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Master Pep Guardiola is at the peak of his powers - we should appreciate him more

There was a moment during Pep Guardiola’s first season in England when it occurred to me he may not only be the greatest coach in the world, but also the most underrated. Last December Manchester City lost 4-2 at Leicester City - the opponents they face this weekend. What followed was a full-scale re-evaluation of Guardiola’s methods. Everything he stood for was scrutinised, many arguing his approach could not work in England. For every word of praise for his extraordinary success, there is always a mutter of cynicism lurking in the background. This criticism peaked in ferocity that afternoon. “Look at the players he was lucky enough to manage in Barcelona,” some argued. “How much competition did he have in Germany with Bayern Munich? What about all the money he’s spent at Manchester City? How can he not win?” I am increasingly enraged by the ignorance of this sneering. What we are seeing at City this season is more compelling evidence of a master at work – a manager creating a great side out of good players; a manager winning by implementing a style we have never seen in this country: Total Football.   When I saw City’s starting XI at the start of the season, I was not awestruck by individual quality. There were question marks against several players. OK, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are among the best players in the Premier League and Europe, and Sergio Agüero is one of the greatest ever Premier League strikers. But how many would get into the great Arsenal team of  ‘Invincibles’ or Sir Alex Ferguson’s Treble winners of 1999?  David Silva is among the best players in the Premier League but would he make it into Arsenal's Invincibles or Manchester United's Treble-winners Credit: Michael Regan/Getty Images Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker were mocked for their price tag. Leroy Sané was a player of potential but not the finished article. Centre-backs Nicolás Otamendi and John Stones were considered untrustworthy to form a partnership. City’s title hopes were said to be determined by Vincent Kompany’s fitness. Kompany has started only three Premier League games. How many managers looked at Fabian Delph and saw a left back?  Guardiola inherited an ageing squad at City, 12 first team players over 30. In just over a year he has reduced the average age from the fourth oldest in the Premier League (28 years 310 days) to the fifth youngest (26 years 232 days). Now his players are earning weekly acclaim. This is down to one man and his methods. When Pep moved to England plenty said he must compromise. After his first season I sensed a quiet satisfaction from some quarters he had not immediately recreated his winning formula. The views expressed after that Leicester defeat gathered momentum. Why?  Who but Guardiola would have looked at Fabian Delph and seen a left-back Credit: Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images I do not understand this mentality. Why would any neutral want Guardiola to fail and feel compelled to embrace less purist tactics? What kind of football do we want? English football will benefit if Guardiola’s way works. He can show others an idealistic, technical brand of passing football works. So many games follow the same formula, coaches believing defending is about allowing opponents to keep possession while they sit deep. We sit through a lot of boring, predictable games. Guardiola is defined as ‘an attacking coach’ who risks defensive resilience. I often hear it said his philosophy is based on the concept ‘we’ll score more than you’. This is nonsense. His idea of defending is just very different. Naturally the focus is on the goals City have scored so far (38). But they have conceded only seven. It was similar at Barcelona. If was often said ‘getting at them’ would expose defensive weakness. The statistics never stood that up. Opposition teams would not get enough of the ball to threaten, but this is not solely due to a passing style. Why would any neutral want Guardiola to fail and feel compelled to embrace less purist tactics? Guardiola’s greatest accomplishment as a manager is ensuring world-class players sacrifice themselves for the team. They are as impressive hunting for possession as retaining it. Arrigo Sacchi once said of his legendary Milan side of the mid-80s – a team I would rank alongside Barça as the greatest of all club sides - that their finest quality was humility. Players of the calibre of Franco Baresi, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten put ego aside to do their job, especially defensively.  This is what Guardiola is implementing at City. It separates him from other coaches. In their last fixture against Arsenal, who for all their flaws remain one of the country’s best passing teams, City did not allow the opponent to string three or four passes together for 70 minutes. Guardiola learned from his first year here, but the changes are in personnel, not ideology. City execute his ideas better. He did not change the style of goalkeeper he wanted, he changed the identity of the goalkeeper to ensure that style was implemented. Claudio Bravo was not good enough. Ederson is the keeper Bravo was supposed to be, so comfortable on the ball he looks like he can play midfield. Talking tactics: Where Man City's new full-backs will make an impact 02:38 Of course it helps having the finances to correct faults. We can’t ignore the influence of £220 million invested last summer, but spending big does not make winning the league inevitable, and certainly does not guarantee entertaining football. It gives you a better chance, but the Premier League is the most competitive in Europe.  Coaching at the world’s biggest clubs brings a different type of pressure and expectation. Guardiola deserves all the credit he gets for an astonishing managerial CV. Prior to his appointment at Barcelona in 2008 the team finished third in La Liga. He did not inherit an all-conquering team. He created one. He elevated the quality in Barcelona – and Spain generally – to a level never seen in club football. He was as much an architect of Spain’s World Cup and European Championship success as that of his Barça team.  At Bayern Munich successive Bundesligas brought only grudging recognition. The recent fate of Carlo Ancelotti – one of the most successful managers ever – demonstrates you don’t just turn up, pick a team and collect trophies.  There was far, far more to Guardiola's work at Barcelona than inheriting Leo Messi Credit: JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images There is still much to do at City. Guardiola will be first to acknowledge possible bumps in the road. History tells us the months between December and February can be difficult for Pep - City toiled at this stage last season - but the signs are ominous for the rest. After wins over Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, should City emerge unscathed from forthcoming meetings with Manchester United and Spurs it is difficult to see who will catch them. Offer every manager in the top six a guarantee they will win the title once in the next four years, I believe they would snatch it.  Except one. That would not be enough for Pep. He is eyeing multiple titles and the Champions League at Manchester City, a competition I am not yet sure they are strong enough to win. Long-term he wants complete domination. Should he achieve it in England, it will confirm what I felt the day City appointed him. We should cherish every second Guardiola is working in England. A win at Leicester on Saturday may not be his most important since moving to City, but it could be his most symbolic.

Master Pep Guardiola is at the peak of his powers - we should appreciate him more

