London (AFP) – “You have to run much less,” was the explanation Pep Guardiola offered on how he turned the worst start to a season of his managerial career into a third Premier League title in four years for Manchester City.
After a 1-1 draw at home to West Brom in mid-December, City had won just five of their opening 12 Premier League games and started their next match at Southampton 11 points adrift of defending champions Liverpool.
“I didn’t like what I saw,” said Guardiola, speaking about those first few months of the season. “I felt this is not the team I can recognise myself.”
Barely five months later, City are very much recognisable as a Guardiola team in style and success. The Catalan’s latest triumph means he has three Premier League titles to go with his three La Liga crowns at Barcelona and three at Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga.
This one was not sealed with 100 points as in 2017/18, nor did it go down to a dramatic final-day decider when City held off Liverpool a year later, but it may still be the sweetest given the adversity Guardiola’s men had to overcome in a rollercoaster campaign.
After a break of just two weeks between two seasons changed beyond recognition by the coronavirus, City’s slow start could be forgiven.
Yet it was not fatigue that Guardiola noted as his side’s problem, but a desire to cover too much ground.
“We were running too much — to play football you have to run much less,” said Guardiola in the midst of a 21-game winning run in all competitions that followed those dropped points against West Brom.
“Without the ball you have to run, but with the ball you have to stay more in position and let the ball run and not you.”
– Strength in depth –
In a more congested calendar than ever before due to the late start to the season, City stormed clear as they let the ball do the work while Liverpool and Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea ran out of steam in the winter months.
Even a coronavirus outbreak that shut down the club’s training ground in late December could not derail a relentless run to reclaim the title.
City’s remarkable strength in depth was also a major factor, given the exhausting physical demands of the season.
Backed by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour, the economic effects of the pandemic did not prevent Guardiola from splashing £62 million ($86 million) on Ruben Dias after they were thrashed 5-2 by Leicester in their second league game of the season.
The Portuguese centre-back has had a transformational impact on City’s defence, but Guardiola also has to take credit for the way in which he has used his squad without losing momentum.
Dias, Rodrigo, Raheem Sterling and Joao Cancelo are the only outfield players to have started 25 or more of City’s 35 Premier League games.
Guardiola’s rotation has kept his side fresh enough to still be in contention for a treble, with the League Cup in the bag and a Champions League final against Chelsea to come.
He won that competition twice as a coach during his time at Barcelona but has not tasted success since 2011, with agonising European exits becoming a regular painful occurrence.
The 50-year-old’s major trophy count is now a staggering 26 in just 12 seasons at Barca, Bayern and City.
But while there is a clamour for Champions League glory at the Etihad, Guardiola has repeatedly put more emphasis on the importance of showing the consistency required to win a domestic league.
Nine titles in three of the world’s top leagues shows it has been a recipe for outstanding success.
“The Champions League is the most prestigious, the nicest one, but the Premier League is the most important,” he said.
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