A filthy night in the Bronx. Pep Guardiola is at Yankee Stadium to watch the last of a six-game Major League Baseball series between New York Yankees and New York Mets.
The Manchester City manager is taking a break from the club’s summer tour, his side having lost the opener against Borussia Dortmund in Chicago two days earlier. Guardiola was to throw the opening pitch of the decisive game in the Subway Series, which the Yankees are leading 3-2 but incessant rain forces a postponement and he heads for the exit.
What Guardiola does next signifies where his and City’s focus is going to be when the 2018-19 season begins a few weeks later. Before leaving to be driven back to the hotel Guardiola catches sight of the Carabao Cup and Premier League trophies, won by his team the previous season and on display at the stadium.
He approaches them and, ignoring the Carabao Cup, leans forward and kisses the Premier League trophy. “I love this one,” he says, eyes sparkling. It leaves no doubt that, despite the Champions League being the major trophy that has eluded him at City, retaining the title is the No 1 priority for Guardiola – as he will impress on his players constantly through a seismic tussle with Liverpool that was decided in his side’s favour only on Sunday, in the 38th and final match.
Downtown Miami, later that week; the East hotel’s swish pool area. Bernardo Silva, Aymeric Laporte, Benjamin Mendy and Leroy Sané are among City players enjoying a jolly end-of-tour barbecue. Guardiola has thrown the social for his players and staff before Saturday’s final match of the trip against Bayern Munich at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium.
The manager has ordered the get-together for a reason. After the Bayern game City are to fly straight back to Manchester so this is the final chance for a celebration of last season’s record-breaking Premier League title triumph. A thank you from the manager for the 100-point triumph but also his way of drawing a line under it; of stating it is firmly in the past and everything from this point is to be concentrated on the main prize.
At this point the clock is ticking towards a decade since a club had retained the Premier League title. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United achieved that in 2008-09, completing a hat-trick of wins. Of the challenge ahead, Guardiola says: “With perspective, we’ll realise how good last season was – 100 points. I don’t know the hunger we [still] have. I don’t have an answer but I’ll try to repeat what we did at Barça and Bayern.” It is an apparent reference to the run of titles he won with those clubs (three in a row with each).
Guardiola had 16 players missing on the US trip, because of post-World Cup breaks. Thus, when all of the squad are finally together in August at the club’s City Football Academy training base he reiterates the message that retaining the Premier League is the priority.
Guardiola’s players listen, and from the opening 2-0 win at Arsenal on 12 August until the 2-1 victory at Watford on 4 December City are flying. They are unbeaten, failing to win only twice – draws with Wolves and Liverpool – in 15 Premier League outings. They lead the table with 41 points, three ahead of Jürgen Klopp’s side, with a goal difference of +38, 14 better than their closest challengers.
Then, the wheels come off, starting with a 2-0 defeat at Chelsea on 8 December. This is soon followed by consecutive defeats, 3-2 at home to Crystal Palace, then 2-1 at Leicester: the first time under Guardiola City have lost twice in a row in the league. The Leicester reverse on Boxing Day leaves City third, seven points behind Liverpool.
This is crisis point: the title defence teeters and threatens to fall down. Guardiola knows his players could, subconsciously or not, give in, bearing in mind how far they lag behind the Liverpool juggernaut, content to rest on the record-breaking achievements of the previous season. So the manager brings the squad together to address his players.
John Stones takes up the story: “All those hard months from pre-season to December [had occurred] and he said: ‘You don’t want to let everything slip now.’ He knows our capabilities as players, as a team, he just wants to push us, keep us striving for more and more – can you get that extra 2, 3, 4, 5%. When you’re in a difficult spot, it’s hard to come out of it when you are not getting results or playing as you want to.
“That’s when the manager or staff come into it, calming you down, reassuring you. Telling you that you can’t let up. It’s not setting targets – he tries to get you over the line in whatever game, whatever competition. Those are the things that he hits home with and never wants you to relax or take your foot off the pedal.”
Guardiola’s words prove inspirational. Stones and his teammates answer the late-December call. They lose again only once in the league: 2-1 at Newcastle on 29 January, then reel off 14 consecutive wins, a run embodied by Vincent Kompany’s 70th-minute screamer that beats Leicester in the 37th and penultimate match.
It proves the hammer blow to Liverpool as City do the necessary at Brighton and join Manchester United and Chelsea as the only clubs to retain the Premier League title.
Key has been how Guardiola and the team have overcome the absence of Kevin De Bruyne, the midfielder’s injury-blighted campaign limiting him to 11 starts. Bernardo Silva’s form in his second season has meant De Bruyne was barely missed.
Oleksandr Zinchenko, who might have left last summer, has emerged as a capable left-back when covering for Benjamin Mendy – the Frenchman’s physical fragility meaning he started only 10 times.
City’s mentality, defending champions unwilling to be dethroned, has elevated them to a team for the ages. Guardiola, of course, takes credit. A cold-eyed manager whose side play scintillating football, his effort has been magnificent, the Catalan gracing England’s top flight and giving it a new and invigorating dimension.
Now, for the next challenge, a tilt at history: to defeat Watford in Saturday’s FA Cup final and become the first team to win the domestic treble.
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