There was a moment during Pep Guardiola’s first season in England when it occurred to me he may not only be the greatest coach in the world, but also the most underrated. Last December Manchester City lost 4-2 at Leicester City - the opponents they face this weekend. What followed was a full-scale re-evaluation of Guardiola’s methods. Everything he stood for was scrutinised, many arguing his approach could not work in England. For every word of praise for his extraordinary success, there is always a mutter of cynicism lurking in the background. This criticism peaked in ferocity that afternoon. “Look at the players he was lucky enough to manage in Barcelona,” some argued. “How much competition did he have in Germany with Bayern Munich? What about all the money he’s spent at Manchester City? How can he not win?” I am increasingly enraged by the ignorance of this sneering. What we are seeing at City this season is more compelling evidence of a master at work – a manager creating a great side out of good players; a manager winning by implementing a style we have never seen in this country: Total Football.   When I saw City’s starting XI at the start of the season, I was not awestruck by individual quality. There were question marks against several players. OK, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are among the best players in the Premier League and Europe, and Sergio Agüero is one of the greatest ever Premier League strikers. But how many would get into the great Arsenal team of  ‘Invincibles’ or Sir Alex Ferguson’s Treble winners of 1999?  David Silva is among the best players in the Premier League but would he make it into Arsenal's Invincibles or Manchester United's Treble-winners Credit: Michael Regan/Getty Images Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker were mocked for their price tag. Leroy Sané was a player of potential but not the finished article. Centre-backs Nicolás Otamendi and John Stones were considered untrustworthy to form a partnership. City’s title hopes were said to be determined by Vincent Kompany’s fitness. Kompany has started only three Premier League games. How many managers looked at Fabian Delph and saw a left back?  Guardiola inherited an ageing squad at City, 12 first team players over 30. In just over a year he has reduced the average age from the fourth oldest in the Premier League (28 years 310 days) to the fifth youngest (26 years 232 days). Now his players are earning weekly acclaim. This is down to one man and his methods. When Pep moved to England plenty said he must compromise. After his first season I sensed a quiet satisfaction from some quarters he had not immediately recreated his winning formula. The views expressed after that Leicester defeat gathered momentum. Why?  Who but Guardiola would have looked at Fabian Delph and seen a left-back Credit: Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images I do not understand this mentality. Why would any neutral want Guardiola to fail and feel compelled to embrace less purist tactics? What kind of football do we want? English football will benefit if Guardiola’s way works. He can show others an idealistic, technical brand of passing football works. So many games follow the same formula, coaches believing defending is about allowing opponents to keep possession while they sit deep. We sit through a lot of boring, predictable games. Guardiola is defined as ‘an attacking coach’ who risks defensive resilience. I often hear it said his philosophy is based on the concept ‘we’ll score more than you’. This is nonsense. His idea of defending is just very different. Naturally the focus is on the goals City have scored so far (38). But they have conceded only seven. It was similar at Barcelona. If was often said ‘getting at them’ would expose defensive weakness. The statistics never stood that up. Opposition teams would not get enough of the ball to threaten, but this is not solely due to a passing style. Why would any neutral want Guardiola to fail and feel compelled to embrace less purist tactics? Guardiola’s greatest accomplishment as a manager is ensuring world-class players sacrifice themselves for the team. They are as impressive hunting for possession as retaining it. Arrigo Sacchi once said of his legendary Milan side of the mid-80s – a team I would rank alongside Barça as the greatest of all club sides - that their finest quality was humility. Players of the calibre of Franco Baresi, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten put ego aside to do their job, especially defensively.  This is what Guardiola is implementing at City. It separates him from other coaches. In their last fixture against Arsenal, who for all their flaws remain one of the country’s best passing teams, City did not allow the opponent to string three or four passes together for 70 minutes. Guardiola learned from his first year here, but the changes are in personnel, not ideology. City execute his ideas better. He did not change the style of goalkeeper he wanted, he changed the identity of the goalkeeper to ensure that style was implemented. Claudio Bravo was not good enough. Ederson is the keeper Bravo was supposed to be, so comfortable on the ball he looks like he can play midfield. Talking tactics: Where Man City's new full-backs will make an impact 02:38 Of course it helps having the finances to correct faults. We can’t ignore the influence of £220 million invested last summer, but spending big does not make winning the league inevitable, and certainly does not guarantee entertaining football. It gives you a better chance, but the Premier League is the most competitive in Europe.  Coaching at the world’s biggest clubs brings a different type of pressure and expectation. Guardiola deserves all the credit he gets for an astonishing managerial CV. Prior to his appointment at Barcelona in 2008 the team finished third in La Liga. He did not inherit an all-conquering team. He created one. He elevated the quality in Barcelona – and Spain generally – to a level never seen in club football. He was as much an architect of Spain’s World Cup and European Championship success as that of his Barça team.  At Bayern Munich successive Bundesligas brought only grudging recognition. The recent fate of Carlo Ancelotti – one of the most successful managers ever – demonstrates you don’t just turn up, pick a team and collect trophies.  There was far, far more to Guardiola's work at Barcelona than inheriting Leo Messi Credit: JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images There is still much to do at City. Guardiola will be first to acknowledge possible bumps in the road. History tells us the months between December and February can be difficult for Pep - City toiled at this stage last season - but the signs are ominous for the rest. After wins over Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, should City emerge unscathed from forthcoming meetings with Manchester United and Spurs it is difficult to see who will catch them. Offer every manager in the top six a guarantee they will win the title once in the next four years, I believe they would snatch it.  Except one. That would not be enough for Pep. He is eyeing multiple titles and the Champions League at Manchester City, a competition I am not yet sure they are strong enough to win. Long-term he wants complete domination. Should he achieve it in England, it will confirm what I felt the day City appointed him. We should cherish every second Guardiola is working in England. A win at Leicester on Saturday may not be his most important since moving to City, but it could be his most symbolic.

