DANNY MURPHY: Signing Ruben Dias, transforming John Stones and a sensational Kevin De Bruyne – how Pep Guardiola has made Manchester City one of English football’s greatest teams
- Manchester City could be Premier League title winners by Sunday evening
- Boss Pep Guardiola has created one of English football’s greatest ever teams
- Signing Ruben Dias was a masterstroke, as is the transformation of John Stones
- Guardiola has adapted to an unprecedented season better than anyone else
- In game-changer Kevin De Bruyne, City have the best player in the country
Manchester City could be Premier League champions and reach the Champions League final in the next 72 hours. They are one of English football’s greatest teams, particularly as they’ve had to cope with an unprecedented fixture list and empty stadiums. This is how they have done it…
SIGNING OF RUBEN DIAS
City were an easy touch last season, losing nine games because of errors at the back. Nobody was talking then about Ruben Dias compared to other Premier League targets like Kalidou Koulibaly but City’s recruitment department came up trumps. Dias has been influential in City shutting the back door and has been involved in 25 clean sheets even though he started the season at Benfica. I liken his influence to Virgil van Dijk at Liverpool, making the team stable. And he’s still only 23, he could be around for another decade.
Pep Guardiola has created a Manchester City team that is one of English football’s best ever
In signing Ruben Dias (right), Manchester City got a player with Virgil van Dijk-like influence
Dias’ arrival coincided with Pep Guardiola’s rehabilitation of fellow centre back John Stones
Too many managers discard players after a bad season, particularly if they have a big chequebook. Pep Guardiola has shown if you listen and learn, you will get a second chance.
The transformation of John Stones is the best example. He’s always had ability but his City career had fallen off a cliff with even Fernandinho ahead of him in the pecking order at centre-half. Guardiola didn’t give up on him and credit to Stones for putting the work in.
Many of us thought Phil Foden needed to go on loan. Guardiola decided he was better off developing in-house and he’s been proved right. At 20, Foden has starred in different positions and plays like he’s been doing it for years. Bernardo Silva is another brought in from the cold.
ADAPTING TO NEW NORMAL
Nobody has coped with this season’s unique demands better than Guardiola, tactically and selection-wise.
He has played differently and the plan for Joao Cancelo to step inside from full-back to central midfield during games has tightened City defensively, helped them control games and allowed Ilkay Gundogan to get forward and be a goal threat.
Guardiola has adapted plans for Ilkay Gundogan (left) and Joao Cancelo (right) this season
Playing the traditional Pep way, full intensity all the time, could have led to fatigue with this crazy Covid fixture list. Instead, City have prioritised the control of games. Often playing with a false nine like Bernardo, Raheem Sterling or Kevin De Bruyne has helped. They are used to playing deeper so have helped City keep the ball better and for longer.
City have won nine of their last 11 games but not scored more than twice in any of them. Their style has fitted the circumstances where teams have needed stamina.
STRONG AND HAPPY SQUAD
City have the best group of players in the country but also have the manager who utilises them best.
Nearly everyone in the squad is a big name but you don’t see the egos because Guardiola has kept them on board throughout the season. Sergio Aguero, a club legend, has hardly played but was in the posse with everyone else celebrating the winner against PSG. He came back against Crystal Palace yesterday and scored the opening goal.
Likewise, Sterling. The go-to man for many years has been overshadowed by Foden and Riyad Mahrez but every time he’s called upon, he’s given his all. You don’t hear grumbling from the City camp.
Despite being overshadowed at times, Raheem Sterling (centre) has always given his all
Guardiola judged from the start he needed to freshen the team regularly to last the distance.
City made eight changes for Palace and won 2-0 with the likes of Benjamin Mendy making a contribution to give others a break ahead of the second leg against PSG.
EXPERIENCE AND PATIENCE
I though City might struggle this season after being thumped 5-2 at home by Leicester. It didn’t look too clever when they lost 2-0 at Spurs in November to slip to 11th.
But Guardiola didn’t panic or alter his game plan. He felt confident his methods would work so there was no alarm bell ringing or demands his players tried to score five goals every week. Over time, we’ve come to recognise his plan.
City won 21 games in a row at one stage — a staggering achievement. They didn’t blow teams away but always got over the line. Having Rodri protecting the two centre-halves gave them solidity.
The full backs didn’t need to bomb on all the time because Cancelo or Kyle Walker appearing in midfield allowed Gundogan and others to break forward.
It’s easy for a manager to look good after a win. For Guardiola to keep faith in his system after setbacks underlines his brilliance.
DAZZLING DE BRUYNE
The very best teams usually have an outstanding game-changer and in De Bruyne, City have the best player in the country.
Opponents must dread facing him. Quick, powerful, elegant, poetry in motion. And the ability to wait until the right moment to play that killer pass, cross or shot. He rarely forces the issue or makes the wrong judgement call.
In world-class Kevin De Bruyne (centre), Manchester City have the best player in the country
De Bruyne affects the game from any position; central midfield, wide, No 10 or false nine.
He can shoot with either foot, play intricate short passes like Cesc Fabregas or raking 60-yarders like Paul Scholes or Steven Gerrard.
I also like his mentality. He rarely gets flustered or loses focus. In the really big games, he’ll stay calm and influence the result, as he did against PSG with the opening goal.
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