It’s a case of ‘so far, so good’ for Manchester City as we approach the midpoint of the 2021-22 Premier League season.
The defending champions are sitting pretty at the top of the table ahead of our Boxing Day fixture against Leicester City, having recorded eight consecutive victories in the competition.
We’re unbeaten against our closest title rivals, winning at Stamford Bridge and coming away from Anfield with a valuable point and in recent weeks we have been at our devastating best to cruise past Leeds United and Newcastle United.
There is a long way to go, of course, but it’s hard to imagine Pep Guardiola and his players will reflect on the first half of the season with anything but satisfaction.
However, 12 months ago, the Premier League landscape and City’s fortunes looked markedly different.
A 1-1 draw with struggling West Bromwich Albion on 15 December left Guardiola’s men in sixth place, five points adrift of leaders Tottenham Hotspur.
The three weeks that followed proved critical to a side who went on to win the Premier League by 12 points and it was during this period that the seeds of success were sown.
It was instigated by Guardiola’s desire to rebuild his team and aided by Fernandinho’s decision to call an emergency meeting in the days before our impressive victory at Chelsea.
That game in particular is considered a landmark moment in the campaign, but the entire festive period was crucial in building the momentum which paved the way for our title triumph.
Here, we tell the story of the three weeks that defined City’s 2020-21 Premier League winning season, as voted for by $CITY Fan Token Holders on Socios.
Guardiola’s frustrations were clear as he delivered a frank assessment of City’s draw with West Brom.
“It will be a long season but if you want to be up there, we have to win here and we could not do it,” he said after watching his side drop points against the Premier League strugglers.
It was the seventh time in 12 games City had failed to win.
Leeds and West Ham had also earned an unexpected point against Guardiola’s men, who, alongside draws with Liverpool and Manchester United, had suffered surprise defeats against Leicester City and Spurs.
It was, by our astronomically high standards, a slow start, but the squad was heavily disrupted by injury and illness during the opening months of the campaign.
Sergio Aguero, Nathan Ake, Joao Cancelo, Kevin De Bruyne, Fernandinho, Eric Garcia, Ilkay Gundogan, Gabriel Jesus, Aymeric Laporte, Bernardo Silva and Oleksandr Zinchenko all spent time on the sidelines before Christmas and so Guardiola was patient with performances.
“It will be a long season but if you want to be up there, we have to win here and we could not do it,”
“They are not machines, they are human beings and need time to get the condition,” he explained following a 1-0 win over Arsenal in October.
With the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic reducing City’s pre-season preparation, the manager acknowledged it would take time for his injury hit squad to achieve their best level.
We remained within touching distance of the Premier League summit and had only lost twice, so there was no reason to panic, but as the festive period approach, Guardiola aired concerns about his side’s form in front of goal.
That was the case after the 2-0 defeat at Tottenham in November, a result which left us 11th and eight points off the top of the table.
“We had our chances, but we couldn't score and they made two or three chances on the counter-attack and we lost the game," Guardiola reflected and, after watching City struggle to break down West Brom the following month, the boss felt he needed to act.
City dominated proceedings at the Etihad, controlling the game with 77% of possession, though only seven of our 27 shots were on target and the visitors’ dogged defending was rewarded when Sam Johnstone made two point-blank saves in stoppage time to earn the Baggies a precious point.
Guardiola wasn’t satisfied.
The Catalan had not enjoyed the way his team had played and feeling we had drifted away from the approach which had brought us so much success, he decided a rebuild was necessary.
“After that game I had a feeling this isn't a team I can recognise,” he said.
“I didn't like what I saw. We could have won at Tottenham and West Bromwich, but I didn’t like [the way we played].
“We talked with Juanma [Lillo], Rodolfo [Borrell], Manel [Estiarte], Txiki [Begiristain] and I said we have to come back to our first principle.
“We started to rebuild and reconstruct the team from that point. We had success in the past and [we had to] come back on our positional play, move the ball quicker, do more passes, stay more in position, run less with the ball.”
It proved an inspired move.
City claimed a hard-fought 1-0 win over Southampton in our very next game and won the next 20 in all competitions to set a new English top-flight record for the most consecutive victories.
However, a COVID-19 outbreak at the Club threatened to derail that streak before it had even gathered pace.
Gabriel Jesus and Kyle Walker both returned positive tests on Christmas Day and when that number increased following our Boxing Day eclipse of Newcastle United, we were forced to postpone our next game against Everton.
It meant a depleted first team squad travelled to Stamford Bridge on 3 January 2021 for one of the toughest tests of the season against Chelsea.
Denied the services of so many players, preparations were far from ideal and it was during this period that Guardiola made what proved to be a second crucial intervention after being left particularly troubled by what he had seen on the training ground.
“On New Year’s Eve we had this training session,” Fernandinho later explained.
“It was not a good session.
“The attitude, the body language, the effort from some players, it was just obvious. You know exactly the kind of session I’m talking about, right? Misplaced passes, players not tracking back, not running, not looking interested.