Master Pep Guardiola is at the peak of his powers - we should appreciate him more

There was a moment during Pep Guardiola’s first season in England when it occurred to me he may not only be the greatest coach in the world, but also the most underrated. Last December Manchester City lost 4-2 at Leicester City - the opponents they face this weekend. What followed was a full-scale re-evaluation of Guardiola’s methods. Everything he stood for was scrutinised, many arguing his approach could not work in England. For every word of praise for his extraordinary success, there is always a mutter of cynicism lurking in the background. This criticism peaked in ferocity that afternoon. “Look at the players he was lucky enough to manage in Barcelona,” some argued. “How much competition did he have in Germany with Bayern Munich? What about all the money he’s spent at Manchester City? How can he not win?” I am increasingly enraged by the ignorance of this sneering. What we are seeing at City this season is more compelling evidence of a master at work – a manager creating a great side out of good players; a manager winning by implementing a style we have never seen in this country: Total Football.   When I saw City’s starting XI at the start of the season, I was not awestruck by individual quality. There were question marks against several players. OK, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are among the best players in the Premier League and Europe, and Sergio Agüero is one of the greatest ever Premier League strikers. But how many would get into the great Arsenal team of  ‘Invincibles’ or Sir Alex Ferguson’s Treble winners of 1999?  David Silva is among the best players in the Premier League but would he make it into Arsenal's Invincibles or Manchester United's Treble-winners Credit: Michael Regan/Getty Images Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker were mocked for their price tag. Leroy Sané was a player of potential but not the finished article. Centre-backs Nicolás Otamendi and John Stones were considered untrustworthy to form a partnership. City’s title hopes were said to be determined by Vincent Kompany’s fitness. Kompany has started only three Premier League games. How many managers looked at Fabian Delph and saw a left back?  Guardiola inherited an ageing squad at City, 12 first team players over 30. In just over a year he has reduced the average age from the fourth oldest in the Premier League (28 years 310 days) to the fifth youngest (26 years 232 days). Now his players are earning weekly acclaim. This is down to one man and his methods. When Pep moved to England plenty said he must compromise. After his first season I sensed a quiet satisfaction from some quarters he had not immediately recreated his winning formula. The views expressed after that Leicester defeat gathered momentum. Why?  Who but Guardiola would have looked at Fabian Delph and seen a left-back Credit: Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images I do not understand this mentality. Why would any neutral want Guardiola to fail and feel compelled to embrace less purist tactics? What kind of football do we want? English football will benefit if Guardiola’s way works. He can show others an idealistic, technical brand of passing football works. So many games follow the same formula, coaches believing defending is about allowing opponents to keep possession while they sit deep. We sit through a lot of boring, predictable games. Guardiola is defined as ‘an attacking coach’ who risks defensive resilience. I often hear it said his philosophy is based on the concept ‘we’ll score more than you’. This is nonsense. His idea of defending is just very different. Naturally the focus is on the goals City have scored so far (38). But they have conceded only seven. It was similar at Barcelona. If was often said ‘getting at them’ would expose defensive weakness. The statistics never stood that up. Opposition teams would not get enough of the ball to threaten, but this is not solely due to a passing style. Why would any neutral want Guardiola to fail and feel compelled to embrace less purist tactics? Guardiola’s greatest accomplishment as a manager is ensuring world-class players sacrifice themselves for the team. They are as impressive hunting for possession as retaining it. Arrigo Sacchi once said of his legendary Milan side of the mid-80s – a team I would rank alongside Barça as the greatest of all club sides - that their finest quality was humility. Players of the calibre of Franco Baresi, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten put ego aside to do their job, especially defensively.  This is what Guardiola is implementing at City. It separates him from other coaches. In their last fixture against Arsenal, who for all their flaws remain one of the country’s best passing teams, City did not allow the opponent to string three or four passes together for 70 minutes. Guardiola learned from his first year here, but the changes are in personnel, not ideology. City execute his ideas better. He did not change the style of goalkeeper he wanted, he changed the identity of the goalkeeper to ensure that style was implemented. Claudio Bravo was not good enough. Ederson is the keeper Bravo was supposed to be, so comfortable on the ball he looks like he can play midfield. Talking tactics: Where Man City's new full-backs will make an impact 02:38 Of course it helps having the finances to correct faults. We can’t ignore the influence of £220 million invested last summer, but spending big does not make winning the league inevitable, and certainly does not guarantee entertaining football. It gives you a better chance, but the Premier League is the most competitive in Europe.  Coaching at the world’s biggest clubs brings a different type of pressure and expectation. Guardiola deserves all the credit he gets for an astonishing managerial CV. Prior to his appointment at Barcelona in 2008 the team finished third in La Liga. He did not inherit an all-conquering team. He created one. He elevated the quality in Barcelona – and Spain generally – to a level never seen in club football. He was as much an architect of Spain’s World Cup and European Championship success as that of his Barça team.  At Bayern Munich successive Bundesligas brought only grudging recognition. The recent fate of Carlo Ancelotti – one of the most successful managers ever – demonstrates you don’t just turn up, pick a team and collect trophies.  There was far, far more to Guardiola's work at Barcelona than inheriting Leo Messi Credit: JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images There is still much to do at City. Guardiola will be first to acknowledge possible bumps in the road. History tells us the months between December and February can be difficult for Pep - City toiled at this stage last season - but the signs are ominous for the rest. After wins over Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, should City emerge unscathed from forthcoming meetings with Manchester United and Spurs it is difficult to see who will catch them. Offer every manager in the top six a guarantee they will win the title once in the next four years, I believe they would snatch it.  Except one. That would not be enough for Pep. He is eyeing multiple titles and the Champions League at Manchester City, a competition I am not yet sure they are strong enough to win. Long-term he wants complete domination. Should he achieve it in England, it will confirm what I felt the day City appointed him. We should cherish every second Guardiola is working in England. A win at Leicester on Saturday may not be his most important since moving to City, but it could be his most symbolic.

