THE inside story behind Manchester City’s march to an historic domestic Treble.
From a pre-season swagger to the chairman’s rallying cry, PAUL HIRST reveals how the club’s dominance has been achieved.
IT IS 8.30am on the day after Manchester City had retained the Premier League title.
Boss Pep Guardiola is having breakfast with two close friends — Txiki Begiristain, City’s director of football, and long-time confidant Manuel Estiarte — at the club’s training ground.
After the win at Brighton, he had given his players Monday off, so staff did not expect anyone to turn up.
The sole staff member who was on duty frantically called the first-team chef, but he could not summon the energy to make it in after a night of heavy revelry.
He said: “I’m too hungover,” leaving the woman to hastily rustle up some eggs.
Guardiola, Begiristain and Estiarte sat on the sofa watching the highlights of City’s 4-1 win for the next two hours.
No training, no players, no media. It was the happiest that he had been all season.
Guardiola’s mood was in complete contrast to the final two weeks of the Premier League season.
According to those who know him best, the manager was more stressed than ever. He was determined not to let his players cotton on to this, however, and only let his true emotions show to his inner circle.
Guardiola has become better at dealing with the stress of management over the past two years.
In his second and third seasons at City, he and his wife Cristina have jetted off to warmer climes on their own during international breaks to allow them to recharge.
They relax and play golf. Guardiola’s handicap is 12. His schedule has been so busy that he has only had time to play two or three rounds in Manchester this season.
Guardiola, 48, may have won 27 trophies in ten years of first-team management but he is only human. He has nerves, insecurities and worries, just like the rest of us.
The Spaniard started complaining of back pains a couple of weeks ago. It is a common occurrence for him at this time of year because he is standing on the training pitch or sitting at his desk.
SHREK ON THE MENU
When he started complaining of cramp in one of his calves after training recently, his staff advised him to spend some time in the gym, but Guardiola could not be persuaded.
Back to the office he went, back to the laptop. The laptop travels everywhere with Guardiola. On train journeys to matches, he will always have his MacBook open, analysing footage from training or matches.
When City flew back to Manchester from Brighton on their jet last Sunday, Guardiola was watching the goals from his team’s historic win, although this time in the seat between him and Estiarte sat the Premier League trophy and a 330ml can of Heineken.
Guardiola had done the best he could to relax in the final fortnight of the campaign.
On the Thursday before City’s penultimate game, he spent the evening at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester watching West Side Story. Going to see musical plays at the theatre is nothing new for him.
The youngest of his three children, Valentina, loves them. They went to see Shrek together at the Lowry theatre in Salford this season. There was an extra incentive for Guardiola to watch West Side Story, however.
Playing the role of Maria that night was the daughter of Juan Antonio Garcia, the former president of Dorados de Sinaloa, the Mexican club where Guardiola ended his playing career in 2006.
Guardiola had met Gabriela Garcia, then only nine, during a two-hour flight after the team’s penultimate game of the season against Jaguares de Chiapas. Gabriela told Guardiola that she wanted to be an actress. Thirteen years on, they were reunited.
When Guardiola heard that Gabriela was playing the lead role, he decided that he must go to watch her.
Gabriela said: “He told me then that if I worked hard I could achieve my dream and now he’s watching me as Maria.”
As another means of taking his mind off the title race, the day before his theatre trip, Guardiola had dinner in Tast, the restaurant that he co-owns with Begiristain and Soriano on King Street in Manchester.
But Guardiola could barely stop thinking about the games that were ahead. That was understandable.
After all, he, his staff and his players had invested so much of themselves in the quest to retain the title.
When all the players had returned from their post-World Cup holidays in August, Guardiola laid out the challenge to them in their first team meeting: “What do we have to do to go back-to-back?”
STAFF NOTICED A SWAGGER
His coaching staff noticed in training that there was a swagger about the squad.
There were concerns that such arrogance could boil over into complacency. They feared that the players could become too cocky but they had no need to worry.
City dropped only four points in their opening 15 league games.
One City source said: “It was like we hadn’t gone away, it was just like last season all over again.”
The only time that their arrogance turned into complacency came in the 2-1 away defeat to Newcastle in January, City’s fourth and final league loss of the season.
Guardiola sprung to the touchline in the fifth minute and shouted: “Come on guys, play football!” He kept his players in the dressing room for half an hour afterwards.
No voices were raised but he made it clear that such a performance would not be tolerated again.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Guardiola’s City team this season has been their ability to recover from setbacks — and there have been a few.
They have recovered from the absence of Kevin De Bruyne, who started only 22 games because of two knee injuries and a series of hamstring problems.
