What a difference a few months can make. It only seems like yesterday since ‘Pep Out’ was trending on Twitter, City were in the bottom half of the table and Liverpool fans were positively giddy about the prospect of retaining the trophy they’d waited 30 long years to win.
I think it’s safe to say that ship has sailed.
Then we had United fans posting pictures of the Premier League table and claiming Joint Top™ was a thing.
It isn’t and they’re not. Ole’s reds left with that sinking feeling yet again.
Now Pep is steering City’s juggernaut vessel downwind with the finish line firmly in sight. Since mid December, it’s been virtually nothing but plain sailing for City. Our phenomenal 28 game unbeaten run thwarted only by United, the Incredibles are marching on towards a fifth Premier League title and Pep’s third – but what other trophies will we secure along the way and will we all be able to celebrate together in some capacity if circumstances allow? Brighter days are coming; it’s just a matter of when, not if.
YOU’VE GOT THE LOVE
I remember when the world as we knew it stopped turning during the first lockdown in March 2020. When everything came to a standstill: the skies were stripped bare of planes, the streets desolate and football was put on pause. When rumours started to swirl about the Premier League returning, the game as we knew it came under massive scrutiny.
Was it money over safety? While we were social distancing and wearing masks, players were able to tackle, line up in a wall and celebrate together for goals. Was it right? So many questions were asked, but the show must go on and football did return – and may I say, for the greater good too.
The most recent lockdown has been even more difficult for so many people. We may not have had football during the initial lockdown, but we had sunshine in abundance. The feeling that we were all doing our bit and that it would only be for a limited amount of time meant that people were almost generous in their enthusiasm to stay at home, wash their hands and help out in exchange for their freedom in a few months. We all banged our pots and pans, painted our rainbows and lived in hope for a prompt return to normality.
By the time nine months had passed by and Boris announced another lockdown, the rainbows had faded and most people’s enthusiasm had long waned. With one of the coldest and wettest Winters for years, the days were cold, dark, dismal and repetitive. Homeschooling was a firm part of every parent’s juggling act. But this time, one thing was different. We had the football. We had City – and boy did we need them.
I’m grateful for my children, for their youthful ignorance has been my bliss and a welcome distraction. I’m grateful for my partner for helping to keep me sane, rational and positive. I’m grateful for my Mum, for being our single child support bubble and helping with the boys when the juggle and the struggle has been too much.
But I’m grateful to for City. So, so grateful.
For when most of our basic rights and daily hobbies are taken away from us, City have been the one constant that we’ve still been able to enjoy. Through the snow, rain and freezing temperatures, City have been there to offer us some normality and I think that has really helped me through the past few months. I know that nothing can ever replace going to matches and I’ve really felt that. For years, we have planned our lives around the fixture list and to have something so consistent removed from our lives was initially so difficult. I’ve missed the smells, the atmosphere, the adrenaline and emotions. But most of all, I’ve missed the people.
It may sound precious with the amount of people who have lost loved ones and key workers under incredible pressure, but I mean it with the best of intentions and only in the context of providing us all with something that is relatable, common and the most welcome of distractions. A degree of normality in extraordinary times. Not only have City kept us company, they’ve provided us with the most phenomenal winning run we’ve seen since, well, City did it last time. 22 wins in a row and 28 games unbeaten – with Ilkay Gundogan and Pep Guardiola winning the Premier League Player and Manager of the Month award for January and February.
So many questions had been asked. How would we cope without Kevin De Bruyne? Could we finally win at Anfield? Where does Laporte fit in when Stones and Dias have forged such a formidable partnership? Would Aguero ever play for us again? Possibly the biggest question people had dared to ask was ‘is Pep done at City?’
Every question had been answered and then some.
THE EVOLUTION OF PEP
There have been a couple of questions that I’ve been asked a lot recently when I’ve been invited onto the radio. The first one being, ‘what has changed so much for City to turn their season around since mid December?’ The second is always, ‘which era of Pep football have you enjoyed the most?’
I’ll answer the first one. I really feel that City’s lack of pre-season left them so ill-prepared for the season of the 2020/21 campaign. De Bruyne has always been vocal about this: how much he struggled to find his feet and settle into the demands and rigours that the Premier League ask from their competitors. I also voiced my own concerns over the potential disruption and uncertainty about Pep’s future and whether that could play a part in players or even the manager himself feeling unsettled.
Once Pep addressed the question marks over his future and the players found their feet, fitness and rhythm in the season, there was no looking back. Everything clicked into place: the momentum built, the consistency was established and, just as important, the mentality and team spirit was clear for all to see. This was a team flourishing; growing in confidence and working hard for each other. A team thriving and striving for success in every competition. It wasn’t so much as Pep was back – he’d never gone anywhere. And let’s thank our lucky stars for that.