Master Pep Guardiola is at the peak of his powers - we should appreciate him more

There was a moment during Pep Guardiola’s first season in England when it occurred to me he may not only be the greatest coach in the world, but also the most underrated. Last December Manchester City lost 4-2 at Leicester City - the opponents they face this weekend. What followed was a full-scale re-evaluation of Guardiola’s methods. Everything he stood for was scrutinised, many arguing his approach could not work in England. For every word of praise for his extraordinary success, there is always a mutter of cynicism lurking in the background. This criticism peaked in ferocity that afternoon. “Look at the players he was lucky enough to manage in Barcelona,” some argued. “How much competition did he have in Germany with Bayern Munich? What about all the money he’s spent at Manchester City? How can he not win?” I am increasingly enraged by the ignorance of this sneering. What we are seeing at City this season is more compelling evidence of a master at work – a manager creating a great side out of good players; a manager winning by implementing a style we have never seen in this country: Total Football.   When I saw City’s starting XI at the start of the season, I was not awestruck by individual quality. There were question marks against several players. OK, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are among the best players in the Premier League and Europe, and Sergio Agüero is one of the greatest ever Premier League strikers. But how many would get into the great Arsenal team of  ‘Invincibles’ or Sir Alex Ferguson’s Treble winners of 1999?  David Silva is among the best players in the Premier League but would he make it into Arsenal's Invincibles or Manchester United's Treble-winners Credit: Michael Regan/Getty Images Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker were mocked for their price tag. Leroy Sané was a player of potential but not the finished article. Centre-backs Nicolás Otamendi and John Stones were considered untrustworthy to form a partnership. City’s title hopes were said to be determined by Vincent Kompany’s fitness. Kompany has started only three Premier League games. How many managers looked at Fabian Delph and saw a left back?  Guardiola inherited an ageing squad at City, 12 first team players over 30. In just over a year he has reduced the average age from the fourth oldest in the Premier League (28 years 310 days) to the fifth youngest (26 years 232 days). Now his players are earning weekly acclaim. This is down to one man and his methods. When Pep moved to England plenty said he must compromise. After his first season I sensed a quiet satisfaction from some quarters he had not immediately recreated his winning formula. The views expressed after that Leicester defeat gathered momentum. Why?  Who but Guardiola would have looked at Fabian Delph and seen a left-back Credit: Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images I do not understand this mentality. Why would any neutral want Guardiola to fail and feel compelled to embrace less purist tactics? What kind of football do we want? English football will benefit if Guardiola’s way works. He can show others an idealistic, technical brand of passing football works. So many games follow the same formula, coaches believing defending is about allowing opponents to keep possession while they sit deep. We sit through a lot of boring, predictable games. Guardiola is defined as ‘an attacking coach’ who risks defensive resilience. I often hear it said his philosophy is based on the concept ‘we’ll score more than you’. This is nonsense. His idea of defending is just very different. Naturally the focus is on the goals City have scored so far (38). But they have conceded only seven. It was similar at Barcelona. If was often said ‘getting at them’ would expose defensive weakness. The statistics never stood that up. Opposition teams would not get enough of the ball to threaten, but this is not solely due to a passing style. Why would any neutral want Guardiola to fail and feel compelled to embrace less purist tactics? Guardiola’s greatest accomplishment as a manager is ensuring world-class players sacrifice themselves for the team. They are as impressive hunting for possession as retaining it. Arrigo Sacchi once said of his legendary Milan side of the mid-80s – a team I would rank alongside Barça as the greatest of all club sides - that their finest quality was humility. Players of the calibre of Franco Baresi, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten put ego aside to do their job, especially defensively.  This is what Guardiola is implementing at City. It separates him from other coaches. In their last fixture against Arsenal, who for all their flaws remain one of the country’s best passing teams, City did not allow the opponent to string three or four passes together for 70 minutes. Guardiola learned from his first year here, but the changes are in personnel, not ideology. City execute his ideas better. He did not change the style of goalkeeper he wanted, he changed the identity of the goalkeeper to ensure that style was implemented. Claudio Bravo was not good enough. Ederson is the keeper Bravo was supposed to be, so comfortable on the ball he looks like he can play midfield. Talking tactics: Where Man City's new full-backs will make an impact 02:38 Of course it helps having the finances to correct faults. We can’t ignore the influence of £220 million invested last summer, but spending big does not make winning the league inevitable, and certainly does not guarantee entertaining football. It gives you a better chance, but the Premier League is the most competitive in Europe.  Coaching at the world’s biggest clubs brings a different type of pressure and expectation. Guardiola deserves all the credit he gets for an astonishing managerial CV. Prior to his appointment at Barcelona in 2008 the team finished third in La Liga. He did not inherit an all-conquering team. He created one. He elevated the quality in Barcelona – and Spain generally – to a level never seen in club football. He was as much an architect of Spain’s World Cup and European Championship success as that of his Barça team.  At Bayern Munich successive Bundesligas brought only grudging recognition. The recent fate of Carlo Ancelotti – one of the most successful managers ever – demonstrates you don’t just turn up, pick a team and collect trophies.  There was far, far more to Guardiola's work at Barcelona than inheriting Leo Messi Credit: JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images There is still much to do at City. Guardiola will be first to acknowledge possible bumps in the road. History tells us the months between December and February can be difficult for Pep - City toiled at this stage last season - but the signs are ominous for the rest. After wins over Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, should City emerge unscathed from forthcoming meetings with Manchester United and Spurs it is difficult to see who will catch them. Offer every manager in the top six a guarantee they will win the title once in the next four years, I believe they would snatch it.  Except one. That would not be enough for Pep. He is eyeing multiple titles and the Champions League at Manchester City, a competition I am not yet sure they are strong enough to win. Long-term he wants complete domination. Should he achieve it in England, it will confirm what I felt the day City appointed him. We should cherish every second Guardiola is working in England. A win at Leicester on Saturday may not be his most important since moving to City, but it could be his most symbolic.

