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Manchester City’s rotation is the secret of Pep Guardiola’s success
Manchester City began title defence with 5-0 win at West Ham
Last Updated: 12/08/19 11:41am
Manchester City kicked off their title defence with an emphatic 5-0 win over West Ham on Saturday. Pep Guardiola left some big names on the bench but – as the City coach himself revealed afterwards – perhaps that is the secret of his team’s success, writes Adam Bate.
It was the first goal that summed it up. Riyad Mahrez threaded a pass down the line and Kyle Walker raced on to it before crossing for Gabriel Jesus to score. Mahrez had been a surprise selection ahead of Bernardo Silva, Walker knows that new signing Joao Cancelo is after his spot, and Jesus only had to glance to the bench to see Sergio Aguero there waiting.
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That is the depth that Manchester City possess. It is the depth that led to Jose Mourinho's mischievous suggestion that there were four teams who could win this Premier League title with City accounting for two of them - their first eleven and their B team. Pep Guardiola knows this. His use of this squad might reveal the secret of sustaining his success too.
Manuel Pellegrini used his programme notes before the game at the London Stadium on Saturday afternoon to make the point that his West Ham team now have two quality players for each position. But it was when Guardiola was speaking deep within the bowels of that same stadium after seeing his side win 5-0 that it hit home what real squad depth means.
Asked whether Mahrez could improve on his debut campaign for the club, Guardiola replied: "The only problem that he had last season is that his manager didn't select him because we had one of the best players ahead of him in Bernardo.
"Sometimes they have to compete. So now Bernardo is thinking, 'Wow, Riyad is in'. So he has to take a step forward. This is the only way to maintain consistency.
"Gabriel came back with incredible speed and energy so now Sergio is thinking that he needs to be in top form. It is the only way to maintain the levels. That is the reason why.
"Every player has to know that. Today, the bench we had, there was Joao and Ilkay Gundogan, who was the best midfielder for the last two months of last season. Without him we could not achieve what we did in the Premier League.
"Nicolas Otamendi after two training sessions played in the Community Shield and it was an incredible performance. Today, he is on the bench.
"We had Bernardo, we had Sergio. Fernandinho is at home.
"It is the only way. The players have to play good out of respect for the other players. It is the only way I know as a manager."
Guardiola has been the coach of the reigning champions on seven previous occasions in his managerial career and that team has gone on to retain the title in six of them. He is fond of his tactical tweaks and, of course, the funding has invariably been there to strengthen the squad too. But the faith he shows in his players - all of them - has been important too.
Liverpool had already sent out their own message with their 4-1 win over Norwich the previous evening but a trip to West Ham looked likely to be a more challenging proposition. A top-half team with aspiration to improve, playing on their own turf? This was a fixture that demanded City's best but that didn't mean Guardiola felt the need to name his best team.
"Everyone has to know I trust them," Guardiola added.
"When I say I trust them, it's true. After four seasons there is not one player I don't like who is with us. I trust them and they have to compete with each other. They have to compete with the opponent, yes, but they have to compete with each other."
It is why the loss of Vincent Kompany might not prove as significant as some are anticipating. The former captain started only 13 of City's Premier League games last season but the real point is that nobody was really indispensable. It is why City were able to cope with Kevin De Bruyne's injury problems too. The success is not reliant on any one player.
Fifteen Premier League games have now come and gone for Manchester City since the surprise defeat to Newcastle in late January. They have not drawn any of those games let alone lost them - and they have not named the same team for any of those games either. Fifteen Guardiola team selections and each one has been different to the other 14.
The appearance numbers from that compelling title race underline the point and highlight the contrast with Liverpool. In 35 of their 38 matches, Jurgen Klopp named each of Alisson, Virgil van Dijk, Andy Robertson, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah in the team. There was not a single outfield player at City who was selected that many times by Guardiola last season.
In fact, only goalkeeper Ederson and centre-back Aymeric Laporte missed out on fewer than seven of City's starting line-ups in the Premier League. The regular rotation might be dictated by fitness concerns or even the demands of that specific game but the real motivation is, well, motivation. Making sure everyone knows that standards cannot slip.
"If they want to play next week they know that they have to play good," Guardiola explained. "That has been how we maintain our standards. After 198 points in the last two seasons we need that. We need that pressure. Without it, we have a tendency to relax."
There are no signs yet of them letting up. While Liverpool's win was a little chaotic, City's was controlled. Pick any permutation, this team remains slick. Whoever is beside them, these players continue to operate at such a high level, that it makes them almost impervious to disruption. It will need more than one or two omissions to trouble them.
That is why Guardiola is so right when he says that his players are competing with each other as much as they are competing with the opposition. That was how it felt on Saturday. Walker was powering past Aaron Cresswell but it was Cancelo's presence concentrating his mind. Jesus and Mahrez were played like men who knew they needed to impress.
It is the reason why this Manchester City team - both of them - simply will not stop. Guardiola won three titles on the bounce at Barcelona and he did the same at Bayern Munich. On the day that he began the attempt to repeat the feat in the Premier League, his team selection and his comments afterwards offered an insight into the secret of his success.