If Pep Guardiola ever wanted to point to a game which showed evidence that his Manchester City team are going in the right direction then Saturday’s 5-0 win against Crystal Palace would be it.
“We have to remember that not so many weeks ago, Palace destroyed Arsenal so I know their qualities," he said. “To score five against this team is very good and it is an important result for the mini-league fight that we are in for places in the top four.”
Back in November, City beat Palace 2-1 at Selhurst Park. The three points won on Saturday are worth just as much as the ones taken in London in winter but chances are Guardiola will be more pleased with these ones.
If you go back and watch the footage from Guardiola’s press conference you’ll hear him say things like “it was not our best performance”, “we were not brilliant”, “we were lucky to win the game”, and “we have a lot of things we can do better”.
His players have not always played to his liking and occasionally won those games. Equally, they have not always won but played to his liking. Guess which games Guardiola prefers.
His claims that City have been the better team in matches they’ve only drawn or lost have been met with scepticism at various points this season.
Nobody other than Guardiola, for example, might remember that City had more chances than Everton at Goodison Park in January, but everyone would remember that the Toffees beat them 4-0.
“I remember the game against Everton where we lost 4-0 and they only had four attempts at goal," he said. "We created so many yet we lost, so this is something we must work on."
It’s been tough for Guardiola to convince a hostile audience that he’s on the right track because the score line as a measure of the game is such an attractive point of focus.
On Saturday we had Guardiola and his team successful in both parts; satisfying demands in the short term for points and in the long term for deep-rooted change and progress around Manchester City.
Sure, it was 'only' Crystal Palace but it’s a start.
Palace have beaten Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool in recent weeks and pushed Tottenham all the way only a few games ago. Their own struggles stretch on but for teams near the summit, they have become somewhat of an acid test.
The result is not always the uppermost important thing in Guardiola’s mind; he wants his team to play to his instruction – win or lose – in an attempt to gradually emboss his image on the squad. Scoring goals against the run of play or taking victories when not playing well are not sustainable philosophies. This season Guardiola has had his fair share of individuals bailing him out of trouble; it was Yaya Toure in the first meeting between these sides.
But only in the defeat against Spurs away, Pep reckons, have City been outplayed. In all the other games the difference between wins and losses has been the City players’ failure in both boxes.
The return of Vincent Kompany has ensured that City’s own box is a more stable place these days while up front the manager’s expectations were met against Palace. There were five goals from five different scorers.
Often City have missed the first chance in a game this season and then struggled to convert their territorial and possession dominance into something more tangible. Against Palace, Guardiola got what he needed. From there City looked like the City Guardiola is widely expected to create in time. It won’t happen every week – yet – but the signs are good. More days like this and fewer like Middlesbrough last week and Guardiola’s task will be a lot easier.
He also pointed to the fact that his players were able to play the last half hour without pressure for the result – and that has not always been the case. We’ve seen City hog the ball for 90 minutes plenty of times this season only for an opponent to snaffle a goal and make all the hard work count for nothing. Guardiola is right; City have been the better team more often than not in the Premier League this season but that counts for nothing.
On Saturday we caught a glimpse of City how they should be. City scored five for the fifth time this season and this was the first occasion they did that in the league.
They are not a great team yet by any stretch, but to be level with Liverpool and virtually assured of their Champions League participation is still a decent achievement for his first season in charge.
Preparing to win matches and preparing to win seasons are two very different things. A manager has to be good at both. Some managers would always prioritise matches over seasons if they could but it’s to Guardiola’s credit that he tries to prioritise winning for seasons at a time.
Crystal Palace are a case in point. Nobody at that club is focussing on anything other than Hull City next week. Not the chairman, not the players and certainly not Sam Allardyce. For him, his “philosophy” is what’s left after stringing enough clean sheets together for a season to be called a success.
Guardiola, on the other hand, is trying to make sure his players are picking up points in the short-term in the ultimate quest towards creating a sustainable, identifying and satisfactory style of play. Alterations have been made over the course of the season to make sure City become more competitive on second balls and in and around both penalty boxes but the goal is fixed. That is why – whatever their struggles, whatever the questions asked about Guardiola and his suitability to the Premier League – they will be favourites to win the title next season.
Yes, they’ve spent close to £200m this season and Guardiola’s wage is probably equivalent to the GDP of a small country – but this is not so much a transition but a rebuilding.
Even more challenging is the task to undertake that rebuilding while staying competitive in the league, the Champions League and the cups. Plenty of players will be leaving over the summer – all four full-backs included – and so next year’s squad will be trimmed down and more in keeping with the quality of player Guardiola had at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Then we will see results. Credit to the players too who have taken Guardiola’s ideals on board – however belatedly. The game against Palace was their best league performance under him.
There was coherence in the game plan, there was cohesion between them, there was a good pace to the attacking they constructed and there was more like the ruthlessness in front of goal that Guardiola now demands as standard. This is a work in progress and Guardiola never promised the treble in his first season.