“You think I said something tactical at half-time?” Pep Guardiola asked on Thursday night during the 15-minute expose of everything that has driven him up the walls at Manchester City in recent weeks.
And with his team 2-0 down to Tottenham following quickfire goals on the stroke of half-time, the tactical information came at the very end — after he told them exactly what he told the rest of the world at full-time.
He told them that they had no chance of winning the title if things didn’t change, that they have been playing without passion, that their fire had gone out.
There was obviously a reaction to that — they scored four goals without reply — but it was not enough to stop Guardiola going very public with the concerns that had been nagging away at him.
The tipping point, according to those who know him, was the Carabao Cup defeat to Southampton, one of the worst City performances during his seven seasons at the club.
He was happier with the application of his players in defeat against Manchester United three days later, but interestingly it was there, in the away dressing room at Old Trafford, that his players decided to take action.
Ilkay Gundogan aired his own concerns publicly after the Southampton game and said that something was “off”, that a “special ingredient” was missing. After another setback, albeit with a better feeling around it as far as Guardiola was concerned, the players sat down and took turns to air grievances and give views on where things were going wrong.
According to several sources close to the squad, the mood began to change. This week, the club’s captains conveyed a message to the club that they would like to go out for a team bonding meal soon to try to improve the mood further.
Still, Guardiola had been spooked by what he saw in that Southampton game and first-half events against Tottenham were the straw that broke the camel’s back: after telling his players in no uncertain terms that they needed to sort themselves out, he doubled down and told the world, too.
That way, there was nowhere to hide. No positive headlines about the roaring comeback, no nice words about them overcoming their recent malaise and putting their worries behind them, no more ‘happy flowers’ — as he said to sum up the whole club’s current attitude to life.
He wanted the world to scrutinise his players, not just in the home game against Wolves on Sunday but also in the Arsenal game in the FA Cup this Friday night. So after a 3–0 victory, courtesy of Erling Haaland’s fourth hat-trick of the season, have things improved?
“It’s getting better,” Guardiola said afterwards, “but it’s just one day. I have to wait, I have to wait.”
He was asked about that reaction four times and on each, while addressing the different variations on the same theme, he always repeated words to the effect of, “today we improve but it was just today, we will see what happens in the next games”.
There is little point in being hypercritical of their performance without knowing Guardiola’s own criteria. Among all the genuinely good stuff that City did against Spurs, how many of us would have highlighted a failure by the players to confront their opponents after fouls on 18-year-old Rico Lewis as a major reason for Guardiola’s annoyance?
City played well in the first half on Sunday. They passed the ball around well, sometimes more directly forwards and sometimes switching the play quickly and accurately, and they linked with Haaland better than they had done at Old Trafford. More than anything, they played with a higher intensity than in recent games, with more ‘emotional’ energy. Gundogan, in particular, buzzed around sweeping up the loose balls.
The fans, who also came in for criticism from the manager, seemed to raise their game, too.
The second half was a bit ropey, all in all, City went 3-0 up with two goals shortly after the break, which is clearly no bad thing, but after that they had plenty of chances to counter-attack only to find a way to mess them up. Guardiola spent plenty of time crouched down on his haunches as Wolves raced down the other end. Mind you, he’s been doing that for years, even when safe in the knowledge that his players are fully switched on.
After the game, he said their performance in the first half was similar to the first half against Tottenham. The football was good, then; not their best level but a step in the right direction. The attitude seemingly better, too.
There are still concerns behind the scenes, though. He may not ever mention it publicly but there have been worried conversations about a lack of leadership in the dressing room, and sources say that there were traces of that in his criticism of his players for failing to protect Lewis. ‘Fernandinho would have’ is an easy conclusion to draw there.
It is considered a very strong group, just lacking a big voice like their former captain’s, and one of those has been needed in recent weeks.
As for the players’ reaction to Guardiola’s very public comments, there was no major shock or recrimination, which is no surprise given they were told the same thing to their faces beforehand — and more importantly given most of them have all worked with him for several years.
This is a manager, after all, who repeatedly yelled, “This is the Premier League!” to ramp up the intensity during a light training session, largely featuring unused substitutes, the day after City beat Wolves last season.
It was not an especially brutal evisceration of them, either, even if it was fairly remarkable in that it was delivered to the media, and how he did it in several interviews.
Guardiola did not let any players off the hook — he said “right now it is impossible to play well without Nathan Ake” but put him on the bench on Sunday anyway — but he was careful to point out that he doesn’t doubt their quality. He even said he fully sympathises with their struggles to match Arsenal’s motivation.
“I won four titles in a row as a player at Barcelona,” he said during the embargoed section of his press conference on Thursday (yep, there was more). “The fifth one I was not the same, the sixth one I was not the same. I was not starving enough. (It was all) caviar. ‘How good am I?’. Madrid beat us to the fifth and sixth.
“So I understand them, but I am here to make them do it.”
And so on Thursday, he felt he had one last chance to get things on track before City’s season drifted away, in the Premier League, FA Cup and the Champions League too.
If his actions in recent weeks have achieved anything, though, it has been removing the illusion that several players are certain starters. The past two starting line-ups have shown that Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo have to do more than play the post-World Cup rustiness out of their legs.
Aymeric Laporte, Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva all sat out against Spurs, as did Phil Foden, although it has become clear after he missed the Wolves game altogether that he has a lingering foot injury.
The upshot, though, is that barely anybody in the squad can feel comfortable that they will start the next game — and Guardiola likes to change his team from game to game at the best of times.
The problem for teams struggling with complacency and consistency is that they can look good one game and poor the next, and so the Wolves game was only ever going to provide a certain number of answers.
The message was taken on board, whether it was enough remains to be seen.
(Top photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)