They tell a tale around Manchester City with a hint of exasperation, one from a couple of years ago that developed slight infamy and resurfaced in light of recent events.
A senior club employee was meeting staff, talking through goals and objectives and how best to engage with supporters and ultimately enhance the City brand. These are the sort of business conversations that take place at every Premier League outfit.
There was an element of surprise, however, at the directness of the edict. It was time, staff were told, for City to devote more effort and resources to promoting the product globally rather than locally. Don’t forget about them, but focus less on typical fans from Stockport and more on enticing newbies worldwide.
Pep Guardiola’s new contract saw him bounce with the energy that had been missing at City
Stockport is a City heartland and was referenced very deliberately in that briefing. A few present have been reminded of the remark in the wake of the botched European Super League, to which City showed resistance but signed up for regardless.
Against that backdrop, there is an irony that Phil Foden — a young fan from Stockport, seven miles south-east of Manchester’s centre, a former ballboy nurtured at the academy — has played such an instrumental role in a third league title in four years.
Of all the exultant stories over the past few months, his consistency in his breakthrough season shines bright.
And, for all the clamour to lift the Champions League trophy — earning the additional global pull that presents — finishing the domestic season top is Pep Guardiola’s primary aim every year, although there was little expectation within the management team that they would do it this time.
Liverpool had been so far clear in 2019-20. Out of sight. City — along with Manchester United — were also behind the eight ball from the off, starting late after a non-existent pre-season and no friendlies.
Here too was a campaign beginning just weeks after the embarrassing August night against Lyon. ‘We have to work again, we have to try again,’ a source said at the time. The Lyon defeat had really hurt them.
He and chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak held constructive talks about the future before signing
Following Guardiola’s new contract, Manchester City have seen a resurgence this season
Even though Guardiola had been afforded a freshening of his squad, with three major departures and three arrivals, including the £62million capture of Ruben Dias from Benfica, an air of tiredness lingered. Mentally, more than anything. Players openly bemoaned the minimal rest.
Yet seven months later, they stand primed to win another Premier League crown if they beat Chelsea on Saturday.
It is easy to forget now — given they will clinch this prize at such a canter, having set an English record of 20 consecutive victories in all competitions — that Guardiola’s future was uncertain right up until signing his two-year contract extension in November.
Nobody at the club had a clue which way his decision would go heading into that month’s international break. Eventually, after rejecting Paris Saint-Germain’s persistent advances, Guardiola was ready to commit after talking things over with his family.
He and chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak held constructive talks about the future in person. Guardiola signed the forms days later and bounced through the training ground with the energy for which he is renowned, but which had been absent in the months prior.
Phil Foden (right) has also played an instrumental role in a third league title in four years
Performances until that point had not been good. Maybe it was a Project Restart hangover but a malaise had loitered. Players noted in the opening weeks of the season that their boss was holding fewer team meetings, devising less intensive sessions, going easier on the video analysis.
Confusion was fuelled ahead of the season’s third match. Leeds United acted as an outlier. A double session the day before heading to Elland Road left the squad perplexed. A lot of attention was paid to Marcelo Bielsa’s side.
City were ordinary in a 1-1 draw and Kevin De Bruyne is believed to have raised concerns about team selection in the aftermath.
The abject, error-strewn 5-2 home defeat by Leicester City in the game prior had shocked them to the core. The dressing room was fraught. While progression was still weeks away, Dias made his debut at Leeds and City have conceded just 17 goals in the subsequent 31 league games.
Nobody knew the effect Dias would have as a defender and leader back then. They were not aware, either, that Guardiola was planning a delayed assault on the division, the Catalan realising they could not press opponents with any intensity in the earlier weeks for lack of fitness and fear of injuries. Initially, Guardiola was not overly alarmed by the sluggish start — one he had predicted.
Defender Ruben Dias has been vital in elevating the club since arriving for £62million
The defender has created a formidable partnership with fellow centre-back John Stones (right)
But the best-laid plans can go awry and when results and performances dipped so dramatically, doubts escalated. Moods sunk further, some levelled accusations of selfishness at team-mates.
It was not a happy camp for so many reasons and that contributed to City’s worst start since 2008. Eleventh in the table after eight matches, winning just three and having been beaten 2-0 by Tottenham, days after Guardiola signed his new deal.
‘They’ve only got themselves to blame for being short of strikers,’ Roy Keane said. ‘I don’t see City winning the title this year. You have to have strength in depth.’
City are not wedded to the idea of using a conventional striker and obviously possess depth. It is the stick with which rivals beat them as they swatted everybody aside.
Guardiola’s genius in England has always been that ability to manage egos and star quality at his disposal while simultaneously coaching the vast majority of them to be better players.
