Manchester City Sizes Up Its Toughest Premier League Opponent: Complacency

Pep Guardiola with Sergio Aguero after winning the Community Shield on Sunday. Manchester City has bigger goals this season.

It was not a goal that clinched a title, or secured a trophy, and it was not a victory that was needed, not a win that changed very much at all.

On the surface, when Gabriel Jesus scored in injury time against Southampton on the final day of last season, it was just another goal, just another win. Manchester City had scored 106 times over the previous 10 months; on the way to the Premier League title, Pep Guardiola’s team had won 32 of 38 games.

The championship had been wrapped up weeks earlier, and the route for the next day’s open-top bus parade around Manchester had already been planned. English soccer’s attentions were focused elsewhere that day: on Arsène Wenger’s final match in charge of Arsenal, on Swansea City’s doomed attempt to avoid relegation.

Even Guardiola was thinking, a little, about his vacation, and about a summer spent with “some good beer, some good red wine” watching the World Cup. That was the measure of Manchester City’s superiority in England: After a season in which, at times, Guardiola’s team had seemed to be playing a different sport from everyone else, it now almost felt like the newly crowned champion was not part of the same competition.

And yet, when Jesus scored — after 94 minutes of drift and apathy in the lazy sunshine on England’s south coast — the way the Brazilian and his teammates, and Guardiola and his staff, celebrated proved that this was not just another goal, not just another win. It was the moment that City became not just record-breakers but history-makers: the first team to record 100 points in the Premier League.

For much of the season, long after it had become clear that City would win the title with ease, Guardiola had seemed unfazed by all the excited chatter about which benchmarks his team might set on the way. His players, he had said in December, did not “talk about records” as part of their preparation for games.

In the aftermath of Jesus’s goal, he was, perhaps, a little more honest. He could not believe, he said, that City had reached the 100-point milestone; it had, he confessed, been a target that had helped inspire his players in those long weeks in April and May in which they knew they had finished first, but the season refused to end. Making history — to Guardiola and to City — mattered an awful lot.

That afternoon, Guardiola was realistic enough to know that such success soon becomes a burden. “In November and December, people will say that ‘City has less points than last season,’” he said. He knew then that the Manchester City of 2018-19 was destined to suffer in comparison to the Manchester City of 2017-18, whatever happened; he could not reasonably expect his team to match the fearsome pace it had set.

Not that he intends to slack off, of course. Indeed, much of his rhetoric in the last few days — in the buildup to Sunday’s 2-0 win against Chelsea in the Community Shield — centered on his determination to be harder than ever on his squad, and more exacting with it. “The moment we start to go down” is when players rest on their laurels, he said. His fear, his hatred, of losing games is all the motivation he needs to “be ready to fight again,” and he expects his players to feel the same way.

The reaction to Jesus’s goal suggests he will not be disappointed. Whether City can match its points total of last season or not, another piece of history floats within Guardiola’s team’s grasp: no English team has retained the title since 2009. By hitting 100 points, City prompted a debate about whether this was the finest team of the Premier League era. By retaining its crown, it would make its case significantly stronger.

It is a curiosity that no team for almost a decade has managed to win back-to-back championships, a quirk that defies easy explanation. Perhaps teams become too focused on Europe, on the Champions League, after claiming domestic primacy.

Perhaps complacency is especially dangerous in a competition in which a handful of elite clubs have access to essentially unlimited amounts of money, and the transformational qualities that come with it. Perhaps too few players are minded to become “serial champions,” as José Mourinho — one of only two coaches, along with Sir Alex Ferguson, to retain the Premier League — has put it.

That, certainly, has been the charge laid against City. In many ways, it has been the defining club of the last Premier League decade, a superpower in the making, a project that first changed the financial landscape of English and European soccer and then, through its network of sister clubs, kick-started a global revolution. It is the only member of England’s elite that has qualified for the Champions League every year since 2011, and arguably the only one that has been expected to win the Premier League every season since then, too.

And yet — for all the investment of its backers in Abu Dhabi, for all its ambitions, for all its grand scale — it has never been able to take that final step, to establish not just fleeting primacy but genuine dominion. It won the league title in 2012, and promptly surrendered it to Manchester United; it did it again in 2014, and then lost out to Chelsea a year later. Indeed, in the last 10 years, City has as many titles as Chelsea, widely criticized for its constant chaos: three.

Why that might be is, again, a subject worthy of debate. Ferguson, for one, felt that in 2013, City was “not in the right frame of mind” to retain its championship. “It was enough for them to have beaten Manchester United in a title race,” he wrote in his autobiography.

That explanation does not hold for what happened two years later, of course: Where Roberto Mancini, manager in 2012, sought confrontation, his successor, Manuel Pellegrini, prided himself on a much more conciliatory approach. Instead, the club feels recruitment has been the problem: too much recruitment.

“We have real experiences, real learnings from how we manage our seasons following the last two times we have won the league,” City’s chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, said in May. Signing players who will improve the squad — but not disturb its harmony — when winning was the key, he said, the single biggest thing he has learned in his time in soccer.

This year, City has put that into practice. There has been no influx of a half-dozen players, as there has been previously; City has added only one, Riyad Mahrez, though it also tried to sign Jorginho, the Napoli midfielder who opted to join Chelsea instead. The emphasis, instead, will be on Guardiola to retrain his players’ focus, to elicit yet more out of a squad that achieved what its manager thought was “impossible” last year.

Guardiola, for one, believes he can do it, and with good reason: He has done it before, at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

He has suggested previously that the affirmation that comes with glory can make players “more relaxed.” In his spell at Bayern, he focused relentlessly on maintaining his squad’s “tension,” even after years of almost unbroken domestic success.

By the summer of 2015, the team had won three straight Bundesliga championships. According to Marti Perarnau, the author of “The Evolution,” a depiction of Guardiola’s time in Germany, when the players returned to training that July, they found that the walls at Bayern’s Sabener Strasse facility had been daubed with the number four, in bright red paint. Bayern ended the season as champions again.

Just as telling, though, is that Guardiola’s rivals seem to believe he can do it. The reactions of the rest of the Premier League’s elite to City’s dominance last year are instructive.

It is too much to suggest that City’s reaching 100 points forced Arsenal to at last part ways with Wenger or prompted Chelsea to replace Antonio Conte with Maurizio Sarri or led Liverpool to spend more than any club in Europe this summer, but that it may have been a factor hardly seems a stretch. When the pace being set is so fierce, clubs know dawdling is not an option.

By far the best gauge, though — as so often — is in Mourinho, that great weather vane of his opponent’s strengths. Even by his standards, Mourinho, the Manchester United manager, has had a tempestuous summer, striking out at his immediate superiors for perceived ineptitude in the transfer market, at his players for their lack of conditioning or commitment, or both, and at his club for arranging a preseason tour to the United States that he, at some point, presumably approved.

Mourinho being Mourinho, of course, the temptation is to see this as the start of his traditional third-season meltdown: he rarely lasts more than three years at any club, and this sort of arbitrary, wide-ranging fire-starting tends to be a harbinger of his departure.

Given that Mourinho plots and plans most aspects of his career so assiduously, there is a likelier explanation: He fears that this season will end much as last season did, and he is trying to get his excuses in early, to craft a narrative in which he was left but a powerless sap, doing his best with only the pitiful resources of the world’s richest club at his disposal, destined to trail in the wake of Guardiola and his players, celebrating not just a title, but another little piece of history.

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