Manchester City won their fifth Premier League title in six years after Arsenal's 1-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest on Saturday; Gary Neville believes their success this season can be traced back to an uncharacteristic defensive shift by Pep Guardiola
Wednesday 24 May 2023 07:27, UK
Pep Guardiola stopped ‘messing around’ and got ‘really serious’ about his defence in March and that was the key to Manchester City’s title win, argues Gary Neville.
City have won 12 games in a row in retaining their Premier League crown but they were adrift of Arsenal two-thirds of the way through the season and leaking away points. There was a defeat to Tottenham and a draw at Nottingham Forest in February.
"I have this particular point where I think it changed," Neville told Monday Night Football.
"I was watching City in that period and felt they were encouraging teams, felt that Pep Guardiola was trying to win the league in the most beautiful way, which is what Pep Guardiola does, he plays perfect football, technical football.
"There was a point where [Joao] Cancelo leaves in January, everybody in January and February was talking about the problems they had at left-back and [asking] why did they sell [Oleksandr] Zinchenko when he was the perfect left-back for Guardiola.
"But I look at two goals they conceded before the change. I believe the point of change was before Newcastle on March 4. These were in the two games before that."
The first was that late equaliser against Forest. "Pep was trying to get Bernardo Silva to be that hybrid of a left-back and then move into midfield when they are in possession. He charges into midfield which is what midfielders do. All of a sudden it gets really quick and they have problems down that left-hand side.
"You saw Manchester City at this stage of the season conceding goals like this. They were not bad, they were not shocking defensively, but they were giving teams encouragement."
The second was against Bournemouth.
"They won this game 4-1 but Pep Guardiola has such exacting standards I think he will have even looked at this game. He did not play Bernardo Silva in that position, he played Rico Lewis. Although it was a consolation goal, very rarely do you see Manchester City countered on four on three.
"I said at the time, 'They are still messing around.'"
"They are about to play Newcastle at home and Crystal Palace away before the international break. They are two really difficult games, really difficult wide players, games he could not mess about in."
Against Newcastle, Guardiola picked a back four of Kyle Walker, Ruben Dias, Manuel Akanji and Nathan Ake. Away to Crystal Palace, he replaced Walker with John Stones - naming a back four made up of players who might all be considered central defenders.
It was a turning point that Guardiola alluded to himself when speaking to Sky Sports during the title celebrations following their win over Chelsea on Sunday.
"The biggest step this year was that everyone in the back four was real, real proper defenders," said Guardiola. "Win your duel. In our box, win your duel. In the past, we did not have it. Nathan, like Manuel Akanji, Kyle Walker can do it, everyone made a step forward in that sense.
Neville sees this as a change of thinking by Guardiola.
"It was really interesting listening to Pep talk about proper defenders because he has conditioned our minds. I thought the idea of proper defenders, which was Azpilicueta or Ivanovic at right-back for Chelsea, or the way in which we played with tight back-fours.
"If you think of Ake at left-back or Akanji at left-back or Stones at right-back or Walker at right-back, that is not a very Pep Guardiola team. So the idea of a team that was four centre-backs playing in the one team was very different to usual Pep style of play.
"It feels like a trend that maybe goes back to the World Cup as well with more pragmatic teams playing on the counter-attack, more physical. This is the most physical Pep Guardiola team we have ever seen, I think, in terms of size of players."
The result of that change was that City's defence was transformed. Having conceded two or more goals in six of their first 25 games, that did not happen in any of the next 10 - all of them won. Fewer goals conceded. Fewer shots faced. More clean sheets.
"We are talking about that little shift from very good to exceptional that means you become a championship-winning team," added Neville. "They are giving teams far less of a chance."
And all of it goes back to that change made in early March.
"Pep Guardiola got really serious against Newcastle. He started picking what I would call serious defenders. It was a shift that took them from being potential champions to absolute winners and in these last 10 games they have been absolutely brilliant."
May 24: Brighton (A) - Premier League, kick-off 8pm, live on Sky Sports
May 28: Brentford (A) - Premier League, kick-off 4.30pm
June 3: Manchester United (N) - FA Cup final, kick-off 3pm
June 10: Inter Milan (N) - Champions League final, kick-off 8pm