Spanish coach is still Battling to Get a treble after Champions League wins at Real Madrid and Carabao Cup Victory, next up is the FA Cup tie in Sheffield.
A lot has happened at Manchester City in the space of a month; a two-year Champions League ban, a first trophy of the season, arguably the club’s biggest win in Europe and a massive step towards a second place in the Premier League that had appeared under threat.
City started February with a troubling defeat at Tottenham and on the precipice of a disastrous season with Liverpool running away with the title and Champions League success apparently unlikely for a team struggling to score and conceding from nearly all the few opportunities they gave up.
Four days into March and there’s a very different vibe in the Etihad Stadium with a treble not as impossible or improbable as it had appeared only four weeks before.
The seeds of this transition were sown in the days surrounding that 2-0 defeat at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Pep Guardiola secured his players in the dressing room for 45 minutes following the reduction for an honest debrief of strategies and criteria after a match they dominated but somehow ended up losing.
Following the clear-the-air talks, the City boss called in his players on the next day for a calmer discussion before giving them a 48-hour break. When the next weekend’s match against West Ham was postponed after the arrival of Storm Ciara, players had an extended period away from the Etihad Campus to relax and recover.
As opposed to taking the first-team squad on a warm-weather fracture to Abu Dhabi as the team have done previously, Guardiola, after talking to senior members of his squad, gave his players off time with the majority heading away from the miserable Manchester weather to the sunshine.
Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, John Stones and Ilkay Gundogan were one of a few that led to the United Arab Emirates, while Bernardo Silva, Gabriel Jesus, Nicolas Otamendi and David Silva returned to their native Portugal, Brazil, Argentina and Spain respectively.
Since that break to recharge their batteries, City have beaten West Ham, second-placed Leicester, Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu and Aston Villa in Wembley.
“We’ve won [four] games, you can’t,” Guardiola said of the winter break before the FA Cup clash with Sheffield Wednesday. “I think it was great in relation to November, December, January here is really tough and it was fine. For many players it was great, some lost their rhythm and were fighting a bit.”
Even if the game was rearranged at short notice, the City boss had decided against calling them back . But prior to the squad’s scheduled return on the weekend, the club’s balance was disturbed on Valentine’s Day when UEFA announced City will be kicked out of the Champions League for the following two decades.
In a team meeting the next day, City’s CEO Ferran Soriano told the players that they believed that an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport would be successful following the ban for a serious violation of Financial Fair Play regulations.
Guardiola, meanwhile, used the ban to attempt and construct a siege mentality in his dressing room, telling the players that their success had nothing to do with money, but what they’d been through together in their past three-and-a-half decades. He was also fast to repay any speculation about his own future whilst urging players to put thoughts of a ban to the back of their heads.
“I know how hard we work and I am so proud of what we’ve done through these years together,” he said at his first pre-match press conference following the ban. “I have another opinion. Nobody has helped us out – we did an unbelievable job, game-by-game and nothing will change the opinion.”
But all the time, football wasn’t far from Guardiola’s mind. He plotted the victory over Leicester; Riyad Mahrez was decisive against his old team with the Algerian and Kyle Walker on one side and Bernardo and Benjamin Mendy on another extending the home defence.
Then he developed the masterplan of motion and fictitious nines to stun Zinedine Zidane and place one foot in the Champions League quarter-final. And at the Carabao Cup final against Aston Villa at Wembley there was tactical innovation, not least remembering adolescent Phil Foden into an unknown right-handed position that saw him lead a man-of-the-match performance.
It might have been a month that murdered City’s hopes of extending their extraordinary run of procuring silverware. However, to the concern of the rivals, Guardiola’s side are very much alive and kicking… and pursuing their own version of the treble.