Pep Guardiola Manchester CityGetty Images

How Guardiola took control as Man City's season threatened to fall apart

A lot has happened at Manchester City in the space of a month; a two-year Champions League ban, a first trophy of the season, arguably the club’s greatest win in Europe and a huge step towards second place in the Premier League that had looked under threat.

City began February with a troubling defeat at Tottenham and on the precipice of a disastrous season with Liverpool running away with the title and Champions League success seemingly unlikely for a team struggling to score and conceding from almost each of the few chances they gave up.

Four days into March and there is a completely different vibe at the Etihad Stadium with a treble not as impossible or improbable as it had seemed just four weeks before.

Article continues below

The seeds of the transition were sown in the days surrounding that 2-0 defeat at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Pep Guardiola locked his players in the dressing room for 45 minutes after the loss for an honest debrief of tactics and standards after a game they dominated but somehow ended up losing.

After the clear-the-air talks, the City boss called in his players on the following day for a calmer discussion before giving them a 48-hour break. And when the following weekend’s game against West Ham was postponed following the arrival of Storm Ciara, players had an extended period away from the Etihad Campus to relax and recuperate.

Rather than take the first-team squad on a warm weather break to Abu Dhabi as the club have done in the past, Guardiola, after speaking to senior members of his squad, gave his players time off with the majority heading away from the miserable Manchester weather for the sunshine.

Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, John Stones and Ilkay Gundogan were among a handful that headed to the United Arab Emirates, while Bernardo Silva, Gabriel Jesus, Nicolas Otamendi and David Silva returned to their native Portugal, Brazil, Argentina and Spain respectively.

Pep Guardiola Manchester City Carabao Cup finalGetty

Since that break to recharge their batteries, City have beaten West Ham, second-placed Leicester, Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu and Aston Villa at Wembley.

“We have won [four] games, you never know,” Guardiola said of the winter break ahead of the FA Cup clash with Sheffield Wednesday. “I think it was good in terms of November, December, January here is really tough and it was okay. For some players it was good, some lost their rhythm and were struggling a bit.”

Even when the Hammers game was rearranged at short notice, the City boss had decided against calling them back early. However before the squad's scheduled return at the weekend, the club’s equilibrium was disturbed on Valentine’s Day when UEFA announced City would be kicked out of the Champions League for the next two years.

At a team meeting the following day, City’s CEO Ferran Soriano told the players that they believed an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport would be successful after the ban for a serious breach of Financial Fair Play regulations.

Guardiola, meanwhile, used the ban to try to build a siege mentality in his dressing room, telling the players that their success had nothing to do with money, but everything they had been through together in their previous three-and-a-half years. He was also quick to settle any speculation about his own future while urging players to put thoughts of a ban to the back of their minds.

“I know how hard we work and I'm so proud of what we've done these years together,” he said at his first pre-match press conference after the ban. "I have a different opinion. Nobody has helped us outside - we did an incredible job day-by-day, game-by-game and nothing will change the opinion."

But all the time, football was never far from Guardiola’s mind. He plotted the victory over Leicester; Riyad Mahrez was decisive against his old club with the Algerian and Kyle Walker on one side and Bernardo and Benjamin Mendy on the other stretching the home defence.

Then he came up with the masterplan of movement and false nines to stun Zinedine Zidane and put one foot in the Champions League quarter-final. And in the Carabao Cup final against Aston Villa at Wembley there was more tactical innovation, not least recalling teenager Phil Foden into an unfamiliar right-wing position that saw him contribute a man-of-the-match performance.

It could have been a month that killed off City’s hopes of extending their extraordinary run of securing silverware. But, to the concern of their rivals, Guardiola’s side are very much alive and kicking... and chasing their own version of the treble.