P5 W5 F13 A3. It is fair to say Pep Guardiola has made a good start to life at Manchester City.
In the Premier League, City have taken maximum points against Sunderland, Stoke City and West Ham United. Their two-legged UEFA Champions League play-off with Steaua Bucureşti was effectively over after 49 minutes in Romania.
“Shangri-La football,” is how City old boy Niall Quinn described their first-half showing against West Ham yesterday as they won 3-1 to go top on goal difference.
Tougher challenges lie just around the corner, of course, with a Manchester derby coming up after the international break, four days before their opening UEFA Champions League fixture against Borussia Mönchengladbach … and before we know it, that mid-October trip to the Camp Nou to face Guardiola’s old club Barcelona will be upon us.
England pair shine
Even in the season’s first international break, though, evidence of Guardiola’s impact should be there to see when England visit Slovakia in next Sunday’s opening FIFA World Cup qualifier, assuming John Stones and Raheem Sterling take the field. The pair – the two most expensive English footballers of all time – have already put unhappy experiences at UEFA EURO 2016 behind them.
Sterling was booed by England fans during the group match against Wales in Lens but has begun the season full of confidence under a manager who made a point of contacting him during the EURO to voice his support.
His two goals in yesterday’s win over West Ham were his first for City since March and the 21-year-old has three assists too – not to mention more touches in the opposition box than any other Premier League player so far this season (33).
As for Stones, he did not even get on the pitch during England’s miserable EURO campaign yet looks a player reborn since joining City, having lost his way under Roberto Martínez at Everton. It was notable he was in the West Ham half yesterday to help instigate the move that led to Sterling’s opening goal and his ball-playing ability fits the Guardiola template perfectly.
At 22, he is still learning – and Guardiola’s role as teacher was spelled out by the sight of the animated-looking Spaniard bringing Stones to the touchline and offering instructions against Steaua last Wednesday night.
“In our build-up we were too many people behind the ball, we were not in the right positions – we were John Stones, [Aleksandr] Kolarov and Fernando against one player,” explained Guardiola.
The manager’s wish is for Stones to step forward into midfield to help city outnumber the opposition there. It was probably not coincidental that against West Ham, City lost some of their control once Stones had left the action.
Kolarov experiment working
The England pair are not the only beneficiaries of Guardiola’s arrival in Manchester. Guardiola is the man who converted Javier Mascherano from a midfielder to a centre-back at Barcelona and Serbian full-back Kolarov has played with impressive composure since his switch inside – catching the eye too with his laser-guided left-foot balls out to the flanks.
Guardiola first tried the experiment in a pre-season game against his former club Bayern München and said of Kolarov: “It is not easy to find a centre-back with a left foot like him.
Delph promises more
According to midfielder Fabian Delph, there is much more to come from Guardiola’s City.” It’s only been a short time so with more time I am sure we will be a lot better and you’ll see us progressing nicely,” said Delph, scorer of the second-leg winner against Steaua last Wednesday.
And just what has it been like under the new man? “You have got to use your brain a lot more,” he told UEFA.com. “Every manager has their own ideas of how they want us to play. Pep is no different – the only difference is there are a lot of different systems, a lot of different ways to play.
“Tactically he is very, very good. There is always a different way of playing depending on the opposition.
“He is a unique manager, he is one of the best managers in the world. If we do the things he wants us to do, executing the game plans, we will win more games than not.” They have not made a bad start.