Guardiola has been able to manage big stars and their egos while improving them as players
That does not mean the City Football Academy is always sweetness and light. Able to rule with impunity, Guardiola keeps these players on the edge. ‘With the contract, it was “adapt or die” for some of them,’ a source says.
Not all of them share Ilkay Gundogan or De Bruyne’s similarities with the boss. Gundogan is seen as a model team player — putting collective interest ahead of his own — and has been rewarded with increased responsibility. Others, like Raheem Sterling and Aymeric Laporte, watched from the sidelines for lengthy spells.
This squad needed a jolt and what has changed this year is the emergence of a captain who actually wants to captain the group. Taking over from the departed David Silva, Fernandinho’s interventions are viewed as a catalyst in steering this season away from the precipice to potentially the club’s finest ever.
A meeting between the players after the Tottenham loss refocused minds. The message to take ownership of their displays rather than apportioning blame elsewhere was initially heeded yet did not translate into dominant performances for another month.
Their draw against West Brom was the turning point, when Guardiola didn’t recognise his team
There is a general acceptance that fortunes changed greatly after the draw against West Bromwich, when City were awful. They had enough chances to win but that was not the point.
In his post-match press conference, Guardiola agreed with the assertion their opportunities came too late in the game. Privately, he had screamed at the players, ‘This isn’t us, I’m not proud!’
Guardiola has been known to apologise for going overboard with criticism but not that night. Later he would hold talks with sporting director Txiki Begiristain and head of player support Manel Estiarte on what needed to change.
In his first full season as assistant, Juanma Lillo’s experience and calmness have been pivotal in keeping Guardiola’s emotions in check. Although City then went and beat Southampton, Arsenal in the Carabao Cup and Newcastle, attitudes were still not at the required levels.
City can clinch the Premier League title if they emerge victorious against Chelsea on Saturday
‘On New Year’s Eve we had this training session,’ Fernandinho said. ‘It was not good. The body language, the effort from some players, it was obvious. Misplaced passes, players not tracking back, not running, not looking interested.’
Fernandinho sent a message to first-team support manager Marc Boixasa at 7am the next day to set up yet another summit with the players. ‘It was an emergency,’ he said. ‘It was very frank, very honest. After me, all the others spoke their minds, too. We needed to be shaken.
‘Our next game was at Chelsea, who were flying. Beforehand, I thought to myself, “If these guys don’t run here, that’s it, I’m done”. I was ready to lose all morale.’
City went to Stamford Bridge and won 3-1, with half-a-dozen left at home with coronavirus. The noisy away dressing room resembled bars on Deansgate Locks, dance music blaring, with Friday by Riton x Nightcrawlers a favourite. De Bruyne produced a barnstorming display shortly after being dissatisfied with the club’s recent contract offer — observers noting that was a pointed statement of his worth.
The Spaniard went back to the drawing board and gave the City team their freedom back
Then the season truly flipped. The double pivot in midfield had been ditched. Gundogan moved further forward and became a serial goalscorer overnight, Rodri fended for himself and suddenly dominated opponents — with peers noticing Dias bounding over to congratulate him for starting a move that led to a goal rather than the scorer in one game.
Suddenly, City had freedom. They were not ‘back’, but different. The 5-0 win at West Brom, just over a month after that dismal draw, was one of the most complete and breathtaking displays of attacking and tactical mastery of Guardiola’s triumphant reign — and that is some list.
Joao Cancelo operated as a pseudo right back and forward. The shackles were off. City hammered Liverpool and Tottenham on their climb to the top and that is where they have stayed, despite rotating heavily for most games.
Doing so with stability at the back. Dias and John Stones rapidly blossomed into an enviable partnership, aided by Rodri’s improvement in front of them.
City have gone back to basics under Guardiola, who has freshened things up by calling on his big characters to deliver team talks
The mistakes were eradicated, a paltry 37 shots on target conceded in 20 victories. The wins kept racking up, players walking taller through the doors as the kit men cued up Wonderwall in the dressing room.
Guardiola occasionally called on big characters to deliver pre-match team talks to freshen the messaging. City had gone back to basics, allowing the ball to do the work in the final third. Goals have not always flowed but Guardiola’s order to his forwards in the middle of December to simply run less in possession had borne fruit.
He turned 50 in January, in the middle of their record-breaking winning sequence, and you feel this year might be remembered with special fondness. Reaching at least the semi-finals of every competition, City have not had a midweek off all season. They lay on the canvas in November, physically and mentally beaten.
Their achievements since are scarcely believable. Even to those who work there. ‘I wasn’t seeing what Pep was seeing when he signed the contract,’ a source confided recently. No, us neither. How wrong we were.