“After that session, Pep came and spoke to me as captain, as the leader of the team. He was blunt.
“He told me that not everyone was at 100%. And, in this team, when you come to train, you do it at 100%, or you stay home. Once you enter the pitch, there is no conversation, no negotiation.
“He was right. And he made it clear that the responsibility for keeping those standards rested with me.”
Fernandinho knew he had to act.
An emergency meeting was called before training the next day, when the Brazilian relayed Guardiola’s concerns, reminding his teammates of their responsibilities and what was required of them if they were to ensure the season ended successfully.
In an open and honest discussion, several other players shared their opinion on what needed to change and, at the end of a campaign in which they added Premier League and Carabao Cup winners’ medals to the collection, the importance of that meeting was not forgotten.
“It was good for the group,” said Ederson.
“The team needed that chat. Everybody talked and Fernandinho, as captain, as leader of this team, was very important for that meeting and for the evolution of the team this season too.
“It was a good gesture on his behalf, and it helped us a lot to grow up as a team.”
The impact of that meeting was immediate.
“For them to be able to do that on that occasion, it felt like a big statement.”
City travelled to Chelsea unbeaten in 10 games and, whilst a sequence of one win in five matches may have derailed Chelsea’s own title bid, Frank Lampard’s side had only tasted defeat on home soil once in the Premier League prior to our visit.
They also held the bragging rights from our previous league encounter, with a 2-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge in late June 2020 ending City’s hopes of a third successive Premier League crown.
It therefore seems poignant that, on the very pitch where Guardiola’s men had been forced to surrender the trophy a few months prior, City put on a performance fitting of champions.
As always, the preparations were meticulous.
Reporting no later than 9.30am the day before the match, the players each took a drive-through COVID test on arrival at the City Football Academy (CFA).
A 10:45 team meeting followed, before one final training session completed a busy morning routine.
The team left the CFA at 14:55 in two separate buses in line with COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, with a flight down to Luton airport scheduled for departure one hour later before check-in at the Conrad London St. James’ hotel at 18:15.
Once the players had unpacked and settled, a brief team meeting followed at 19:00, before dinner was served at 19:15.
An essential part of any elite athlete’s preparations, City were provided with a plethora of nutritious options to ensure we were in peak condition for the game the following day.
Grilled chicken thighs, miso salmon, pea and parmesan fritters and grilled calamari all provided an important protein intake, while a salad bar, omelette station and assorted grains, pulses, pasta and vegetables completed the offering.
Ahead of an early night, the option for a sweet treat, in the form of apple crumble and low fat MCFC custard was provided, as well as smoothies, fruit salad, granola and fat free yoghurt pots.
The players reported for breakfast the following morning at 9:30, with porridge, omelettes, scrambled or poached eggs, grilled button mushrooms and tomatoes with wilted spinach all on the menu.
A team meeting followed at 12:45, as Guardiola and his staff ironed out the finer details of how City planned to come away from London with three important points, before the squad sat down for lunch and then departed for Stamford Bridge.
The Chelsea Health Club & Spa, situated a few minutes’ walk from the stadium, would act as changing room for the players rather than the stadium itself; a common circumstance of the United Kingdom’s social distancing regulations at the time.
Preparations were accompanied by an atmosphere of quiet focus and a suggestion that, while not explicitly discussed by players and staff, the result of this particular match could prove crucial in City’s season.
By this point, Guardiola’s men sat eighth in the Premier League table, six points off the pace and with a notable absentee list still in tow.
Indeed, victory at Stamford Bridge, a difficult prospect at the best of times, would have to be achieved without Ederson, Aymeric Laporte, Nathan Ake, Eric Garcia, Kyle Walker, Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus.
Zack Steffen would come in to make his Premier League debut, while youngsters Luke Mbete, Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Liam Delap were all introduced to the matchday squad.
Guardiola’s men hadn’t tasted defeat since 21 November, a sequence which would continue until March, but here we were presented with perhaps the most daunting prospect of that nascent historic run.
“Even though it wasn’t necessarily the same Chelsea team that finished the season so well, it was still going to be a tough fixture,” Nedum Onuoha, who was part of Manchester City’s Matchday Live coverage for the game, recalls.
“Any time a squad can be stretched there’ll always be questions asked of them, like if they can overcome the situation.
“For them to go down there without the full complement that they’d have liked and still get that result, you have so much confidence as you head back up the road to Manchester and those sorts of games can be springboards.
“It was kind of the time where people acknowledged that City are really good because of the collective. That’s the whole squad, not just 11 players, and I think they showed that on that day.
“It definitely felt like a big moment in that season because it felt like the start of some significant momentum that got them through to winning the title.
“It was very impressive, the style of play, the way we controlled possession and when we can be clinical, that’s when they’re one of the best sides in the world.
“For them to be able to do that on that occasion, it felt like a big statement.”
