week.
Or there are little things that can seem bigger than in reality. Captain Ilkay Gundogan always likes everybody gathered in the tunnel before warming up so they jog out in unison. Rodri and Ruben Dias, both part of the five-man leadership committee, often take charge of motivational conflabs.
The fun games Guardiola’s staff devise in training help morale, the squad split into teams for things such as racing to keep a ball aerial and dunking into a bin, Palmer quacking each time it reaches its destination.
Guardiola ‘tore strips off the players’ like one source had never seen before after an abject display against Southampton in the Carabao Cup in January.
Do these things mean a great deal individually? No. Do they contribute to this team doing things as a collective, making them more ready to trample opposition? Probably.
Squad morale is at an all-time high, with fun training games providing small but crucial lifts
Captain Ilkay Gundogan (centre) has made a difference as a respected force on the pitch
Similar can be said of the 115 charges handed down by the Premier League in February. City have not lost since and the coaching staff have bought into the notion at board level that they are unfairly judged.
There is a belief that Guardiola’s rant at the players after beating Spurs 4-2 on January 19 sparked something. Two down at half-time, booed off by their supporters, City’s players sprinted down the tunnel, had their debrief and then blew Tottenham away.
Guardiola later tore into them, claiming a lack of ‘passion, desire’ and called them the ‘happy flowers team’. Gladly accept plaudits, unwilling to fight. There was anger at how nobody sprung to Lewis’s aid as Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg kicked lumps out of him.
Guardiola has since admitted that had City lost, his statements would have focused on shielding his squad. Spurs are the only team to have beaten them since.
For weeks after, the manager was privately telling his players to make sure they remained in touch with Arsenal before the meeting in late April. That was the night that shook Mikel Arteta — City were pulverising on the pitch, hostile in the stands — and tipped the title north with a 4-1 win.
The hulking £51m signing from Dortmund has had something of an impact, of course, kicking into overdrive since February — 19 goals in all competitions mean he could yet scale 60 for the season. Records have tumbled, Haaland a sharp edge City did not previously possess, yet according to some, City were blunter with the league’s top goalscorer up front. Not as fluid, artsy. Just not City.
It baffled staff. ‘It’s f****** s***,’ said one source. Fair to say, then, that while Haaland has been learning to link play in a more polished fashion, fears about his suitability were not shared inside the club.
No one in the club could understand speculation that Haaland was unable to improve the team
The Norwegian and Jack Grealish (right) have grown close, with the team reaping the rewards
The England star has had a staggering second season at the Etihad and is now undroppable
Grealish calls him a ball magnet, Scott Carson celebrates thwarting the Norwegian in shooting drills devised by coach Carlos Vicens. Defenders have remarked upon how Haaland has improved them in training. His only blemish is not being quite as sharp in the rondos, which assistant manager Enzo Maresca still fancies himself in.
Haaland’s relationship with Grealish is strong; they live on the same floor in a plush city-centre apartment block. One ventures into town slightly more than the other, though Grealish told Mail Sport a fortnight ago that he has curbed his partying instincts.
He will enjoy a Birra Moretti in the dressing room and has settled into a place that once threatened to overawe him. He still doesn’t score many but that is to forget his primary function: as a ball carrier, a pre-assister. He keeps the ball.
Grealish’s consistency has seen Phil Foden reduced to waiting in the wings. Alongside Stones and Gundogan, he trained with the kids in Croatia during pre-season after American authorities denied the trio entry. While that did not hamper him to begin with — Foden scored a hat-trick in October’s 6-3 Manchester derby demolition — he struggled after the World Cup. Guardiola had talks with him about personal issues, though his recent appearances suggest Foden is ready to fly once more.
Those distracting aspects came in January, and there were fraught weeks at City. Benjamin Mendy’s rape case ended in a retrial, to be heard next month, with Guardiola having attended via video link as a character witness.
The players found it difficult to deal with the absence of sports therapist Mark Sertori (right)
But with challenges overcome, City can focus on making history in their pursuit of the Treble
The Catalan manager is a fan of cigars and is sure to light one amidst the coming celebrations
Popular sports therapist Mark Sertori left by mutual consent, leaving players upset. They were also agitated that confidant and chauffeur Mohammed Fayaz Hussain saw his dressing-room access changed, now attending matches in the stands.
Those were talking points among the squad before the Premier League charges were handed down. Guardiola has backed his employers to clear their names. The wranglings with authority in his seven-year reign have solidified a bond and if City win a fifth crown in six years, the awkwardness for the League will be palpable.
Guardiola will light a Cuban and hit the links. On the season’s eve, he took several players on a golf competition at Mottram Hall in Cheshire and there will be chance to reach for the irons again after this first trophy is won.
Not for long, though. Golf, some sushi and then eyes on the Treble, history and immortality.