As for the eras? It’s a difficult one. Much like the luxurious headache Pep has to endure when selecting his starting XI with such an array of talent at his disposal, we have really been spoilt during the past few seasons with the football that we’ve lucky enough to watch. So much so, that it’s testing at the best of times now when it comes to watching other games on the television. The standard that City have set is so superior to the rest, it’s often a tedious affair trying to sit through neutral matches.
But it’s always only been their own standard that City have been chasing. City have set the bar so high for everybody. The eras of Pep at City have been conveniently defined by the club themselves through the catchy slogans they label the seasons to help the club shop sell leisurewear. The first season was more of a transition season, so we won’t talk about that. The second season, 2017/18, was the Centurions season. The era of free flowing, fantasy football, the likes of which the Premier League had never seen before. The League was won with a 100 points tally – 19 points ahead of our nearest rivals, United.
The third campaign, 2018/19, was the Fourmidables. The season that we won the domestic treble and fought a colossal battle with Liverpool for the title – toe to toe – winning it on the final day with a 4-1 victory against Brighton. I think that season is the most stressed I’ve ever felt following City – well, since the individual games vs QPR 2011/12 and Gillingham at Wembley 1999. The fourth was 2019/20 – a far from normal season as we knew it and nonetheless, slightly disappointing given our recent standards.
But this time round, 2020/21, should be recognized as the season of the Incredibles. A term that Pep used repeatedly after the 5-2 Southampton win because of the Laporte penalty decision and the incredulous Foden penalty/non penalty saga, but incredible fits well with City this season for many different reasons. The reason that impresses me the most is what I like to call The Evolution of Pep.
Too many times last season, we were coming up against teams and walking away post-match declaring that Pep’s style had been ‘found out’. A high line, a low block; hit us on the counter, grab a goal, then sit and defend the lead. Frustrate us. Was it his achille’s heel? How do we solve the problem? Teams know that by playing too open, they run the risk of us going full throttle and scoring three, four, five against them. An open game for us can be like carving a knife through butter.
But Pep has learnt and adapted. This season, we’ve seen a much more cautious side to his style of play. I think a certain amount of it has been down to game management: so many games to play and trying to not expend more energy than necessary. But definitely against United at Old Trafford and Liverpool at home in the League, we witnessed a manager who was displaying restraint. A man would had given due diligence to being undone on the counter by these teams before and who knew the value of one point over three.
He could’ve rolled the dice and gone for it. I’ll admit that I was screaming for him to do it. But he knew that, by doing that, we risked conceding on the break. At the time, I was a bit sceptical. But, looking back, I realise that it was a clever decision to make. We’ve seen a few games this season, the Sheffield United games are first that come to mind, where it’s been methodical and at a much slower and steadier pace than season’s past. The key has been not to use many subs, not to overly exert yourself. Grab a goal, keep possession, see the game out. There have been games this season that we would’ve, or did, lose last season, had we not have evolved and learnt from past mistakes. It’s a sign of a top drawer manager: one who has won most things on offer in football but is still learning, adapting and experimenting. But we’ve seen real guts too. Determination, endeavour, courage, passion and fight. Some games really have just been about getting over the line. Some have been a real battle. In a season packed full of matches, I can forgive them for that. It shows again a different side – no guts, no glory.
The rotation this season has been clever too. For the best part, we’ve been lucky to have an almost fully fit squad. Many people talk about the value of our bench – this takes me back to the days of Garry Cook and that napkin. Although I worked with Garry for a few seasons, I never saw the napkin, but I know that the idea was to have two players of real quality in each position across the pitch. To be able to swap Stones for Laporte, Zinchenko for Cancelo, Rodri for Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne for Gundogan is an extraordinary opulence. It’s even more impressive in that it doesn’t affect the outcome of games. Each player knows their role when it comes to the bigger picture. It’s a team effort – you only have to see that when the players celebrate goals and at the final whistle. They’re working for each other, striving for their targets and it’s exciting to see.
So many players have stepped it up too. Gundogan, who I have championed since his arrival at the club, was so influential during De Bruyne’s absence and really came into his own. Bernardo is back to his brilliant self – his work rate is nothing short of exceptional. Mahrez – often the scapegoat for so many people – he has been more consistent of late and produced some dazzling goals. I’m also enjoying him being more selfless too. He has one of the best touches and techniques I’ve seen from a footballer; it’s always only been about consistency when it comes to Mahrez. Cancelo has been a revelation: he’s been our joker in the pack and has played more of a midfield playmaker role than a full back. Credit has to go to Zinchenko too. This season he’s been more assured: he’s matured and been more consistent and assertive. The positives are plentiful.
I could heap praise on each and every player, such has been the nature of the football we have been enjoying. I’ll save it for a future article. But I will say this – we cannot underestimate the importance of how improved our defence has been. The signing of Ruben Dias has proved pivotal to that: he’s a naturally confident leader. He marshalls, orders, bellows, instructs and leads with aggression and authority. Alongside a resurgent John Stones, a solid and consistent partnership has flourished and it’s been one of the true joys of the season. The confidence that comes with having a dependable defence has helped to shape our team, mindset and driven us forward throughout our record-breaking winning run. It’s a team effort – but I do believe it will be the amount of clean sheets we have kept and the vast improvement of our back line that has had the biggest say in potentially bringing the title back to the blue half of Manchester this season.
