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pep in their step Manchester City’s return to basics is paying dividends

Pep Guardiola’s decision to bring back a more focused approach has inspired unbeaten run

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Manchester City's Ilkay Gundogan celebrates scoring against Liverpool last week with Bernardo Silva at Anfield. Photo: Reuters/Jon Super

Manchester City's Ilkay Gundogan celebrates scoring against Liverpool last week with Bernardo Silva at Anfield. Photo: Reuters/Jon Super

Manchester City's Ilkay Gundogan celebrates scoring against Liverpool last week with Bernardo Silva at Anfield. Photo: Reuters/Jon Super

The last team to beat Manchester City in any competition, a staggering 12 weeks and 22 matches ago, are the visitors to the Etihad Stadium this evening and it would be logical to conclude that defeat at Tottenham Hotspur in late November marked the turning point in their season.

For Pep Guardiola, though, the watershed moment did not actually arrive for another few weeks, by which stage City were unbeaten in six games but playing football that left him struggling to recognise the side that had turned English football on its head during those back-to-back title-winning campaigns between 2017 and 2019.

To say Guardiola cut a demoralised figure in the wake of a shock 1-1 draw at home to West Bromwich Albion on December 15, which was still not enough to save Slaven Bilic from the sack, was an understatement. City, predictably, dominated possession but there was a lack of fluency and imagination to their play and the creative burden on Kevin De Bruyne was so onerous as almost to feel unhealthy. A pensive Guardiola told his players they could forget about another title unless they learnt to kill off such opponents.

A tipping point had been reached – and the subsequent reaction behind the scenes would provide the basis for an extraordinary transformation that has since yielded 15 consecutive victories and, in the process, set a new record for the longest winning run by a top-flight side in English football.

While Fernandinho, City’s captain, rounded up the players for a discussion that left no one under any illusions that what they were delivering was not good enough, Guardiola sat down his coaches, Juanma Lillo and Rodolfo Borrell, confidant Manel Estiarte and City’s director of football, Txiki Begiristain, and they began to “reconstruct” the team.

“It was not specifically that game against Tottenham, it was after the game against West Bromwich,” the City manager said. “We could’ve won with two incredible chances at the end but, after that game, I felt this was not the team I could recognise. I didn’t like what I watched. We talked and we said, OK, we have to come back to our first principle and we had to reconstruct the team.”

Guardiola felt the players were doing too much aimless running with the ball and, as a consequence, compromising the team’s shape. Out went his contentious use of a double midfield pivot and, in arguably the most significant change, Ilkay Gundogan was moved into a more advanced midfield role. “We had to move the ball quicker, do more passes, stay in position, run less with the ball, do it together,” Guardiola said. “We don’t have a specific player to win the games.”

Gundogan’s transformation has been as startling as the team’s and, fittingly, the German – who has nine goals in his past 11 league outings – was yesterday named the division’s player of the month for January. “Pep tried to change some little details in our games and then it sometimes takes a little bit of time to get everything out of it,” Gundogan said. “We have learnt quite quickly. It’s better to play in the offensive role, nicer to get into goal-threatening spaces.

“You have that feeling sometimes where you feel so strong and unbeatable. I had that feeling a few times in the season where we had 100 points and the season when we won the league one point ahead of Liverpool. If we continue to play football this way, then I believe we are definitely the favourite [for the title].”

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