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The genius of Pep Guardiola: Eight things he has done to make Man City so frighteningly good

It's agreed: Man City are not bad. But how has Pep Guardiola managed to oversee this turnaround in fortunes? And speaking of which, does he owe much of the early season's successes to said fortune? Without the players, Guardiola wouldn't have such a talented team, after all. Last season they didn't win anything, this season they might win it all. What's different? The goalkeeper fiasco Ederson de Moraes was clearly a heavily scouted, well-researched purchase. At 24 years old, he has potential to develop and form a long-lasting back line with John Stones and whoever happens to partner him, but crucially, is already one of the best ball-playing goalkeepers in European football. An instant improvement to the City defence. He offers more than shot-stopping though. Man City dominate possession by stretching the pitch and playing a high defensive line to force the opposition back deep in their own half, something opposition teams counter with balls over the top. In this system, Guardiola's goalkeeper has to play as a sweeper, racing off his line proactively to deal with passes aimed near the penalty area. Napoli did exactly this during their two Champions League games, with Ederson equal to most sent his way. In this example, Dries Mertens broke the offside trap and looked to be through on goal, Ederson flew off his line and headed away. With this safety net, City can push higher up the pitch. To control the game, City must keep the ball, which is why goal kicks aren't lofted forward even when it seems the safer option. Ederson is as comfortable on the ball as many of City's midfielders, which is especially useful considering he is required to play short passes under constant pressure next to his goal. Without this key component, Guardiola's team cannot build from the back and forgetting Claudio Bravo's dreadful attempts at preventing the ball hitting the back of the net, his inability to pass when pressed was what upset the rhythm last season. Dealing with second balls "Many times the ball is more in the air than the grass, and I have to adapt," said Guardiola shortly after arriving in the Premier League and he maintained his position on the matter in a recent BBC interview with Gary Lineker: "In Spain the value of the ball is so important, in Germany it's physically strong and counter-attack there is a strong weapon. Here the defender is here (points left) and the striker is here (points right) - so the ball don't (sic) travel with the team. This kind of ball if you win is good, if you don't it's counter-attack. But it's attractive for the people." Guardiola believes that you can only control the game if you have the ball and builds his sides to keep it. Contesting aerial battles in the centre of the pitch is like throwing a dice, and though you can increase your chances with bigger players, it leaves too much to random selection. "It's boring to train," he continues. "All the time long balls and I like to train the things I like."  Sam Wallace's Power Rankings 42:04 This season City are better at dealing with long balls because they have trained to deal with them, but also because they have increased their already enormous amount of average possession - an average of 70.5 per cent, as opposed to 65.47 last season. As a result they've had to make fewer tackles (193 to 148), fewer interceptions (157 to 114) and have also conceded fewer goals.  "It's possession with a meaning," said Kevin De Bruyne in a recent Sky Sports interview. After 11 games last season, City had made 6545 passes. This season that number is 7924. Learning how to divide the pitch How Pep Guardiola divides a pitch No more than three players can occupy the same horizontal space, and no more than two can be in the vertical at the same time. These are the rules Pep's players must adhere to maintain the team's structure while allowing freedom of movement. If someone switches position, someone else must take their place. It takes time to learn, with players having complained in past that they leave training sessions with a head-ache, but this season the lessons have sunk in. It took time too at Bayern Munich, just as it did at Barcelona, with Guardiola rolling out different aspects of the big picture in smaller bite-size portions to help everyone understand. Some get it quicker than others.  This is what it should like on a pitch (Stones is out of frame to the right in this picture): Developing an intuitive sense of where to be and when takes time and might not come naturally to many players. City tried to play like this last season but were obviously still learning, reacting to a teammate's movement instead of being able to predict it. Without these passing options, players like John Stones can be caught in possession while waiting for them to open up - that's when mistakes happen. The idea is that there are always open passing lanes in triangle shapes, to allow the ball to be played forward instead of sideways, something Guardiola hates. "Tiki-taka is a load of s***. It means passing the ball for the sake of passing, with no real aim or aggression. I will not allow my brilliant players to fall for that rubbish". Fernandinho is the central pivot, the wide players stretch the pitch, the attacking midfielders play in the space between midfield and defence and Stones or Otamendi act as a (really) deep playmaker while the other sits tight. Everyone has license to swap position and roam but only because there is a fundamental on-pitch understanding that his place will be covered.  Keeping the shape In his playing days, Guardiola was a number four, the holding midfield pivot position that links defence and midfield, and was coached into the Barcelona first team by Johan Cruyff, who he attributes as the mentor behind his meteoric playing and managerial career(s).  Guardiola always nominates one player to operate in that crucial role, almost as a human embodiment of himself on the pitch. An avatar. At Barcelona it was Sergio Busquets, at Bayern Munich he had Phillip Lahm, Thiago Alcantara or Xabi Alonso and now Fernandinho has become the main man. Fernandinho is a key part of Guardiola's Man City team Credit: PA Last season City struggled without someone capable in this position. They tried Yaya Toure but as a naturally more advanced, creative attacking midfield player, he didn't quite suit and would occasionally leave his crucial position vacant - the pivot must act as a weight bearer for the team and as soon as it goes missing, the ceiling is liable to fall in. Ilkay Gundogan got injured, Fernando was more of a ball-winning, box-to-box midfielder and Fernandinho was used at right-back to cover for a shocking lack of options. Even Pablo Zabaleta had a go at being a midfielder. This season it's a different story. However Guardiola has managed it, or perhaps just realised it, Fernandinho is the right player for the job. His positional awareness, tactical acumen and intelligence of movement makes him perfect for maintaining that position, while his ability to play in a number of different roles means he can cover for others in defensive situations when required. De Bruyne, Silva, Aguero and the rest of the goal-getters might take the headlines, but Fernandinho is the key to Man City maintaining their incredible momentum for the rest of the season. Made the squad smaller (and younger) The massive outlay on wingers and younger players by Guardiola was entirely necessary. To compete at the top level clubs need to pay the big bucks to import footballers good enough. City's wage bill went up 25 per cent in Guardiola's first season alone.  Man City's first team squad is made up of 20 players with an average age of 26.75, compared with 25 (to have appeared at least once in the Premier League) last season at an average age of 27.6, which doesn't look an initially staggering difference at first glance. Clearly there is a marked difference in signing Walker, 27 and at his peak, instead of Bacary Sagna, 34, still a free agent. Younger means room for potential and at full-back, improved physical attributes. The blistering pace of Walker and Benjamin Mendy (for a while) on either flank is devastating. Sterling, De Bruyne and Sane are three parts of an exciting Man City attack Credit: GETTY IMAGES Signing the likes of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus as youngsters instead of ready-made talent means City have players who haven't learned the bad habits that might have to be coached out of them in later years. It's not that old dogs can't learn new tricks, rather that it takes them longer and they might already think they know better. By developing an understanding of Guardiola's methods while still themselves developing, the team improves as a whole. Additionally, Guardiola has said that he hates telling squad members they won't be playing on match day and keeps the squad small as a result. Does a lighter squad encourage improved morale? With more playing time to share around there are fewer unhappy individuals. Staying patient Man City stick to the gameplan no matter what. Napoli pushed them hard over two Champions League matches but never once did they deviate from the plan of build from the back, press from the front. Guardiola admits the frenzied pace of Premier League football has an impact on his players. "We want to be patient but sometimes we cannot control it," - everyone in that team has control over their emotions this season. John Stones has been vastly improved, adding defensive steel to his composed nature. The difference to Stones is that his teammates are actively looking to be in the space he needs to pass the ball to. That picture is Stoke making a half-hearted attempt at closing down Ederson. Fernandinho has passed the ball and will move back into his little circle immediately after, just as Nicolas Otamendi will move wide right once Stones gets the ball from the goalkeeper. That triggers Walker and Delph to move higher up into the next division of the pitch, giving Stones options when he is closed down by more/other players.  Improving individuals Raheem Sterling, like most humans, is far better at his job when confident in his own surroundings and abilities. At times in the past, his finishing and choice of final pass wouldn't look out of place on a League One substitutes bench but with Guardiola's guidance Sterling has become one of the top scorers in the Premier League this season.  Delph has been a revelation at left-back, while Fernandinho and Stones are two of the most improved players in the league. Kevin De Bruyne is probably the very best of them all, with David Silva not too far behind. Jesus continues to improve, having already been described as one of the best players in the world by Dani Alves. The system suits the players who suit the system. With defensive stability and total tactical understanding, the forwards are free to create. It has resulted in gluttony of goals. "If you ask me the difference between this season and last season," said Guardiola, "we have the feeling when we get there (the box), we're going to score a goal. In the past last season we didn't have that. We create a lot but didn't score goals. That's so tough." Sergio Aguero has eight goals in all competitions, Gabriel Jesus seven, Sterling seven and Sane six. Midfielders and defenders have chipped in too - the team isn't reliant on just one performer and the quality of chances has improved too, with expected goals at 27.55 this season compared to 22.75 last season. Wing-backs who can play in centre midfield The huge outlay on wing-backs might have seemed excessive at the time, but it has proven to be entirely necessary. Mendy was excellent before injury ruined his season and Kyle Walker has proven an inspired buy, adjusting to Guardiola's tactical setup like a duck to complicated water. Kyle walker playing in central midfield against Arsenal "It’s just flowing, there’s a lot of one-two touches and creates a flow to the way we are playing, and everybody is moving gradually, and (then) you can do whatever you want," said De Bruyne in an interview with Jamie Redknapp. When De Bruyne moves out to the wing, he does so to create space for someone else. One of Sane or Delph might move inside, Jesus might drop deep. If the wide players overlap first, it creates space for De Bruyne to attack. This is all done without communication, it is learned and requires technically proficient players with tactical understanding. This stretching of play and switching of position is exactly what allowed De Bruyne to score the only goal in a 1-0 win over Chelsea.  City's players have freedom to do as they will in the final third but they must get there having followed the blueprint instructions laid down by Guardiola. At the moment, it looks unstoppable. Someone should steal those plans.

