- Dillon Meehan
Provoked Pep, Fed up Fans and the Return of Ruben Dias: How Man City Reinvigorated the Title Race
“I am not moving from this seat. I can assure you more than ever that I want to stay”.
It was the standout quote from Pep Guardiola’s first press conference since the Premier League had announced over 100 charges against Manchester City for alleged financial breaches, and it set the tone for what to expect from the club moving forward: pure confidence.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time. City looked lost, out of the title race, and engulfed in scandal. After their win in February against Arsenal, they (briefly) sat atop the Premier League table. Following Arsenal’s draw to Liverpool this past weekend, City will soon have a chance to take the top spot once again.
Things hadn’t exactly been going great for City since returning from the World Cup. First, it was a string of bad performances and mixed results, then crashing out of the Carabao Cup, a shocking refereeing decision cost them points against Manchester United, Joao Cancelo’s temper tantrum sent him to Germany, all of which happened before yet another loss away to Spurs.
Less than 24 hours later, the Premier League announced their charges, and it began to feel all too similar to the 2019/20 season: City’s quest for a three-peat stifled by injuries and poor performances, cultivating in a bombshell allegation that threatened to destroy everything the project stood for.
Fast forward to Guardiola’s press conference, and once again, the Catalan was tasked with answering for alleged crimes he is not responsible for, many of which happened while he was still a Barcelona manager. It’s no secret that Pep has gradually become much more comfortable speaking his mind in press conferences, and this was his boldest example yet.
He emphatically called out the nine Premier Clubs who wrote to UEFA calling for City to be excluded from European competition, he emphasised his trust in “his people” time and time again, he sarcastically accepted responsibility for Steven Gerrard’s slip, all while looking like a Bond villain.
“Like Julius Caesar said, ‘In this world, there are no enemies or friends, just interests’” – Pep Guardiola
While there was still plenty of time left in the season, the toll of two months of under-par performances, Guardiola’s confidence, and City Twitter’s in-house counsel Stefan Borson breaking down the charges all served as a pressure cooker for the fans.
All of that anger, excitement and frustration was unleashed on Aston Villa. By the end of the first half, City had taken a 3-0 lead. Ruben Dias started for the first time since October to solidify the defence, and it was easily City’s best post-World Cup performance.
The fan reaction was so strong that Rodri specifically highlighted the fan sentiment in his post-game comments:
“I don’t know what happened today honestly, but we need the crowd every day because I think when they are like this, they inject us with extra energy. We love them, but we need them like this because we really feel them on the pitch.”
Then came Arsenal.
The Gunners were top of the table but appeared to look vulnerable for the first time this season. Despite impressive wins over Brighton, Spurs and United the past few weeks, the North London club had dropped five points in their previous two matches.
However, the Bernardo Silva left-back experiment didn’t quite work, and City were unable to play through Arsenal’s aggressive press. Kevin De Bruyne’s quick thinking gave City an unexpected lead, only to see it squandered due to another confusing refereeing decision.
By halftime, it was beginning to feel like a nightmarish hybrid of the terrible officiating that plagued much of the 2016/17 season and the uninspired performances of 2019/20.
But City responded. Manuel Akanji replaced Riyad Mahrez, allowing Bernardo to play in his natural position, and suddenly City began to grow into the game. First, it was Jack Grealish scoring a much-deserved goal, then it was Haaland with the dagger in the closing moments.
Overcoming adversity has become a recent trademark of City, but that wasn’t always the case. The dramatic comebacks against Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, and the title-winning heroics against West Ham and Aston Villa last year now seem normal. But the reality is that for much of Pep’s tenure, it was common for City to just fold under pressure.
After the game, Guardiola highlighted his squad’s improved mentality:
“But the mood, the way they are training, the concentration, focus, was there, and especially for the fact that we knew we had to suffer and be resilient in the bad moments. We concede a penalty and after the potential penalty and whatever, and maybe in previous times we would be disappointed and complain. But still we were there, we were still in the game.”
The comeback against Arsenal gave City two wins in as many weeks against the potential champions. With their matchup at the end of the month serving as the de facto title decider, it’s important to highlight that Arsenal haven’t gotten the better of City since Project Restart, and Guardiola has never lost to them in league play.
For a moment, it looked as though the Arsenal triumph was all for nought. The emphatic win was followed up with back-to-back draws against Nottingham Forest and RB Leipzig. Despite the results not going in City’s favour, there was a lot to glean from the Forest performance in particular: City were back.
Following the back-to-back draws, it has been nothing short of an awakening. Nine games, nine wins, 34 goals scored, and just three goals conceded. A massive win streak propelling City to a Premier League title; sound familiar?
City’s next match comes up against Leicester, who ironically are winless in their last nine. But there are clichés galore to describe this match, especially with the second leg of Bayern and a trip to Wembley just around the corner.
So what changed? The return of Ruben Dias and John Stones from their injuries has solidified the defence and allowed the originally tear-inducing four centreback lineup to become the reason why everything now clicks.
Stones’ ball carrying and distribution is maybe the best in the world; it allows him to be deployed as a part-time right back out of possession and part-time defensive midfielder while in possession.
When combined with Dias’ near-perfect decision-making, tackling ability and underrated distribution, it makes for a perfect pair.
But they aren’t the only two defenders responsible for this winning streak. Nathan Ake has gone from the often-injured utility player to a full-fledged left-back. Ever since the abrupt departure of Cancelo, the 28-year-old has become the newest player for Guardiola to mould into a left-back. From game savings blocks to creating chances, to match winners, in a span of six months, the Dutch defender has gone from a potential Chelsea signing to one of the first names on the team sheet.
Lastly, there’s Grealish. The 100-million-pound man has come alive since the World Cup. There had always been flashes, even dating back to his underwhelming first season at the Etihad. But since returning from the break, Grealish has nine goal contributions, with a bulk of them coming against the big six, and a plethora of excellent performances to add on top of it. It’s been needed; despite the team’s high-flying form, both De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan haven’t been close to the top of their games this season.
Following the draw with Liverpool, the run-in is now in full effect. And with just eight games left the Gunners have saved some of their hardest matches for last. Arsenal still have to face West Ham, City, Chelsea, and Newcastle away from home, only to then be awarded a home contest against Brighton after all of that.
It won’t be easy for City either. While the league games are nowhere near as difficult, they are still actively competing in three competitions. And after the dismemberment of Bayern in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals, there’s a good chance there will be even more games added to the condensed schedule.
All that matters for City now is that they are essentially in control of their destiny. If they win every game on out, they’re champions again. And the first team to three-peat in over a decade.
If that form continues across all competitions then that means not only a Premier League title, but a treble would be up for consideration.
Maybe it’s time to panic on the streets of London.
Written by: @IVIeehan