Pep Guardiola had one main goal when he arrived at Manchester City in the summer of 2016: to rebuild team spirit in the dressing room.
Before worrying about getting his message across on the training pitch, or signing players to help bring his ideas to life, Guardiola was immediately tasked with improving the atmosphere around the squad he inherited from Manuel Pellegrini.
There was, according to Marti Perarnau’s latest biography, an acceptance within City that while they still had some fine players, things had begun to drift in terms of motivation, enthusiasm and the general mood. And if you listen closely enough, even all these years and trophies later, you will see how fundamental team spirit has been when it comes to City’s various successes.
“The first half, our body language was not good,” Guardiola noted on Saturday, after City scored two second-half goals to beat Everton 2-0 and keep up their quest for a fourth Premier League title in a row. “We complain all the time, and that is not the way.
“The second half they were more positive, and you have to be positive when you do something. If you want to give the best of yourself, the body language has to be in the right position.”
It transpires that he also highlighted Erling Haaland’s approach during that game, telling Norwegian television: “He has to learn that if he doesn’t score, he has to have this right body language. He has to have this mood where he’s positive and he’s saying, ‘OK. It will come, it will come’.”
Then, speaking yesterday (Monday), City defender Nathan Ake gave some insight into the manager’s input on the subject, and its importance.
“He does mention it a lot,” the Dutchman said. “I think, in our team, we set our standards very high… but we have to accept you cannot always be at 100 per cent. But by fighting and still encouraging each other, we can still get to the result we wanted.”
Perhaps more than any tactical principle, a focus on body language and attitude has been the foundation of Guardiola’s many successes at City. It is not unusual in football or in business to cultivate a happy group but it is certainly easier said than done, as any manager who has “lost the dressing room” will be able to tell you.
“Body language is everything in life,” Guardiola said on Monday. “If you cannot be happy doing your job, you cannot improve.
“If you are not positive in your mind and you cannot accept that you can make mistakes, and how you react to that, and how you can help when your mate makes a mistake, this kind of thing is far beyond the tactics. That is everything in life.
“If you cannot train with a big smile and say you want to do it better, (that) you want to help, you cannot improve. But during the season, there are moments when it’s like that (on Saturday); there is frustration when things aren’t going well. Players understand that sometimes the game doesn’t work, but it’s not a big problem. It’s how you face that problem to overcome it before the game ends. Of course there are always gaps to improve.”
If there is one chief way that Guardiola has laid down the law in that respect, it is the “no bad faces” policy he has enforced since day one.
“You cannot create something when people who are not playing regularly are creating problems,” he said in December 2017, with City top of the Premier League table 18 months into his reign.
“Bad faces, bad behaviour from those guys; when that happens, forget about it. You cannot stay if it happens. But the guys who didn’t play regularly here and are now playing more, they are exceptional. Without that, you cannot do it.”
It is one of the reasons why Guardiola insists on going into every season with a relatively small squad.
“When you have 20 players and six injuries, they say you should have a bigger squad but what happens when I don’t have injuries?,” he has said. “How can I handle and manage just 11 guys playing and 14 not playing in a long, long time? I don’t want to be a manager (in such a situation).”
That approach means City’s players have to be versatile, capable of playing in at least a couple of positions — although there are some exceptions. It also means that if they are not in Guardiola’s starting line-up, they have to swallow their disappointment and get on with it. No exceptions.
“Where you have to show how wrong I am is three o’clock on the pitch,” he said in 2021, after Raheem Sterling had questioned Guardiola’s selection choices. “The guys playing against Burnley, stay calm and help the team. Show me how wrong I was, or make me feel bad.
“The biggest athletes in the world, they speak on the grass. That is where they have to talk. ‘You are complaining… then OK, go out and win the game.’ The message is not just for Raheem, it is for all the players.”
It is why Guardiola was absolutely desperate to get Joao Cancelo out of the club a little over a year ago, issuing something of an ultimatum to his employers after a Friday night FA Cup victory over Arsenal: when I am back on Monday, he cannot be here.
“Mr Cancelo”, as Guardiola referred to him on television that evening, had been sulking since his return from the World Cup in Qatar a month earlier, and when he lost his place he was openly critical of the decision to play teenager Rico Lewis at right-back instead.
“The best moment as a manager, people can say it is winning titles, but it is when you can work with people like Gabriel (Jesus),” Guardiola said in 2021. “He never complains. If he plays five minutes, it’s the best five minutes he can do, never a bad face. He respects his mates, my decisions — plays (on the) right, he’s happy; plays centre, he’s happy; plays left, he’s happy.”
A year ago, while being questioned about Kalvin Phillips’ lack of game time in his first season at City, the manager revealed one area where the former Leeds midfielder had made a big contribution.