It was clear from the get-go that the visitors, while depleted in number, were far from a wounded animal.
The breakthrough came at the Bridge inside 18 minutes when Ilkay Gundogan dummied onto his right foot and curled a sumptuous effort into the far corner, displaying the class and confidence of a man who would enjoy his greatest goalscoring season to date.
Our advantage was doubled when De Bruyne snuck a clever ball through the legs of Cesar Azpilicueta to allow Foden to hook an effort in at the near post.
And number three followed on the counter as De Bruyne pounced after Raheem Sterling’s initial effort came crashing back off the post.
Chelsea stopper Edouard Mendy, who had only conceded nine goals in the Premier League in the previous four months of the season, was beaten three times in just 16 minutes.
Even Callum Hudson-Odoi’s late consolation couldn’t dampen the spirits at full-time as Guardiola’s men claimed a dominant 3-1 victory; rarely had there been such a contrast in atmosphere in the City dressing room before and after a game.
The quiet contemplation of just a few hours before had been superseded by loud music and memorable celebrations from players and staff. For many in the dressing room, there was a sense that this result could prove a watershed moment in the season, none more so than the City boss himself.
“It was the turning point, definitely,” Guardiola later reflected.
“At Stamford Bridge, with just 14 players available, injuries and COVID, that was the moment we believed we could do it (win the Premier League).
“That was one of the three moments earlier in the season that helped us stay there - but the Chelsea win helped us think we can do it.”
City were still four months and 23 matches from hoisting a third Premier League title in four seasons aloft, but the ruthless application of a new system at Stamford Bridge had caught the eye of Onuoha.
Guardiola had experimented with a false nine before at both Barcelona and City, but his decision to introduce the formation against Chelsea proved a masterstroke.
The hosts were systematically torn apart by City’s fluid and interchanging attack, chasing the irrepressible shadows of De Bruyne, Foden, Sterling, Gundogan and Bernardo Silva across the 90 minutes.
Indeed, Guardiola’s side registered 18 shots on the Chelsea goal, more than any visiting team had achieved since 2007.
“It’s incredibly difficult as a centre-back to play against a false nine because you like to be able to engage the person that you’re up against,” says Onuoha, who made over 400 senior appearances as a defender for City, Sunderland, Queens Park Rangers and Real Salt Lake City.
“Football is a game which exists as mini battles, you vs the opposition in this position and that position. But when the person that’s supposed to be playing in that slot isn’t necessarily moving in the same way that a traditional striker does, you can’t move in the same way you would do for somebody else and that affects your game because you spend most of your time playing in a particular way.
“They’re immediately asking questions of the defenders, can they go short or is this a trap for someone getting in behind? Can they push them about, well they can’t because the quality balls into them won’t be like that and they just move differently.
“Everyone had their eyes open to this new system so to then go and get that result, and to have been 3-0 up at Stamford Bridge is some statement in itself.
“I remember De Bruyne played (false nine) that day, he can be very effective in terms of how he does it because his football IQ is so high and his technical ability is so high," Onuoha continues.
“He’s got such a physical presence as well and offers such a tough task for the people who he’s up against wherever he’s playing.
“It was interesting that he started off in that slot because he tends to play with everything in front of him but he’s good enough to have done other things as well.
“That was the start of it for City. You look across the front line and think any single one of them can do it, but Pep trusted him in that moment, and he ended up doing it very well.”
While there was still a long way to go, Guardiola had unearthed a blueprint which would see City ruthlessly sweep all before them en route to reclaiming the Premier League.
It’s a system regularly favoured by the Catalan to this day, and one that Onuoha believes has taken City to a new dimension.
He adds: “Some of the football that I’ve personally seen over the past 18 months has been as good as I’ve seen from Manchester City ever. They’re such a good team and they’re so well drilled that they can beat absolutely anybody regardless of whatever shape they can be in.
“It’s like playing against a team who has a ten, because the ten doesn’t tend to come short for the ball, but they don’t come long for it either. They live in spaces that you just don’t want to go (as a centre-back) and make you constantly think ‘what should I do’.
“But with City, if they suck in the centre-backs, the wingers get in behind. You constantly have to think ‘what am I supposed to do, and what are they trying to get me to do?’ and that is what makes it so hard.”
Guardiola may have previously stressed that his players weren’t machines, but City’s subsequent march to the Premier League title was achieved with an almost mechanical efficiency.
The records kept on tumbling; 21 successive wins in all competitions, 13 in a row from the start of a calendar year, and 20 consecutive victories away from home are feats which all broke new ground in the English top flight.
With a fourth successive Carabao Cup already back at the Etihad Stadium, the Premier League inevitably followed with three games to spare as City capped off an historic season with a domestic double, not to mention a maiden appearance in the Champions League final.
Guardiola's men displayed a wealth of technical panache during an unprecedented 2020-21 campaign, but it was City’s gumption and grit at that decisive moment in the festive period which provided the spark for our latest Premier League crown.