“It is the first thing to create,” Pep Guardiola says when asked whether developing the “ideal culture” at a football club is his aim. “That’s the dream.”
That demanding culture was evident during last Sunday’s Community Shield, when Manchester City ran all over Chelsea, and Guardiola is calling for the same when they kick off their Premier League title defence against Arsenal on Sunday.
Discussions took place. Conversations were had. The preparation was meticulous with Guardiola revealing that he approached the Community Shield – a glorified friendly, despite everything – with the same rigour and same level of detail and same demands on his players as if it were the Champions League Final.
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“A win helps to win more,” Guardiola said. “You don’t choose titles and it (Community Shield) was a final and we spoke about that. And a final you have to try to win it and we prepared for it like it was a game in April, May. They know we work a lot and I have spoken many times with them.”
The fact that players – including Vincent Kompany, Bernardo Silva – cut short holidays and others – such as John Stones and Kyle Walker - insisted they could start the game despite just a couple of training sessions were examples of the “hunger” that remains within the squad, frankly the fear of not being picked and the desire to repeat the triumphs of the last campaign as they strive to become the first team since Manchester United in 2008-09 to retain the league title.
Interestingly Guardiola’s approach is to not shelf the achievements of last season even if it is not the attitude that apparently prevailed at United during Sir Alex Ferguson’s dominance, or at Liverpool during the 1980s, when medals, it is said, were simply put away and almost forgotten in the pursuit of more silverware.
“People say now we have to forget what we did last season,” Guardiola said. “No way. I don’t want to forget what we have done last season. I know exactly what we did to achieve that, and that is where we start from. That’s the basic principle. Now, when I say something to them (the players), they know exactly what we have to do.”
There is no secret, Guardiola insists.
“I work a lot and I am good on that,” he said. “I have said many times I am not a special guy but I am so good at working, working, working a lot and they have to work too. We will have bad moments but at a club where you win titles winning another one helps for the future.
“It (the culture) is the first thing to create, but it is impossible to win titles if you just have quality players, but after that if they believe just their quality is enough then you cannot win - not even a friendly game. Of course they are a team that make all the effort and they have seen, for example, players like Kevin (De Bruyne) or (David) Silva last season how they run and I love it, I like that.”
It is no surprise – it would be remarkable otherwise – that having won the league by 19 points, having become the first team to achieve 100 points, that City are the outstanding favourites. They have not been the most active in the transfer market and did not sign the central midfielder they wanted to challenge, or provide back-up, for 33-year-old Fernandinho. City dropped their interest in Fred, who joined Manchester United and Jorginho opted for Chelsea while Guardiola is annoyed that Douglas Luiz, a young Brazilian, was denied a work permit.
But they did sign Riyad Mahrez for £60million and Aymeric Laporte, who arrived for £57million in January, will feel like a new player after a full pre-season training with Guardiola who had said before the window opened he did not expect a busy summer.
“We can do our job, yes, but maybe Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea can do their job better and win. But if we do our job, we will be there,” Guardiola said. “The important thing is to be there, and to be ourselves. It’s not winning back-to-back, it’s to be ourselves. Of course there are new managers. Maurizio (Sarri) is a new manager (at Chelsea), Unai (Emery) is a new manager (at Arsenal) and they want to be able to dream.
“Maybe Tottenham could not spend (this summer) because of the stadium, but there is Chelsea with Jorginho, Kovacic and Kante in the middle, and Hazard, Willian, Pedro and Morata up front so you cannot say they are not contenders to win. Or Manchester United. People ask how will they do, but I know a little bit about the manager and in that situation how good they handle that. Arsenal are other contenders too. That’s why it is nice.”
And, also, Liverpool, whose challenge Guardiola was asked about to provoke that answer and who many – this correspondent included – believe will be City’s closest challengers this campaign.
The question is, how close? “The moment I am not hungry I am leaving, the moment the players are not hungry any more they are going to move on,” Guardiola said. “That’s the point. Of course we accept the challenge to win it back-to-back, but to be ourselves is the main thing we have to do.” And if City and Guardiola are themselves again this season it is difficult to see them not retaining the league title.