Manchester City, the masters of the run-in: ‘They know it’s dead or alive’

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Manchester City, the masters of the run-in: ‘They know it’s dead or alive’

So after all of the premature declarations when Arsenal and Liverpool lost at home on the same day earlier this month, it turns out we do still have a title race after all.

Arsenal have won both league games since then, meaning Pep Guardiola’s side will again be feeling the pressure when they play away against Brighton & Hove Albion on Thursday.

But if one thing about the modern-day version of City should have become clear by now it is that, when they go into matches knowing they have no option but to win, they actually enjoy it.

It may even be the case that they need it.

City have won two Premier League titles thanks to early-season runs of multiple consecutive wins, but this is their fourth title push where they can feel in their bones that they simply cannot afford to drop points on the run-in. They prevailed in all the previous three.

Manager Guardiola was asked recently whether his players raise their levels at this time of year. Before the end of the question, he had already said “Yeah” four times.

“The problem was, after the treble (clinched last June), October and November (of this season),” he said. “I saw (the players say), ‘Oh, long season…’ and that is the moment they have a tendency to not… they want to try to do it, but they are not completely, completely focused. It’s normal.”



‘It’s an obsession’: How players deal with the pressure of a title race

In late September and early October, City lost back-to-back league games against Wolves and Arsenal. Then from the middle of November, there was a run of three draws and a defeat in four top-flight matches.

They have not been beaten in normal time since that December 6 loss against Aston Villa, which puts them in a familiar position: if they win their remaining seven matches, they will retain both the title and the FA Cup. Only a quarter-final defeat on penalties to Real Madrid last week took the Champions League out of the equation.

“They like to play with pressure,” Guardiola says of his squad. “They know it’s dead or alive.”

Midfielder Rodri, matter of factly, has spoken of City simply needing to get themselves into this position — which itself requires winning lots of matches — so that their title-race muscle memory kicks in.

“We asked ourselves at the beginning of the season to put us in a situation where we could at least fight to the end, and this is the situation,” Rodri said before departing on international duty with Spain at the end of March. “The job is done up until now. Now we have to do the last push.”

Rodri is targeting the finish line (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

That last push is now well underway, and the sight of the finish line seems to act as another motivation for the City players, even as fatigue creeps into limbs and minds.

“One more week,” Guardiola has been saying for some time now. Just as he did last year. And the year before.

He wants one more push, then another. On Wednesday, at his pre-Brighton press conference, it was no different: “One more week. Tomorrow (Thursday) is the 25th. There is one more month left of the season. Tomorrow is April 25 and on May 25 we play Manchester United in the FA Cup final.”

The players have shown that ability to lift themselves for one more performance in the past few days.

It was evident against Chelsea in Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final, when they may have lacked quality but certainly not effort despite that defeat against Madrid less than 72 hours earlier, with Guardiola and his players complaining about exhaustion — both mental and physical.

Guardiola was delighted with their efforts after the Chelsea match, describing them as “legends”, and it is satisfaction like that which allows him to be about as relaxed as is possible, even at the business end of the season.

“I said after the last game, against Bournemouth, that the mood in the locker room is exceptional and the guys are doing everything, and that’s enough for me,” Guardiola said last spring amid a stuttering run of form.

Back then, with City trailing Arsenal in the title race, Guardiola’s main message to his players had been to ensure they were within touching distance when the leaders arrived at the Etihad Stadium at the end of April, so they could beat them that day and then take control. Which, of course, is what happened.

This is not to say that City will always get the job done, or that Guardiola would not be down if his team do drop points. But he is in a position where he cannot ask any more of his players.

“We will be there until the end, I am pretty sure, because I know them,” Guardiola said, after the win against Luton Town on April 13. “Does that mean we will win the Champions League or the Premier League? No, no, I am not saying that. But we will compete, that is for sure.”

A lot has changed since that Luton game, not least that setback against Madrid, where they did give their all. But before that, Liverpool lost at home to Crystal Palace and Arsenal did the same against Villa.

Liverpool’s players digest home defeat to Palace (Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

“Yeah, absolutely, they (Liverpool and Arsenal) have given us a chance by losing their games,” Guardiola says. “But we knew what we had to do two weeks ago — win the games to have a chance in our hands to take the title. Nothing has changed from that. Nothing changed.”

There was a significant shift that weekend almost two weeks ago. The title is now in City’s hands. If they win all of their six remaining league games, they will be champions again.

But the job is the same: they have to win those matches, they have the pressure that comes from feeling they simply cannot afford to drop any points.

It does not mean that they are going to win it, but they are exactly where they want to be.



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