After suffering his second knee injury against Fulham, a tearful De Bruyne called his wife Michele, who had just given birth to their second child and said: “Now you will have to look after three babies.”
The biggest heartbreak came in the Champions League quarter-finals where City were eliminated by Tottenham. Sergio Aguero, who missed a penalty in the first leg, was crying after the final whistle.
The club’s desire to win old Big Ears above all other trophies is underlined by the fact that City’s top earners have £1million bonuses in their contracts for winning it.
Their Premier League win bonus is £750,000 each.
After the team’s Champions League exit, the chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak delivered a rallying cry to the players in the dressing room.
He said: “We are five games away from making history,” reminding them that the destiny of the title was in their hands.
Guardiola’s staff thought that City would draw up to two matches in their remaining ten games but they did not drop a point.
Staff members said that the players were more tense before the derby at Old Trafford three weeks ago than any other game in Guardiola’s reign but they held their nerve. So who has been crucial to City’s success this season? There have been some key protagonists on the pitch but, off it, one of the most important has been Mikel Arteta.
Arteta, 37, joined City at the same time as Guardiola but this year he has really stepped up and has become integral to City’s success.
City’s training sessions are split into three parts. Firstly, the players warm up and take part in “rondos”, the piggy-in-the-middle keep-ball exercise.
The final part of training involves tactical instructions, which Guardiola takes charge of.
The second part, which involves set-piece moves is co-ordinated by Arteta while Guardiola stands on the sidelines.
The players listen attentively to Arteta and respect him greatly. After training, Arteta sometimes asks Guardiola if he can keep five or six players back for 15 minutes’ extra set-piece training.
ARTETA’S KEY ROLE
It was noticeable during the 24th minute of the Brighton match that, when the game was goalless and City were looking nervous, it was Arteta who Guardiola called on.
He cupped his hand to Guardiola’s ear, the manager nodded and a second later, he motioned to Raheem Sterling to switch from the right flank to the left, where he caused Brighton havoc for the rest of the game.
Arteta’s stock is so high that the City hierarchy are convinced that he should be the man to succeed Guardiola as manager if he departs in two years’ time.
Senior sources say Arteta has the trust of the players, an understanding of how the club want to play and the right attitude to undertake the job of following Guardiola.
Guardiola is happy working at the club. He regularly takes a walk from the first-team building over to see the administrative staff, who work in a separate part of the complex.
He takes a genuine interest in what the people in the marketing and media departments, among others, do each day.
On February 25, the day after returning from London with the Carabao Cup, he thanked all staff in an address in the canteen. He said: “We are all part of this team.”
Ask Guardiola and his staff who their player of the season is and almost all of them come back with the same answer — Bernardo Silva.
This season, there has been more of a swagger about the midfielder’s displays. He wants the ball more and is not afraid to try to win matches himself.
Guardiola noticed this on City’s pre-season tour to the United States. Forty-eight hours after landing in Miami, Silva asked to play in City’s friendly against Bayern Munich.
EVERYONE LOVES BERNARDO
There was no sign of jet lag from the 24-year-old as he scored two goals and set up Lukas Nmecha for the other as City came from 2-0 down to win.
Guardiola was astounded. He turned to his coaches, his eyes bulging out of his head and proclaimed: “What the f***?!”
It was then that Guardiola realised the Portuguese would play a key part in the season.
Bernardo is a popular member of the dressing room too because he is polite, funny and speaks four languages — his native tongue, English, Spanish and French — thus allowing him to interact with all players and staff members. He takes an active interest in everyone who plays for, or is associated with, the squad.
On one day off this season he drove to the training ground to meet two people who were jogging around the perimeter of the campus for charity.
At the Christmas party in a bar opposite the Albert Hall in Manchester, he could be seen wandering around the venue talking to admin staff, asking them about their jobs.
Bernardo was a bit worse for wear — the top two buttons of his shirt were undone — but he was genuinely interested in what the people had to say, Bernardo likes to immerse himself in Manchester.
If City do not have a game on Wednesday night, you will find him in Matt & Phreds Jazz Club or The Pen and Pencil bar in the trendy Northern Quarter.
Retaining the title meant a lot to Guardiola and his staff. One long-serving member of the backroom team hugged Guardiola on the touchline and said, “This is the best thing you have ever done”, after the win at the Amex Stadium.
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Two days later, Guardiola addressed his squad once more as they began preparations for the FA Cup final. He told them: “Yes, we had a good party but now we focus. Just give me four more days, guys.”
They came up with the goods once more and the celebrations that followed the 6-0 win at Wembley against Watford were richly deserved.
- THIS is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in The Times yesterday.