We interviewed Sam Lee, author of The Athletic, to find out.
With the celestial first 45 minutes of the match against Real Madrid still in sight, on Sunday we again took the time – necessary, almost due – to celebrate yet another Manchester City title by Pep Guardiola. The championship won this year is the ninth in the history of the club, the fifth in the last 6 years, the third in a row. To this team however, who knows why, we and our arrogant judgments have so far not yet managed to give all the due credit. Probably the fault of that Champions League that never arrived, however close it may have been and, perhaps, even deserved.
This year, though, that finish line seems closer than ever. The final in Istanbul is just over two weeks away and indeed, to complete a season that should, if necessary, be taken and handed over to the legend of this sport, Manchester City could also win the FA Cup and conclude a treble as only United’s cousins have managed to do in England. To talk about the season of this fantastic team we had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Lee, correspondent of The Athletic for Manchester City for 8 years, probably the most suitable person in the world to accompany us in the world of the blues and, above all, a trained and professional journalist like few others.
Sam, thank you for giving us some of your time. Last year this team, more or less at this point in the season, found themselves in a similar situation to today, in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the Champions League, and with a title to defend against the threat of Liverpool. We all know how it went then, with De Bruyne and his companions who “only” managed to conquer the Premier League. What has changed this year?
True, last year City were still in the running for all goals in mid-April, but it was a completely different situation. Guardiola had, in a certain sense, to sacrifice the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool by forcibly resting most of his starters, because the team was coming from a devastating physical and mental effort, that is the match against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals . In the league, then, Liverpool themselves contended for the title at the blues until the last day, forcing City not to be able to neglect any match even in the Premier League. This year the scenario was much better. In the FA Cup, drawing Sheffield United in the semi-final made things easier and the league was sorted out a few days early.
And perhaps this is also a different team, more aware of its strength and in some respects even less presumptuous. Are we facing the best City of the Guardiola era?
Absolutely yes. Being less presumptuous can be deduced from the fact that Manchester City has this year [ri]discovered the pleasure of defending oneself. We saw it against Bayern, Real and, in some circumstances, even in the first leg against Arsenal. This team is hardly ashamed of taking the opponent into the box or conceding 1vs1s. She did it against champions like Vinicius Jr, Saka and Martinelli and always came out on top. And then, of course, the other big difference from past years is called Erling Haaland. Not only for the 52 goals this season, but because City now have one more option in the offensive phase, which is that of being able to restart quickly. Take a look the goal of the Norwegian right in the match in Munich: it took only about 20 seconds from the relaunch of Stones from the backline to the goal by Haaland thrown behind the opposing defense. An absolute novelty in playbook of this team than in the past.
Who has been the key player this season up to now? Beyond Haaland and the usual splendid old guard, don’t you think that the left chain Aké-Gundogan-Grealish was the real rock on which the team rested, especially in the second half of the season?
I have two names in mind above all. Gundogan, you mentioned it too, is a unique player. He does everything you ask him in the right way, it’s essential in the possession phase; the best on second balls; also tenacious in running backwards and helping his teammates in the defensive phase. I still don’t believe this player gets the credit he deserves, and I don’t know if he ever will. Then Rodri, who together with Haaland I think he really was the “player of the year”. She played at a fantastic level, but it’s his consistency that leaves you stunned. He always plays and always does it in an incredible way. We can certainly mention the great season of Ruben Dias, Aké, Grealish and many others. De Bruyne has had better years, but in the nights that mattered he was decisive, as was Bernardo.
Still remaining on the field issues, can Cancelo’s transfer in January be defined as one of the turning points of the season? Was this a decision that was in the air or did it all happen suddenly?
I have no idea if Cancelo’s exit was somehow already budgeted for. I know for sure that some of the Portuguese’s behaviors were no longer tolerable, and Guardiola didn’t want all of this to have repercussions on the squad. So, once Bayern’s offer arrived, and once the player’s will was verified, the deal was also closed quite quickly. This was also a way for Guardiola to send a signal to the locker room. Cancelo could have found “allies” among the most dissatisfied, among those who had played less or even for other reasons. With his transfer, Pep reiterated, if ever there was a need, that he was always and only in charge. So yeah, he was a turning point of the season, both from a tactical point of view and for issues that did not necessarily concern the field.
About turning point, what were the most important matches along the way? I’m also thinking of those – few – that didn’t go well, like the one at the City Ground against Forest in which the idea of using Bernardo as a left defensive back in the non-possession phase was perhaps definitively waned.
Certainly that match triggered something, in the sense that the team realized that the moment had really arrived in which points could no longer be left on the street, given Arsenal’s non-stop race. But in general it hasn’t been a season of “decisive matches”. The keys were different: Cancelo’s exit as mentioned; the news of the judicial proceeding that could affect the club in the future which has compacted the group. In short, there were no real moments sliding doors. In my opinion, the three most important victories were those lined up against Leipzig, Burnley and Liverpool, straddling the last international break. Three goals scored – 17 goals in total – against teams that came to pick you up and against which Manchester City found strength and pleasure in attacking with so much available field. Well, those may have been three games in which the team also had an extra boost in terms of confidence.
Julian Alvarez has been a fantastic signing, even considering his price tag. What can be his future in this team? Will he really be the De Bruyne of the future, as Guardiola is trying to set him up?
I think we shouldn’t focus too much on the role Guardiola has thought of for Alvarez, but more on how Pep is trying to improve him in all aspects of his game. Guardiola wants two “direct” solution players in his offensive department – Haaland and De Bruyne in fact – and 4 more “possession” players. Alvarez is a direct player and so right now he’s perfect because he can be both of us’s first substitutions. But in the future City could change the way they play, and Alvarez will have to be ready for any solution. Also because, beyond the rumors circulating, after the World Cup he signed a contract extension and therefore I think we will see him in this shirt for a long time. Ah, and for that role from “next De Bruyne” I would play two cents on Foden…
Thinking about the next important commitments, how do you think Guardiola can manage the physical and mental energies of his squad in these weeks? Will we see what can now be considered his “once de gala” also in the Wembley match against United?
Absolutely. Everything suggests that the same team seen against Real will be proposed again against both United and Inter. But be careful, we’re still talking about Guardiola: if he thinks that something different is needed to beat one of these two teams, don’t be surprised if maybe there will be changes. I believe that against Brentford we will see more or less what we can now define as his “once de gala”, both for a question of pace, because too much rest can be harmful, and for a mental question. Guardiola clearly said that what helped his boys the most to win matches in the last period was the dangerous situation, not being able to afford missteps given Arsenal’s run. Here, for this very reason I expect a team already on track in today’s match against Brentford [N.B. Questa intervista è stata realizzata prima di Brentford-Manchester City, che si è giocata domenica e che il Brentford ha vinto 1-0, ndr]. Guardiola, after Chelsea, seemed very worn out in the conference, almost exhausted. This week of rest could have been good for everyone, but the risk you don’t want to take is not knowing how to plug it back in right at the climax of the season.
Finally, a few words about the only black cloud in Manchester’s blue sky. How much talk is the proceeding that the Premier League has opened against the club? How and with what timing do you think the issue will be resolved?
The club has been very good at handling the issue within the team group. Players were told not to think too much about it, as these weren’t allegations that directly concerned them. Guardiola then used the expedient to compact the group in a delicate moment from the point of view of results on the field. Now there is very little talk about it within the group, although I understand that it could be a hot topic externally. It will be a long process, and the club has already pleaded not guilty to all charges. I don’t know how it will end, but for now, paradoxically, only the positive aspects have been drawn from the issue.
This article was published in preview on Catenaccio, the newsletter of Sportellate.it.