WE WILL FIGHT FOREVER MORE, BECAUSE OF…
Most City fans would’ve known that our remarkable 21 game winning streak would come to an end sooner rather than later. Many old school blues would’ve know that was bound to happen against United. That’s just the way it goes as a City fan. But to lose the game 2-0 at home in the manner that we did was disappointing to say the least.
I know I may come across as spoilt by saying this, but there is nothing wrong in admitting how disappointed you are at a particular result, despite what the League table says. There seemed to be a real divide on social media after the game. Disappointment yes, but some seemed to be happy because we still had a sizable lead at the top. But there was still a decent amount of blues that were bitterly frustrated by not only the result, but the manner of the defeat.
So many managers of the past have embraced City and what the club represent: its values, traditions and its DNA. But the only thing that Pep has never really seemed to grasp is the importance to fans of winning a Derby game. It may be just another game in a frenetic season to him, but to the fans it’s a Manchester Derby. The term ‘bragging rights’ is mostly abhorred by people in football, but when it comes to a Derby game, it resonates true. Like most blues, I took pelters for years off United fans who were only too happy to revel in the glory of their successes and the misery inflicted on us time and time again.
But it’s funny how the tables have turned. They may not be yo-yoing through the divisions, but their fans seem only too delighted to bask in the triumph that a Derby victory brings, even if that means that City still ultimately win the title. Back then, I lived for anything from a Derby – points from a Derby game meant a successful season in my eyes. I think that banner that a lot to answer for.
After the defeat, I was conflicted post-match. I did feel hurt – it had been a while since I’d felt what a loss felt like. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other. You can still be hugely exasperated at City losing another game to United under Pep and still be optimistic about the rest of the season. It’s never been cut and dry supporting this club, it wouldn’t be City if it was.
A BRIGHTER DAY
At the time of writing, City are currently still in all four competitions. But this is a big week coming up – with both the Champions League second leg against Borussia Moenchengladbach and the FA Cup quarter final against Everton to play out. A lot has been made of the club’s chances of winning the quadruple – but nearly all the talk has come from the media. I don’t think I’ve heard a single fan really mention the possibility – but you can be sure that, if it doesn’t happen, plenty of rival fans will be goading us straight away.
‘Ahahahaha, there goes your quadruple!’
Trust me when I say this and I’ll say it louder for the people at the back (who usually have selective hearing anyway and believe only what they’re fed by the media); I will be delighted if the Premier League is the only trophy that we win. To many, it may not be viewed as progress, or demonstrate a severe lack of ambition on my part. But I love winning the title and to win it after the first half that we had to the season too, for me, would be a remarkable achievement.
I understand that expectations have changed and we have to compete on all fronts. I’d love to win all the silverware. But it’s not solely what I’m here for. It’s all part of the roller-coaster ride: I still think we’d get grief even if we won the Champions League. People would stick find some irrational stick to beat us with. I’m still waiting for Pep to receive the plaudits he deserves for not only retaining the Premier League, but for winning the domestic treble that season too back in 2018/19. I know, I’ll be waiting a long time.
Rumours have been rife recently about the prospect of 10,000 fans being allowed in for the last two games of the season. It would be magnificent to see fans return and I’m assuming the club would have to organize a ballot to decide which fans would be the chosen ones. I don’t have a chance because I share a season ticket with my partner at the moment (due to childcare and financial restraints – I’d always had a season ticket; but had to give it up when my eldest was born. Since then, I cherry picked my games until a couple of seasons ago, when we started to share one. Such is life). But you can be sure of one thing – I’ll be the one leading the socially distanced conga outside the stadium!
I think just the thought of that situation would put so many smiles on people’s faces. Nothing has been won yet: as City fans we know better than to get the open top bus out until it’s mathematically certain. Even when we’re 3-0 up in a game, I find myself unconvinced until the final whistle, which is ridiculous considering the football we have played this season. I know that in an ideal world, we would love the Etihad stadium packed to the rafters to cheer on the boys to victory in the blazing Manchester sunshine (should the weather Gods comply). But these haven’t been normal times for a time and I’d be happy to take anything if it meant being reunited with familiar faces that I haven’t seen for so long and celebrating together – even if masks and social distancing has to be in place. Ultimately, like everything during the past 12 months, that will be decided by the government. Let’s see what happens.
It really has been a season like no other and there’s still so much to come from it yet. Rest assured, we will all be back together in the not-too-distant future. We have so much to potentially look forward to. So many reasons to be optimistic. We’re bound by our love of all things blue – so let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope we can all be together to celebrate soon too.