LONDON, Sept 22: With dead-eyed efficiency, Pep Guardiola has hit the ground running as Manchester City manager, ruthlessly clearing his squad of unwanted players and transforming the team into a winning machine.
Joe Hart and Yaya Toure are among the former stalwarts to have been cast aside as the uncompromising Guardiola has instilled his philosophy of quick, passing football at the Etihad Stadium.
His methods have yielded immediate results, with City, who finished fourth last season, winning their first nine games of his tenure and surging to the top of the Premier League standings.
“You can see when they play he’s stamped his authority on that team,” says Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe, whose side lost 4-0 at the Etihad last weekend.
“They’ve started the season incredibly well.”
Hart has been Guardiola’s most high-profile victim, the England goalkeeper joining Torino on loan because the new manager felt he was incapable of playing the ball out from the back.
Hart was one of four high-profile outcasts to be loaned out on transfer deadline day, along with Eliaquim Mangala, Samir Nasri and Wilfried Bony.
Toure remains, but the driving force behind City’s 2012 and 2014 title wins looks unlikely to play first-team football anytime soon.
Guardiola said this week he was waiting for an apology from Toure’s agent, Dimitri Seluk, who strongly criticised Guardiola for omitting the Ivorian from City’s Champions League squad.
Guardiola’s actions may have surprised those used to thinking of him as the ‘good guy’ in his rivalry with Jose Mourinho, but it is fully in keeping with his managerial career to date.
Deco, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o were all told they were not part of Guardiola’s plans when he became Barcelona manager in 2008, even if Eto’o managed to cling on for a season.
Gianluca Zambrotta, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Dante and Xherdan Shaqiri are among the other players who can testify to the chill of a Guardiola cold shoulder.
“What Guardiola has done isn’t out of character,” former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher wrote in the Daily Mail.
“Yes, you can call it ruthless. But should you be surprised?”
– ‘Learning curve’ –
On the flip side, Guardiola has transformed the fortunes of a number of previously maligned City players.
With three goals and three assists, winger Raheem Sterling is a player reborn, having struggled in his first season after arriving from Liverpool.
Left-back Aleksandar Kolarov also appears rejuvenated and has shown a new side to his game by playing at centre-back, while Nicolas Otamendi looks a far more composed defender.
As demonstrated in City’s slick 2-1 win over Mourinho’s Manchester United, Guardiola has been quick to drill his team in his preferred way of playing.
Starting with goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, Hart’s replacement, City methodically build up play from the back.
Against certain opponents, Guardiola’s full-backs step into central midfield when City have the ball and centre-back John Stones has been granted the freedom to step up into midfield.
“It’s a great learning curve for me,” Stones, the former Everton centre-back, told Sky Sports.
“It’s great learning these new things, especially as a young lad.”
Fernandinho anchors the midfield in Guardiola’s 4-1-4-1 system, in which players such as Sterling, David Silva and, in particular, Kevin De Bruyne, have flourished.
Guardiola has also made subtle off-pitch adjustments.
As detailed in a recent Daily Mail article, City’s players are allowed to spend the nights before games with their families, rather than sleeping at the training ground.
But the paper said they are also expected to eat a “more formal” meal together after matches.
While Guardiola has been at pains to downplay the extent of his impact, his team already look ominously powerful.
Writing in The Sun after the derby, former England striker Alan Shearer said: “The City players were 50 percent sharper than United in every phase of play in that first period.
“That is after a couple of months of Guardiola’s guidance. Imagine how good they will be in six months.”