How a slogan pinned up by Guardiola in October fired his team to history

<span>Pep Guardiola constantly dreams up fresh ways to inspire the players and himself.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Pep Guardiola constantly dreams up fresh ways to inspire the players and himself.Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“No team has ever won four consecutive Premier League titles … Yet.” In the past fortnight Pep Guardiola referenced how the four-peat was the motivation of his post-treble Manchester City, insisting this entered their consciousness only in the spring. But the aforementioned slogan, printed in capitals and large black font, was the de facto motto from October, when first displayed in the first-team meeting room.

So when stating last week before the pivotal trip to Tottenham that “we didn’t think about” making history until recently when this ignited “something in our brain”, Guardiola was using the media to remind his players they were 180 tantalising minutes from becoming, surely, the greatest team in English football history.

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Pinning up the epigram was classic Guardiola, a manager who constantly dreams up fresh ways to inspire the players and himself. In late September and early October, City’s tilt at the new mark listed after they endured two of their three league defeats. Guardiola, as often in a campaign bedevilled by setbacks, acted.

What occurred on 23 September prompted the move: Rodri received a red card for clutching the throat of Nottingham Forest’s Morgan Gibbs-White. City’s vital cog was suspended for three matches and all of these were lost: the Carabao Cup trip to Newcastle (1-0) and league meetings at Wolves (2-1) and Arsenal (1-0).

A Guardiola mantra is how all title tilts are different and the one just finished has a claim on being his hardest‑fought, with the biggest bump occurring near the start. This followed a pre‑season that was hardly problem-free as the captain, Ilkay Gündogan, left for Barcelona and Riyad Mahrez joined Al-Ahli for £30m. Then, after a summer tour of Japan and South Korea that featured hologram images of Erling Haaland, Rodri, Jack Grealish, and Kevin De Bruyne being superimposed on the team bus on arrival in Tokyo, as if City motored through a futuristic Blade Runner-esque night, and the penalty shootout defeat against Arsenal in the Community Shield on 6 August, 23 minutes into the title defence at Burnley, disaster arrived.

De Bruyne pulled up with a serious hamstring problem and was replaced by Mateo Kovacic, a £25m buy from Chelsea in June, who had sat on the bench alongside Josko Gvardiol, signed the previous Saturday for £77.6m from RB Leipzig. City beat Burnley 3-0 (Haaland scoring twice, Rodri once) but in Athens the following Tuesday for the Uefa Super Cup final against Sevilla, Guardiola said De Bruyne could be ruled out until the new year.

He was. The 32-year-old next wore a City jersey on 7 January as a 57th-minute substitute in the 5-0 FA Cup third round win against Huddersfield.

Deep in the Karaiskakis Stadium, Guardiola had said: “The injury is a big loss, Kevin has specific qualities. You can lose him for one or two games, but for a long time it’s really tough for us. But you have to look forward.”

Guardiola did and reaped the dividend of his nurturing of Phil Foden from starlet to first-team fixture, the lad from Stockport replacing De Bruyne as City’s schemer-in-chief. The 23‑year‑old’s first goal of the season came against Forest on 23 September and by the end he had a career‑high 19 (including two in the title‑clinching victory against West Ham on Sunday) and eight assists, being voted this month the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year.

Before Guardiola’s October intervention with the four-peat slogan, the first pivotal moment of the campaign came on 17 July when players returned for pre-season training. This was 37 days after Rodri’s strike beat Internazionale in Istanbul and the holy grail of Champions League glory was achieved, a triumph that caused Guardiola to feel that “it’s over, there’s nothing left”.

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But he regrouped and on a warm summer’s day on the Etihad Campus needed to see into the eyes of his players and smell, to use a favoured Guardiola term, if they, too, retained hunger. Within minutes, he knew the treble had not blunted their ambition and felt certain they would again “be there” when it counted.

Four months later, came proof precisely when required. After the 6-1 victory against Bournemouth on 4 November, City failed to win the next four league outings – drawing with Chelsea (4-4), Liverpool (1-1) and Spurs (3-3), and losing 1-0 at Aston Villa on 6 December. This left them fourth, six points behind Arsenal, after 15 matches.

Despite Haaland going down at Villa Park with a foot injury that ruled him out for five league games, the campaign would not be blotted by another loss as City strung together a scintillating unbeaten sequence of 23 league matches. The manager’s feeling on that first July day of training was bookended on the Premier League’s final one by Rodri’s pronouncement, after Arsenal were left runners-up for a second year in a row.

Rodri’s observation echoed bemusement at how Mikel Arteta set up his team for a draw at the Etihad Stadium on 31 March, despite having 68 points after 28 matches, one more than City. If he had sent his team out to win, even if they failed, it would have sent a message City’s relentless winners would have to respect.

Instead, Rodri stated they realised Arsenal were scared to win. Pointing to his head, he said: “The difference was in here. When they faced us at the Etihad, I saw them and said: ‘Ah, these guys, they don’t want to beat us, they just want a draw.’ And that mentality, I don’t think we would do it the same way.”

If the 100-plus Premier League charges related to alleged financial impropriety, which City deny, linger on as potentially seismically damaging, for now Pep’s boys have achieved immortality by doing what Huddersfield (1923‑26), Arsenal (1931-34), Liverpool (1981‑84) and Manchester United (1998-01 and 2006-09) failed to do: discover the fire to go again and claim a quad of championships in four golden, consecutive seasons.