London, May 12: Pep Guardiola's management of Manchester City has never felt quite as fraught as it did midway through his first season in charge, as the English winter of 2016-17 bit hard for a team in transition.
City collapsed to a 1-3 defeat to Chelsea in a top-of-the-table clash, a setback that preceded a humbling 4-2 loss at Leicester City.
After that game, Guardiola infamously remarked, "I am not a coach for the tackles", and a 4-0 thumping at Everton the following month further fuelled suspicions in some quarters that 'The Barclays' was bringing the most celebrated coach of his generation to heel in its inimitable fashion.
As City bask in a third Premier League title in the past four years, it is striking how Guardiola's commitment to his principles has not wavered at all.
If anything, times of high stress have only served to deepen his convictions.
Speaking before that 2016 ordeal, when Jamie Vardy ran riot with a hat-trick, Guardiola discussed the make-up of his ideal team, with tongue planted only partially in cheek.
"I love midfield players," he said. "Always I said, many times, if I could play with 11 midfield players, I would."
Fast forward four-and-a-half seasons, and City are into their maiden Champions League final having driven Paris Saint-Germain to furious distraction over the course of a 4-1 aggregate victory.
They got there without a recognised striker – playmakers Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan taking various turns at the point of the attack and winger Riyad Mahrez scoring three of the four goals. Oleksandr Zinchenko, a midfielder by trade, replaced Joao Cancelo at left-back midway through the second half in Paris and was a stand-out performer in Manchester.
Consider John Stones' resurgence as a ball-playing central defender and Ederson's own silky footwork between the posts and Guardiola really isn't too far away from his ideal.
"I have to admit it, I like the players that have the ability to keep the ball, don't lose the ball," he said before last Saturday's 2-0 win at Crystal Palace that brought City to the brink of glory.
"It's one of the principal things I am looking for. If they keep the ball, it is the best way to defend. The players have to keep the ball in difficult circumstances.
"In all my career I played with a lot of midfield players. I have the feeling you can play better with these kind of players."
Let's ignore the fact Guardiola picked a bizarre line-up featuring Rodri as his only specialist midfielder in Saturday's 2-1 defeat to Chelsea and dig into this theme a little more...
Pausa for thought
At City, "Don't lose the ball" is a non-negotiable update on Guardiola's Barcelona template of "Take the ball, pass the ball". As they have in the three previous completed campaigns, they boast a passing accuracy of 89 per cent.
There is an increased calmness and control to their play, as shown in their data over the course of the season.
City are taking fewer shots than at any other period in the Guardiola era. They average 15.9 attempts per game in the Premier League, down from 19.6 last season and lower even than the 16.6 from their manager's fitful first season.
Their figure of 2.1 goals per game is in line with their 2016-17 average and some way below what followed. The 100-point campaign of 2017-18 yielded 2.8 goals per game.
Sergio Aguero's thumping strike against Palace showed the killer finishing instinct Guardiola's battery of midfielders lack, which partially explains this drop-off.
But it has been absorbed because the overly frantic feel to City's play when Liverpool won the league last year is all but gone. An average possession figure of 64.2 per cent in the Premier League is actually their lowest under Guardiola, but their average open play sequence lasts 15.1 seconds and this has never lasted longer.
Another metric that hints towards control and the idea of City taking their time is their direct speed – put simply, how quickly the team progresses the ball upfield. This season, their attacks have advanced at 1.1 metres per second, which is their slowest or least direct under Guardiola.
If this means they do not quicken the pulse as much around the opposition penalty area, there are obvious benefits when it comes to protecting their own.
According to Opta, City have conceded 25 'big chances' in the Premier League in 2020-21, an average of 0.71 per game. This more than halves their 1.47 'big chances' faced from last season.
Along with some more refined work in possession, the talismanic influence of record signing Ruben Dias at centre-back should not be understated.
Of the 245 shots City have faced this season, 67 were blocked. That amounts to 27.3 per cent and the highest ratio of blocks under Guardiola. Anyone who watched Dias practically turn taking PSG shots in the face into an artform last week will not be overly surprised.
Conceding from 10.6 per cent of shots faced is City's second-best return of the past five years, following 9.7 per cent in 2018-19, while 35 per cent of shots faced being on target is another welcome low under their current manager.
In his first 30 league outings, Dias contributed to 14 clean sheets and saw just 18 goals conceded. They would be impressive numbers in any circumstances, but especially so when you then remember he walked into something resembling a train wreck.
"This isn't a team I can recognise"
"We started to think we were playing bad when we were not playing bad," a shellshocked Guardiola said. Leicester again. Vardy again. 5-2 this time, having led their opening home game of the season last September.
Whatever they thought as anxiety crept in when they were unable to build upon Mahrez opening the scoring against his former club, City ended up playing very badly indeed. Three of Leicester's goals were penalties. It was all impossibly error-strewn.