The genius of Pep Guardiola: Eight things he has done to make Man City so frighteningly good

It's agreed: Man City are not bad. But how has Pep Guardiola managed to oversee this turnaround in fortunes? And speaking of which, does he owe much of the early season's successes to said fortune? Without the players, Guardiola wouldn't have such a talented team, after all. Last season they didn't win anything, this season they might win it all. What's different? The goalkeeper fiasco Ederson de Moraes was clearly a heavily scouted, well-researched purchase. At 24 years old, he has potential to develop and form a long-lasting back line with John Stones and whoever happens to partner him, but crucially, is already one of the best ball-playing goalkeepers in European football. An instant improvement to the City defence. He offers more than shot-stopping though. Man City dominate possession by stretching the pitch and playing a high defensive line to force the opposition back deep in their own half, something opposition teams counter with balls over the top. In this system, Guardiola's goalkeeper has to play as a sweeper, racing off his line proactively to deal with passes aimed near the penalty area. Napoli did exactly this during their two Champions League games, with Ederson equal to most sent his way. In this example, Dries Mertens broke the offside trap and looked to be through on goal, Ederson flew off his line and headed away. With this safety net, City can push higher up the pitch. To control the game, City must keep the ball, which is why goal kicks aren't lofted forward even when it seems the safer option. Ederson is as comfortable on the ball as many of City's midfielders, which is especially useful considering he is required to play short passes under constant pressure next to his goal. Without this key component, Guardiola's team cannot build from the back and forgetting Claudio Bravo's dreadful attempts at preventing the ball hitting the back of the net, his inability to pass when pressed was what upset the rhythm last season. Dealing with second balls "Many times the ball is more in the air than the grass, and I have to adapt," said Guardiola shortly after arriving in the Premier League and he maintained his position on the matter in a recent BBC interview with Gary Lineker: "In Spain the value of the ball is so important, in Germany it's physically strong and counter-attack there is a strong weapon. Here the defender is here (points left) and the striker is here (points right) - so the ball don't (sic) travel with the team. This kind of ball if you win is good, if you don't it's counter-attack. But it's attractive for the people." Guardiola believes that you can only control the game if you have the ball and builds his sides to keep it. Contesting aerial battles in the centre of the pitch is like throwing a dice, and though you can increase your chances with bigger players, it leaves too much to random selection. "It's boring to train," he continues. "All the time long balls and I like to train the things I like."  Sam Wallace's Power Rankings 42:04 This season City are better at dealing with long balls because they have trained to deal with them, but also because they have increased their already enormous amount of average possession - an average of 70.5 per cent, as opposed to 65.47 last season. As a result they've had to make fewer tackles (193 to 148), fewer interceptions (157 to 114) and have also conceded fewer goals.  "It's possession with a meaning," said Kevin De Bruyne in a recent Sky Sports interview. After 11 games last season, City had made 6545 passes. This season that number is 7924. Learning how to divide the pitch How Pep Guardiola divides a pitch No more than three players can occupy the same horizontal space, and no more than two can be in the vertical at the same time. These are the rules Pep's players must adhere to maintain the team's structure while allowing freedom of movement. If someone switches position, someone else must take their place. It takes time to learn, with players having complained in past that they leave training sessions with a head-ache, but this season the lessons have sunk in. It took time too at Bayern Munich, just as it did at Barcelona, with Guardiola rolling out different aspects of the big picture in smaller bite-size portions to help everyone understand. Some get it quicker than others.  This is what it should like on a pitch (Stones is out of frame to the right in this picture): Developing an intuitive sense of where to be and when takes time and might not come naturally to many players. City tried to play like this last season but were obviously still learning, reacting to a teammate's movement instead of being able to predict it. Without these passing options, players like John Stones can be caught in possession while waiting for them to open up - that's when mistakes happen. The idea is that there are always open passing lanes in triangle shapes, to allow the ball to be played forward instead of sideways, something Guardiola hates. "Tiki-taka is a load of s***. It means passing the ball for the sake of passing, with no real aim or aggression. I will not allow my brilliant players to fall for that rubbish". Fernandinho is the central pivot, the wide players stretch the pitch, the attacking midfielders play in the space between midfield and defence and Stones or Otamendi act as a (really) deep playmaker while the other sits tight. Everyone has license to swap position and roam but only because there is a fundamental on-pitch understanding that his place will be covered.  Keeping the shape In his playing days, Guardiola was a number four, the holding midfield pivot position that links defence and midfield, and was coached into the Barcelona first team by Johan Cruyff, who he attributes as the mentor behind his meteoric playing and managerial career(s).  Guardiola always nominates one player to operate in that crucial role, almost as a human embodiment of himself on the pitch. An avatar. At Barcelona it was Sergio Busquets, at Bayern Munich he had Phillip Lahm, Thiago Alcantara or Xabi Alonso and now Fernandinho has become the main man. Fernandinho is a key part of Guardiola's Man City team Credit: PA Last season City struggled without someone capable in this position. They tried Yaya Toure but as a naturally more advanced, creative attacking midfield player, he didn't quite suit and would occasionally leave his crucial position vacant - the pivot must act as a weight bearer for the team and as soon as it goes missing, the ceiling is liable to fall in. Ilkay Gundogan got injured, Fernando was more of a ball-winning, box-to-box midfielder and Fernandinho was used at right-back to cover for a shocking lack of options. Even Pablo Zabaleta had a go at being a midfielder. This season it's a different story. However Guardiola has managed it, or perhaps just realised it, Fernandinho is the right player for the job. His positional awareness, tactical acumen and intelligence of movement makes him perfect for maintaining that position, while his ability to play in a number of different roles means he can cover for others in defensive situations when required. De Bruyne, Silva, Aguero and the rest of the goal-getters might take the headlines, but Fernandinho is the key to Man City maintaining their incredible momentum for the rest of the season. Made the squad smaller (and younger) The massive outlay on wingers and younger players by Guardiola was entirely necessary. To compete at the top level clubs need to pay the big bucks to import footballers good enough. City's wage bill went up 25 per cent in Guardiola's first season alone.  Man City's first team squad is made up of 20 players with an average age of 26.75, compared with 25 (to have appeared at least once in the Premier League) last season at an average age of 27.6, which doesn't look an initially staggering difference at first glance. Clearly there is a marked difference in signing Walker, 27 and at his peak, instead of Bacary Sagna, 34, still a free agent. Younger means room for potential and at full-back, improved physical attributes. The blistering pace of Walker and Benjamin Mendy (for a while) on either flank is devastating. Sterling, De Bruyne and Sane are three parts of an exciting Man City attack Credit: GETTY IMAGES Signing the likes of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus as youngsters instead of ready-made talent means City have players who haven't learned the bad habits that might have to be coached out of them in later years. It's not that old dogs can't learn new tricks, rather that it takes them longer and they might already think they know better. By developing an understanding of Guardiola's methods while still themselves developing, the team improves as a whole. Additionally, Guardiola has said that he hates telling squad members they won't be playing on match day and keeps the squad small as a result. Does a lighter squad encourage improved morale? With more playing time to share around there are fewer unhappy individuals. Staying patient Man City stick to the gameplan no matter what. Napoli pushed them hard over two Champions League matches but never once did they deviate from the plan of build from the back, press from the front. Guardiola admits the frenzied pace of Premier League football has an impact on his players. "We want to be patient but sometimes we cannot control it," - everyone in that team has control over their emotions this season. John Stones has been vastly improved, adding defensive steel to his composed nature. The difference to Stones is that his teammates are actively looking to be in the space he needs to pass the ball to. That picture is Stoke making a half-hearted attempt at closing down Ederson. Fernandinho has passed the ball and will move back into his little circle immediately after, just as Nicolas Otamendi will move wide right once Stones gets the ball from the goalkeeper. That triggers Walker and Delph to move higher up into the next division of the pitch, giving Stones options when he is closed down by more/other players.  Improving individuals Raheem Sterling, like most humans, is far better at his job when confident in his own surroundings and abilities. At times in the past, his finishing and choice of final pass wouldn't look out of place on a League One substitutes bench but with Guardiola's guidance Sterling has become one of the top scorers in the Premier League this season.  Delph has been a revelation at left-back, while Fernandinho and Stones are two of the most improved players in the league. Kevin De Bruyne is probably the very best of them all, with David Silva not too far behind. Jesus continues to improve, having already been described as one of the best players in the world by Dani Alves. The system suits the players who suit the system. With defensive stability and total tactical understanding, the forwards are free to create. It has resulted in gluttony of goals. "If you ask me the difference between this season and last season," said Guardiola, "we have the feeling when we get there (the box), we're going to score a goal. In the past last season we didn't have that. We create a lot but didn't score goals. That's so tough." Sergio Aguero has eight goals in all competitions, Gabriel Jesus seven, Sterling seven and Sane six. Midfielders and defenders have chipped in too - the team isn't reliant on just one performer and the quality of chances has improved too, with expected goals at 27.55 this season compared to 22.75 last season. Wing-backs who can play in centre midfield The huge outlay on wing-backs might have seemed excessive at the time, but it has proven to be entirely necessary. Mendy was excellent before injury ruined his season and Kyle Walker has proven an inspired buy, adjusting to Guardiola's tactical setup like a duck to complicated water. Kyle walker playing in central midfield against Arsenal "It’s just flowing, there’s a lot of one-two touches and creates a flow to the way we are playing, and everybody is moving gradually, and (then) you can do whatever you want," said De Bruyne in an interview with Jamie Redknapp. When De Bruyne moves out to the wing, he does so to create space for someone else. One of Sane or Delph might move inside, Jesus might drop deep. If the wide players overlap first, it creates space for De Bruyne to attack. This is all done without communication, it is learned and requires technically proficient players with tactical understanding. This stretching of play and switching of position is exactly what allowed De Bruyne to score the only goal in a 1-0 win over Chelsea.  City's players have freedom to do as they will in the final third but they must get there having followed the blueprint instructions laid down by Guardiola. At the moment, it looks unstoppable. Someone should steal those plans.

