Pep Guardiola’s Merseyside misery a distant memory for Manchester City

Paul Wilson on 13 January 2018

Almost exactly a year ago, Pep Guardiola was on Merseyside conceding defeat in the title race, a comprehensive 4-0 mauling at Everton having confirmed the widespread suspicion that Manchester City were not in any shape to catch Chelsea at the top of the table. A great deal can change in 12 months though. Just ask Everton, whose day could scarcely have gone any better, with Tom Davies grabbing his first goal for the club and Ademola Lookman completing the rout by scoring on his debut.

Yet even that version of Everton, confident and compact, willing to soak up pressure before striking quickly on the break, would have struggled to prevail against the present incarnation of Manchester City. The draw at the Etihad in August turned out to be another false dawn. While Ronald Koeman’s plans were disintegrating through autumn, Guardiola’s players began stringing together a record-breaking sequence of 18 consecutive wins, putting themselves in an even stronger position than Chelsea had occupied at the turn of the year.

How did Guardiola do that, exactly? Was it just by spending striker-type money on a new pair of full-backs, as José Mourinho has alleged. Or was a more radical overhaul involved? The personnel at City does not appear at first glance to have changed all that drastically in the last year – Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Agüero, David Silva and Raheem Sterling were all present and correct at Goodison – yet the support cast has been subtly altered around the key figures.

Beginning with the goalkeeper – Ederson is now one of the more reliable performers in the Premier League, whereas Claudio Bravo was quite the opposite – Guardiola has made significant upgrades almost everywhere on the pitch. Bacary Sagna and Gaël Clichy have now departed and City boast a more aggressive full-back in Kyle Walker, even if Fabian Delph has had to fill in for the injured Benjamin Mendy on the other side of the pitch.

John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi remain City’s first-choice centre-backs, just about, and though they can be error-prone Eliaquim Mangala did not do a lot against Bristol City in midweek to suggest he would be any better.

This is actually one area where City could still improve, and should Jonny Evans arrive before the end of the month one imagines he would not go short of games. Pablo Zabaleta is now at West Ham and Yaya Touré’s top-flight games are strictly rationed, even though, almost unbelievably, that was the partnership Guardiola sent out to anchor the midfield at Everton.

Gabriel Jesus was still to make his debut a year ago and after a bright start he would shortly be lost to injury, a similar situation to the one that applies at present. Leroy Sané was at Goodison but unused as a substitute. A year further on in his English education the German is now one of City’s most potent attackers.

Perhaps Sané’s example is the key to understanding City’s success this season. The list of players who have improved under Guardiola’s tutelage is extensive – basically everyone has got better, not just Sterling and De Bruyne – and it is highly likely it would have been expecting too much to imagine everything would click into place from day one.

Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sané and Pep Guardiola
Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané have improved dramatically under Pep Guardiola’s watchful eye. Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters

Guardiola, too, had to learn about English football, to make his side more effective against opponents who would try to bypass the midfield and use long balls to negate a pressing game, and that could only happen over a period of time.

The transformation has happened now to the extent that there is talk of City going through the league season unbeaten – premature in January, perhaps, though legitimate when one considers the number of goals scored and the fact that only four points have been dropped in 22 games – which gives Sunday’s fixture at Anfield a significance even greater than usual.

Liverpool are not going for the league, they are engaged in their usual pursuit of trying to secure a Champions League place for next season while retaining an interest in further European progress next month, but as City have already played and won at Chelsea and Manchester United the team in fourth have to be regarded as the one most likely to interrupt the procession. “To win titles you have to win games on these kind of stages,” Guardiola said. “This is an important game to see if we are able to do big things.”

So was the meeting at the Etihad at the start of the season, though Jürgen Klopp’s side consider their 5-0 thrashing something of an injustice, due to four of the goals coming after Sadio Mané had been dismissed. It is Klopp’s theory that Liverpool were holding their own until they went down to 10 men – statistics can even be found to prove it.

Yet it is also true that Mané’s absence alone could not excuse some tired defending as City ran amok in the second half. Now that Virgil van Dijk has arrived at considerable cost to help correct that failing Liverpool ought to be in with a chance at Anfield, although Guardiola is unlikely to revert to three at the back to leave space on the flanks for Mohamed Salah and others to exploit.

Liverpool won 1-0 in the Anfield fixture last season but it was City’s fourth defeat of the campaign and a fifth would follow a fortnight later at Goodison. To say Guardiola has straightened out a few things since is quite an understatement. Looking at Manchester City 12 months ago already seems to be harking back to a different era.

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