"The start of this season was so messy, for everyone," captain Fernandinho told The Players' Tribute.
"The way we had to come back [for Project Restart] after three months of inactivity, then we had practically no pre-season. Nothing like that had ever happened in our careers."
A month prior to their Leicester humiliation, City collapsed to a wretched 3-1 defeat to Lyon in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. That disappointment cloaked a listless start to 2020-21, as the surreal darkness of pandemic football became a numbing reality.
Guardiola was trying to pick up the pieces professionally having lost his mother to coronavirus five months earlier. The strain was understandable and visible.
Dias completed his move from Benfica two days after the Leicester defeat and was thrust into a Bielsaball baptism in a chaotic 1-1 draw against Leeds United. Far from a team of midfielders, it was hard to spot any functioning midfield at all in Guardiola's side at Elland Road.
The Portugal centre-back's leadership qualities were soon apparent and the seeds of an imperious partnership with John Stones were sown. That defensive alliance only truly flowered after a 2-0 defeat at Tottenham, which saw Aymeric Laporte lose his first-choice status.
That loss meant City had taken 12 of the first 24 points on offer, leaving them marooned in mid-table after their worst start to a Premier League season since 2008-09. Six consecutive clean sheets followed in all competitions, although a torpid 0-0 draw at Manchester United did not suggest a team in good health.
In their next game, City were eventually breached – ironically by a Dias own goal – and struggling West Brom left the Etihad Stadium with a 1-1 draw.
"After that game, I had a feeling this isn't a team I can recognise. I didn't like what I saw," Guardiola said, who convened talks with his assistants Juanma Lillo and Rodolfo Borrell, head of player support Manel Estiarte and City's director of football Txiki Begiristain.
"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."
New Year's resolution
A battling 1-0 win at Southampton got things back on track and ultimately launched a 21-match winning run across all competitions, while Guardiola hailed a 2-0 Boxing Day win over Newcastle United as the best performance of the campaign.
Still, all was not well. The scheduled December 28 trip to Everton was postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak within City's squad and, on New Year's Eve, Guardiola did not like what he saw on the training ground.
"It was not a good session," Fernandinho recalled. "The attitude, the body language, the effort from some players, it was just obvious. 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 per cent. And, in this team, when you come to train, you do it at 100 per cent, or you stay home.
"He was right. And he made it clear that the responsibility for keeping those standards rested with me."
At 7am on New Years' Day, Fernandinho sent out messages to convene a team meeting. Home truths were spoken and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge were up next, with 14 senior outfield players fit and available.
"Before the match, I thought to myself, 'If these guys don't run here, that’s it, I'm done!'," Fernandinho said. He need not have worried.
City tore Chelsea to pieces before half-time, running out 3-1 winners and hastening Frank Lampard's move towards the exit door. Gundogan, Foden and De Bruyne got the goals and the team of midfielders were off and running.
A month later, that same configuration demolished Liverpool 4-1 at Anfield and what felt like a long shot back at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium had quickly become a formality. They are the first team to have been as low as eighth on Christmas Day and win the Premier League title.
"A real guy, a real player"
Fernandinho served as back-up to Rodri during that rampaging run, but his influence behind the scenes should not be underplayed. For all his majestic qualities on the field, David Silva lacked the capacity to rally his colleagues in the same manner last season, having inherited the armband from Vincent Kompany for his final year at the Etihad Stadium.
Dias has filled Kompany's considerable void as a defensive leader, with Fernandinho doing likewise as a squad figurehead.
There have still been memorable performances, with the Brazilian veteran somewhere close to his snapping and crackling best in a 1-0 February win at Arsenal. He started the EFL Cup final as City made it four successes in a row last month and then, on his 36th birthday, he gritted his teeth defiantly in the face of PSG's challenge, perhaps irritating Angel Di Maria in the process.
Like Aguero, Fernandinho is out of contract in June and could be set to follow Kompany, Silva, Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta out of the exit door, closing the book on their transformative era.
Since joining from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2013, he has won more games (170) and completed more passes (13,821) than any other Premier League player. And yes, fans of the dark arts, no player has committed as many fouls (344) or received more yellow cards (51).
"I feel very good. The first time lifting the trophy at City, it's an amazing sensation," he told Sky Sports after his record-breaking sixth EFL Cup success and first as captain.
The sensations will be even more enjoyable when he gets his hands on the Premier League, with another more elusive prize maybe still to come.
"He's so important. He's a real guy, a real player who can play in several positions," Guardiola said, back at that pre-Leicester press conference in 2016 when he was asked how City might cope without a suspended Fernandinho. Not too well, as it turned out.
When presented with any plaudits for the successful refinement of his team's style this season, Guardiola has batted them away to insist the triumph "belongs to the players". That is certainly true in the case of Fernandinho, a midfield general and the perfect captain for this team of midfielders.