The genius of Pep Guardiola: Eight things he has done to make Man City so frighteningly good

It's agreed: Man City are not bad. But how has Pep Guardiola managed to oversee this turnaround in fortunes? And speaking of which, does he owe much of the early season's successes to said fortune? Without the players, Guardiola wouldn't have such a talented team, after all. Last season they didn't win anything, this season they might win it all. What's different? The goalkeeper fiasco Ederson de Moraes was clearly a heavily scouted, well-researched purchase. At 24 years old, he has potential to develop and form a long-lasting back line with John Stones and whoever happens to partner him, but crucially, is already one of the best ball-playing goalkeepers in European football. An instant improvement to the City defence. He offers more than shot-stopping though. Man City dominate possession by stretching the pitch and playing a high defensive line to force the opposition back deep in their own half, something opposition teams counter with balls over the top. In this system, Guardiola's goalkeeper has to play as a sweeper, racing off his line proactively to deal with passes aimed near the penalty area. Napoli did exactly this during their two Champions League games, with Ederson equal to most sent his way. In this example, Dries Mertens broke the offside trap and looked to be through on goal, Ederson flew off his line and headed away. With this safety net, City can push higher up the pitch. To control the game, City must keep the ball, which is why goal kicks aren't lofted forward even when it seems the safer option. Ederson is as comfortable on the ball as many of City's midfielders, which is especially useful considering he is required to play short passes under constant pressure next to his goal. Without this key component, Guardiola's team cannot build from the back and forgetting Claudio Bravo's dreadful attempts at preventing the ball hitting the back of the net, his inability to pass when pressed was what upset the rhythm last season. Dealing with second balls "Many times the ball is more in the air than the grass, and I have to adapt," said Guardiola shortly after arriving in the Premier League and he maintained his position on the matter in a recent BBC interview with Gary Lineker: "In Spain the value of the ball is so important, in Germany it's physically strong and counter-attack there is a strong weapon. Here the defender is here (points left) and the striker is here (points right) - so the ball don't (sic) travel with the team. This kind of ball if you win is good, if you don't it's counter-attack. But it's attractive for the people." Guardiola believes that you can only control the game if you have the ball and builds his sides to keep it. Contesting aerial battles in the centre of the pitch is like throwing a dice, and though you can increase your chances with bigger players, it leaves too much to random selection. "It's boring to train," he continues. "All the time long balls and I like to train the things I like."  Sam Wallace's Power Rankings 42:04 This season City are better at dealing with long balls because they have trained to deal with them, but also because they have increased their already enormous amount of average possession - an average of 70.5 per cent, as opposed to 65.47 last season. As a result they've had to make fewer tackles (193 to 148), fewer interceptions (157 to 114) and have also conceded fewer goals.  "It's possession with a meaning," said Kevin De Bruyne in a recent Sky Sports interview. After 11 games last season, City had made 6545 passes. This season that number is 7924. Learning how to divide the pitch How Pep Guardiola divides a pitch No more than three players can occupy the same horizontal space, and no more than two can be in the vertical at the same time. These are the rules Pep's players must adhere to maintain the team's structure while allowing freedom of movement. If someone switches position, someone else must take their place. It takes time to learn, with players having complained in past that they leave training sessions with a head-ache, but this season the lessons have sunk in. It took time too at Bayern Munich, just as it did at Barcelona, with Guardiola rolling out different aspects of the big picture in smaller bite-size portions to help everyone understand. Some get it quicker than others.  This is what it should like on a pitch (Stones is out of frame to the right in this picture): Developing an intuitive sense of where to be and when takes time and might not come naturally to many players. City tried to play like this last season but were obviously still learning, reacting to a teammate's movement instead of being able to predict it. Without these passing options, players like John Stones can be caught in possession while waiting for them to open up - that's when mistakes happen. The idea is that there are always open passing lanes in triangle shapes, to allow the ball to be played forward instead of sideways, something Guardiola hates. "Tiki-taka is a load of s***. It means passing the ball for the sake of passing, with no real aim or aggression. I will not allow my brilliant players to fall for that rubbish". Fernandinho is the central pivot, the wide players stretch the pitch, the attacking midfielders play in the space between midfield and defence and Stones or Otamendi act as a (really) deep playmaker while the other sits tight. Everyone has license to swap position and roam but only because there is a fundamental on-pitch understanding that his place will be covered.  Keeping the shape In his playing days, Guardiola was a number four, the holding midfield pivot position that links defence and midfield, and was coached into the Barcelona first team by Johan Cruyff, who he attributes as the mentor behind his meteoric playing and managerial career(s).  Guardiola always nominates one player to operate in that crucial role, almost as a human embodiment of himself on the pitch. An avatar. At Barcelona it was Sergio Busquets, at Bayern Munich he had Phillip Lahm, Thiago Alcantara or Xabi Alonso and now Fernandinho has become the main man. Fernandinho is a key part of Guardiola's Man City team Credit: PA Last season City struggled without someone capable in this position. They tried Yaya Toure but as a naturally more advanced, creative attacking midfield player, he didn't quite suit and would occasionally leave his crucial position vacant - the pivot must act as a weight bearer for the team and as soon as it goes missing, the ceiling is liable to fall in. Ilkay Gundogan got injured, Fernando was more of a ball-winning, box-to-box midfielder and Fernandinho was used at right-back to cover for a shocking lack of options. Even Pablo Zabaleta had a go at being a midfielder. This season it's a different story. However Guardiola has managed it, or perhaps just realised it, Fernandinho is the right player for the job. His positional awareness, tactical acumen and intelligence of movement makes him perfect for maintaining that position, while his ability to play in a number of different roles means he can cover for others in defensive situations when required. De Bruyne, Silva, Aguero and the rest of the goal-getters might take the headlines, but Fernandinho is the key to Man City maintaining their incredible momentum for the rest of the season. Made the squad smaller (and younger) The massive outlay on wingers and younger players by Guardiola was entirely necessary. To compete at the top level clubs need to pay the big bucks to import footballers good enough. City's wage bill went up 25 per cent in Guardiola's first season alone.  Man City's first team squad is made up of 20 players with an average age of 26.75, compared with 25 (to have appeared at least once in the Premier League) last season at an average age of 27.6, which doesn't look an initially staggering difference at first glance. Clearly there is a marked difference in signing Walker, 27 and at his peak, instead of Bacary Sagna, 34, still a free agent. Younger means room for potential and at full-back, improved physical attributes. The blistering pace of Walker and Benjamin Mendy (for a while) on either flank is devastating. Sterling, De Bruyne and Sane are three parts of an exciting Man City attack Credit: GETTY IMAGES Signing the likes of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus as youngsters instead of ready-made talent means City have players who haven't learned the bad habits that might have to be coached out of them in later years. It's not that old dogs can't learn new tricks, rather that it takes them longer and they might already think they know better. By developing an understanding of Guardiola's methods while still themselves developing, the team improves as a whole. Additionally, Guardiola has said that he hates telling squad members they won't be playing on match day and keeps the squad small as a result. Does a lighter squad encourage improved morale? With more playing time to share around there are fewer unhappy individuals. Staying patient Man City stick to the gameplan no matter what. Napoli pushed them hard over two Champions League matches but never once did they deviate from the plan of build from the back, press from the front. Guardiola admits the frenzied pace of Premier League football has an impact on his players. "We want to be patient but sometimes we cannot control it," - everyone in that team has control over their emotions this season. John Stones has been vastly improved, adding defensive steel to his composed nature. The difference to Stones is that his teammates are actively looking to be in the space he needs to pass the ball to. That picture is Stoke making a half-hearted attempt at closing down Ederson. Fernandinho has passed the ball and will move back into his little circle immediately after, just as Nicolas Otamendi will move wide right once Stones gets the ball from the goalkeeper. That triggers Walker and Delph to move higher up into the next division of the pitch, giving Stones options when he is closed down by more/other players.  Improving individuals Raheem Sterling, like most humans, is far better at his job when confident in his own surroundings and abilities. At times in the past, his finishing and choice of final pass wouldn't look out of place on a League One substitutes bench but with Guardiola's guidance Sterling has become one of the top scorers in the Premier League this season.  Delph has been a revelation at left-back, while Fernandinho and Stones are two of the most improved players in the league. Kevin De Bruyne is probably the very best of them all, with David Silva not too far behind. Jesus continues to improve, having already been described as one of the best players in the world by Dani Alves. The system suits the players who suit the system. With defensive stability and total tactical understanding, the forwards are free to create. It has resulted in gluttony of goals. "If you ask me the difference between this season and last season," said Guardiola, "we have the feeling when we get there (the box), we're going to score a goal. In the past last season we didn't have that. We create a lot but didn't score goals. That's so tough." Sergio Aguero has eight goals in all competitions, Gabriel Jesus seven, Sterling seven and Sane six. Midfielders and defenders have chipped in too - the team isn't reliant on just one performer and the quality of chances has improved too, with expected goals at 27.55 this season compared to 22.75 last season. Wing-backs who can play in centre midfield The huge outlay on wing-backs might have seemed excessive at the time, but it has proven to be entirely necessary. Mendy was excellent before injury ruined his season and Kyle Walker has proven an inspired buy, adjusting to Guardiola's tactical setup like a duck to complicated water. Kyle walker playing in central midfield against Arsenal "It’s just flowing, there’s a lot of one-two touches and creates a flow to the way we are playing, and everybody is moving gradually, and (then) you can do whatever you want," said De Bruyne in an interview with Jamie Redknapp. When De Bruyne moves out to the wing, he does so to create space for someone else. One of Sane or Delph might move inside, Jesus might drop deep. If the wide players overlap first, it creates space for De Bruyne to attack. This is all done without communication, it is learned and requires technically proficient players with tactical understanding. This stretching of play and switching of position is exactly what allowed De Bruyne to score the only goal in a 1-0 win over Chelsea.  City's players have freedom to do as they will in the final third but they must get there having followed the blueprint instructions laid down by Guardiola. At the moment, it looks unstoppable. Someone should steal those plans.

The genius of Pep Guardiola: Eight things he has done to make Man City so frighteningly good

