Ever since Sheikh Mansour and the Abu Dhabi United Group purchased Manchester City in September 2008, the star players and foreign investments that have flocked to the club have been labelled as money-driven, self-serving mercenaries. Mercenaries who care not about the club’s history, their fans, or even their own team-mates, but only about cashing in their sizable paycheck at the end of the week.
Of course, many of those who make this claim are usually looking for any way to find fault with a team filled with superstars, usually due to jealousy or resentment. But, the team can be criticized for being somewhat lackadaisical against weaker sides.
It has never proved, in my opinion, to be a hugely detrimental factor to the team, but there has been room for improvement at times. There are no “mercenaries” in this City team, nor have there ever been, but at times some players could have benefitted from a lesson in team spirit and motivation.
They should have looked to teams like Leicester in 2016, or considered the plaque that once hung on an inner wall of the Etihad that read, “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”.
With the arrival of Pep Guardiola, however, there can be no debate that this is no longer an issue. The collective unity that the Catalan has brought to the team is incredible to see, and might just be the most important upgrade to the squad.
You only need to look at the various dressing room photos that follow any of the team’s recent victories to see the collective support and cheeriness that surround the squad. Of course, the wins themselves definitely help the team bond and ward off any quarrels, but Guardiola’s coaching methods lead to great relationships between him and his players, and between the players themselves.
It can be seen in his past at Barcelona, such as in his exclusion of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o due to attitude problems, but it is even more clear at Bayern Munich where Pep had to make more of an effort to win over the players.
Pep often showed the team footage of random moments in which he felt they showed the right team spirit – such as an injured David Alaba cheering the team on from the stands or Thomas Muller instantly saluting Arjen Robben for an assist.
He drilled into the team the idea that they must never consider themselves “too important to do the little jobs,” according to Phillip Lahm. Their dressing rooms, probably like those that City players are taking wild celebratory pictures in, are always left impeccable, as Pep insists the team clean up after themselves.
However, the manager has a policy of not even going into the dressing room before a game so as to not disturb the players’ conversations and rituals. (He feels that his three prior tactical talks over the last 24 hours are sufficient).
A devastating 4-0 defeat to Real Madrid in April 2014 was Pep’s lowest moment as Bayern manager, but his captain was eager to speak on behalf of the team in support. “We’re all behind you Pep,” Phillip Lahm reassured. “All the way”. The next month, Guardiola, sobbing on the pitch after success in the German Cup final, the German spoke to him again, surrounded by his team-mates. “Pep, you take the cup,” they insisted.
When he moved to Manchester, Pep was, therefore, eager to implement a strong sense of togetherness within his new team. In his announcement in July 2016, he outlined, “what we want is to build a strong team spirit as soon as possible”.
Gael Clichy, who played 39 games in Guardiola’s first season, further explained his manager’s intentions. “Pep wants us to be proud of the jersey we’re wearing,” he said. “He also wants us to be proud of the right to wear it”
With the right team culture, it’s also easier for Pep to introduce his playing model. This is why, with the incredible spirit the team has, they have adapted to the Catalan’s intricate tactics so much better than last year.
In an uncanny parallel to David Alaba’s pitch-side support, the antics of long-term absentee Benjamin Mendy also help to demonstrate the support each player has for each other. The Frenchman took it one step further than Alaba when Raheem Sterling scored a 96th-minute winner against Southampton, hobbling down the touchline to celebrate with his team-mates despite tolerating a ruptured ACL.
The most recent demonstration of the fantastic atmosphere at the club came at the King Power Stadium where City had just progressed to the next round of the Carabao Cup. In the post-match celebrations, the players joined in with the fans chants of “City, City, City,” while an ecstatic Guardiola orchestrated his own song, drumming along with the supporters.
The entire team are in perfect cohesion, and that is the main cause of the unprecedented success that we’ve seen this season. Gary Neville is the most recent to comment on the team’s high spirits. “When you have that wave of celebration and spirit, you can feel it,” he remarked. “It’s very difficult to stop. I’m not sure what can stop them.”
Under the guidance of Guardiola and with the talent and morale that the team have, there is indeed very little that can stop them.