“A fantastic boy in training,” said Guardiola. “He helps to have an incredible vibe with the team. Today, there are a lot of stats and analysis and data and these kinds of things, but the vibe of the locker room will be, in the future, the most important thing to be a successful team, and Kalvin helps us do this.”
There was a sometimes tense relationship with Leroy Sane, whose casual body language often crossed over into “bad faces” territory, and Guardiola was always ready to point out how “grumpy” Riyad Mahrez was when he wasn’t getting picked, although the Catalan always tried to change that by giving him game time, albeit not always in the matches Mahrez most valued.
In Perarnau’s latest book, which charts Guardiola’s time in Manchester, the author retells the story of a dinner the two men shared during that initial 2016-17 season, where they discussed the approach of two successful composers.
One of them liked to be close to his musicians, believing that to be the best way to make music, with the other preferring to stay distant, allowing the musicians their own space to thrive.
Guardiola was not familiar with their approaches but was intrigued by the idea of building a bridge, rather than a wall, between himself and his players, having felt he became too close in Barcelona, his first job in senior management, and possibly too distant in his next post at Bayern Munich.
He felt a closer approach might be in order amid that difficult first season in England, although fast-forward seven years and that idea has not necessarily taken hold, as Guardiola very rarely explains his decisions to his players, instead charging them with getting on with whatever he decides and burying any ill-feeling as best as possible.
After Oscar Bobb scored a late winner against Newcastle United last month, the 20-year-old was asked if his introduction from the bench that day was a sign of Guardiola’s trust, to which he replied: “How much of his trust you have is hard to tell at times. One of his main messages is always to be ready and that is what you have to live by.”
Ake talks of City’s “incredible group” of players who “do everything for each other on the pitch, but off the pitch we are very good with each other too”, but says Guardiola does not get too directly involved.
“Not too much,” he says. “He leaves us to it, and, obviously, he is the boss, so when he says stuff, you do it; but we have a mentally strong group as well.”
Guardiola has not created that bridge by being in constant dialogue with his players, but the club have worked to ensure they bring in the right characters — “good players, good people” is the motto for both the men’s and women’s teams — and the manager is keen to keep training sessions fun, to alleviate the tension of the big-game scenarios City are usually involved in. In fact, they are probably better in those demanding environments than earlier in a season.
Hot potato 🥔😅 pic.twitter.com/zUTKUMZslE
— Manchester City (@ManCity) January 11, 2024
And Guardiola has developed a keen appreciation for allowing the players to really relish their triumphs.
In 2018, after City clinched their first Premier League title of his reign with five games to spare, he insisted the players came in for training the following morning because he was desperate for the team to go on and break the 100-point barrier, but nowadays he is far more comfortable giving them — and himself — time to celebrate, and it is said that the party continued in his kitchen after City lifted the trophy with two league matches remaining last May.
“When you win the Premier League, you have to celebrate,” he said. “They did it with the families, they enjoy (it) a lot.
“The next morning, it was just sauna time. And the day after, we talked a little bit in the afternoon, ‘Guys you have to be ready, energy, for Brighton (the next game).’ And they did it.
“In 40 hours, we drank all the alcohol in Manchester. But the team was there (against Brighton) and that’s why I am very pleased. Because I don’t want the team to drop before the FA Cup and Champions League finals.”
There was a moment on Monday as Guardiola discussed the importance of body language and positivity when he confided that, in his early days at the club, he thought winning the Champions League would be beyond their reach.
In fact, he told Perarnau the same after City were knocked out at the last-16 stage by Monaco in that first season. “Character is more useful than statistics,” he said. “And I have not known how to give them character so that they are not afraid on big stages. They don’t believe it (that they could win the competition).
“I feel there is a fear of playing, that they do not feel comfortable being active, that they are better off being reactive. It seems they don’t want to be protagonists. I thought I could extract this quality from them, but I haven’t been able to.”
It could not be more different now, of course, as he again reflected, ahead of the first leg of their last-16 Champions League tie away against FC Copenhagen tonight (Tuesday), about how they are now able to regularly come back from going a goal down, something they used to struggle with — in the league this season, they have already taken 17 points from losing positions.
“We have good characters and personalities in the team, (in terms of) how they react in the bad moments,” Guardiola said. “Yes… I had the feeling when I arrived eight years ago that maybe this competition was too much for us, but our defeats, our bad moments, and our steps to grow up helped us to be in the position that we are, with two Champion League finals and one semi-final in the last three years.
“Now, all the club can see that we can go everywhere to try to be ourselves. Before, I felt, ‘OK let’s go, but are you sure, Pep? Are we ready to do it?’. Now I think that the whole organisation believes we can do it and I think this is the best legacy that we gave to the club, to the team — that Man City can compete.”
(Top photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)
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