It's agreed: Man City are not bad. But how has Pep Guardiola managed to oversee this turnaround in fortunes? And speaking of which, does he owe much of the early season's successes to said fortune? Without the players, Guardiola wouldn't have such a talented team, after all. Last season they didn't win anything, this season they might win it all. What's different? The goalkeeper fiasco Ederson de Moraes was clearly a heavily scouted, well-researched purchase. At 24 years old, he has potential to develop and form a long-lasting back line with John Stones and whoever happens to partner him, but crucially, is already one of the best ball-playing goalkeepers in European football. An instant improvement to the City defence. He offers more than shot-stopping though. Man City dominate possession by stretching the pitch and playing a high defensive line to force the opposition back deep in their own half, something opposition teams counter with balls over the top. In this system, Guardiola's goalkeeper has to play as a sweeper, racing off his line proactively to deal with passes aimed near the penalty area. Napoli did exactly this during their two Champions League games, with Ederson equal to most sent his way. In this example, Dries Mertens broke the offside trap and looked to be through on goal, Ederson flew off his line and headed away. With this safety net, City can push higher up the pitch. To control the game, City must keep the ball, which is why goal kicks aren't lofted forward even when it seems the safer option. Ederson is as comfortable on the ball as many of City's midfielders, which is especially useful considering he is required to play short passes under constant pressure next to his goal. Without this key component, Guardiola's team cannot build from the back and forgetting Claudio Bravo's dreadful attempts at preventing the ball hitting the back of the net, his inability to pass when pressed was what upset the rhythm last season. Dealing with second balls "Many times the ball is more in the air than the grass, and I have to adapt," said Guardiola shortly after arriving in the Premier League and he maintained his position on the matter in a recent BBC interview with Gary Lineker: "In Spain the value of the ball is so important, in Germany it's physically strong and counter-attack there is a strong weapon. Here the defender is here (points left) and the striker is here (points right) - so the ball don't (sic) travel with the team. This kind of ball if you win is good, if you don't it's counter-attack. But it's attractive for the people." Guardiola believes that you can only control the game if you have the ball and builds his sides to keep it. Contesting aerial battles in the centre of the pitch is like throwing a dice, and though you can increase your chances with bigger players, it leaves too much to random selection. "It's boring to train," he continues. "All the time long balls and I like to train the things I like."  Sam Wallace's Power Rankings 42:04 This season City are better at dealing with long balls because they have trained to deal with them, but also because they have increased their already enormous amount of average possession - an average of 70.5 per cent, as opposed to 65.47 last season. As a result they've had to make fewer tackles (193 to 148), fewer interceptions (157 to 114) and have also conceded fewer goals.  "It's possession with a meaning," said Kevin De Bruyne in a recent Sky Sports interview. After 11 games last season, City had made 6545 passes. This season that number is 7924. Learning how to divide the pitch How Pep Guardiola divides a pitch No more than three players can occupy the same horizontal space, and no more than two can be in the vertical at the same time. These are the rules Pep's players must adhere to maintain the team's structure while allowing freedom of movement. If someone switches position, someone else must take their place. It takes time to learn, with players having complained in past that they leave training sessions with a head-ache, but this season the lessons have sunk in. It took time too at Bayern Munich, just as it did at Barcelona, with Guardiola rolling out different aspects of the big picture in smaller bite-size portions to help everyone understand. Some get it quicker than others.  This is what it should like on a pitch (Stones is out of frame to the right in this picture): Developing an intuitive sense of where to be and when takes time and might not come naturally to many players. City tried to play like this last season but were obviously still learning, reacting to a teammate's movement instead of being able to predict it. Without these passing options, players like John Stones can be caught in possession while waiting for them to open up - that's when mistakes happen. The idea is that there are always open passing lanes in triangle shapes, to allow the ball to be played forward instead of sideways, something Guardiola hates. "Tiki-taka is a load of s***. It means passing the ball for the sake of passing, with no real aim or aggression. I will not allow my brilliant players to fall for that rubbish". Fernandinho is the central pivot, the wide players stretch the pitch, the attacking midfielders play in the space between midfield and defence and Stones or Otamendi act as a (really) deep playmaker while the other sits tight. Everyone has license to swap position and roam but only because there is a fundamental on-pitch understanding that his place will be covered.  Keeping the shape In his playing days, Guardiola was a number four, the holding midfield pivot position that links defence and midfield, and was coached into the Barcelona first team by Johan Cruyff, who he attributes as the mentor behind his meteoric playing and managerial career(s).  Guardiola always nominates one player to operate in that crucial role, almost as a human embodiment of himself on the pitch. An avatar. At Barcelona it was Sergio Busquets, at Bayern Munich he had Phillip Lahm, Thiago Alcantara or Xabi Alonso and now Fernandinho has become the main man. Fernandinho is a key part of Guardiola's Man City team Credit: PA Last season City struggled without someone capable in this position. They tried Yaya Toure but as a naturally more advanced, creative attacking midfield player, he didn't quite suit and would occasionally leave his crucial position vacant - the pivot must act as a weight bearer for the team and as soon as it goes missing, the ceiling is liable to fall in. Ilkay Gundogan got injured, Fernando was more of a ball-winning, box-to-box midfielder and Fernandinho was used at right-back to cover for a shocking lack of options. Even Pablo Zabaleta had a go at being a midfielder. This season it's a different story. However Guardiola has managed it, or perhaps just realised it, Fernandinho is the right player for the job. His positional awareness, tactical acumen and intelligence of movement makes him perfect for maintaining that position, while his ability to play in a number of different roles means he can cover for others in defensive situations when required. De Bruyne, Silva, Aguero and the rest of the goal-getters might take the headlines, but Fernandinho is the key to Man City maintaining their incredible momentum for the rest of the season. Made the squad smaller (and younger) The massive outlay on wingers and younger players by Guardiola was entirely necessary. To compete at the top level clubs need to pay the big bucks to import footballers good enough. City's wage bill went up 25 per cent in Guardiola's first season alone.  Man City's first team squad is made up of 20 players with an average age of 26.75, compared with 25 (to have appeared at least once in the Premier League) last season at an average age of 27.6, which doesn't look an initially staggering difference at first glance. Clearly there is a marked difference in signing Walker, 27 and at his peak, instead of Bacary Sagna, 34, still a free agent. Younger means room for potential and at full-back, improved physical attributes. The blistering pace of Walker and Benjamin Mendy (for a while) on either flank is devastating. Sterling, De Bruyne and Sane are three parts of an exciting Man City attack Credit: GETTY IMAGES Signing the likes of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus as youngsters instead of ready-made talent means City have players who haven't learned the bad habits that might have to be coached out of them in later years. It's not that old dogs can't learn new tricks, rather that it takes them longer and they might already think they know better. By developing an understanding of Guardiola's methods while still themselves developing, the team improves as a whole. Additionally, Guardiola has said that he hates telling squad members they won't be playing on match day and keeps the squad small as a result. Does a lighter squad encourage improved morale? With more playing time to share around there are fewer unhappy individuals. Staying patient Man City stick to the gameplan no matter what. Napoli pushed them hard over two Champions League matches but never once did they deviate from the plan of build from the back, press from the front. Guardiola admits the frenzied pace of Premier League football has an impact on his players. "We want to be patient but sometimes we cannot control it," - everyone in that team has control over their emotions this season. John Stones has been vastly improved, adding defensive steel to his composed nature. The difference to Stones is that his teammates are actively looking to be in the space he needs to pass the ball to. That picture is Stoke making a half-hearted attempt at closing down Ederson. Fernandinho has passed the ball and will move back into his little circle immediately after, just as Nicolas Otamendi will move wide right once Stones gets the ball from the goalkeeper. That triggers Walker and Delph to move higher up into the next division of the pitch, giving Stones options when he is closed down by more/other players.  Improving individuals Raheem Sterling, like most humans, is far better at his job when confident in his own surroundings and abilities. At times in the past, his finishing and choice of final pass wouldn't look out of place on a League One substitutes bench but with Guardiola's guidance Sterling has become one of the top scorers in the Premier League this season.  Delph has been a revelation at left-back, while Fernandinho and Stones are two of the most improved players in the league. Kevin De Bruyne is probably the very best of them all, with David Silva not too far behind. Jesus continues to improve, having already been described as one of the best players in the world by Dani Alves. The system suits the players who suit the system. With defensive stability and total tactical understanding, the forwards are free to create. It has resulted in gluttony of goals. "If you ask me the difference between this season and last season," said Guardiola, "we have the feeling when we get there (the box), we're going to score a goal. In the past last season we didn't have that. We create a lot but didn't score goals. That's so tough." Sergio Aguero has eight goals in all competitions, Gabriel Jesus seven, Sterling seven and Sane six. Midfielders and defenders have chipped in too - the team isn't reliant on just one performer and the quality of chances has improved too, with expected goals at 27.55 this season compared to 22.75 last season. Wing-backs who can play in centre midfield The huge outlay on wing-backs might have seemed excessive at the time, but it has proven to be entirely necessary. Mendy was excellent before injury ruined his season and Kyle Walker has proven an inspired buy, adjusting to Guardiola's tactical setup like a duck to complicated water. Kyle walker playing in central midfield against Arsenal "It’s just flowing, there’s a lot of one-two touches and creates a flow to the way we are playing, and everybody is moving gradually, and (then) you can do whatever you want," said De Bruyne in an interview with Jamie Redknapp. When De Bruyne moves out to the wing, he does so to create space for someone else. One of Sane or Delph might move inside, Jesus might drop deep. If the wide players overlap first, it creates space for De Bruyne to attack. This is all done without communication, it is learned and requires technically proficient players with tactical understanding. This stretching of play and switching of position is exactly what allowed De Bruyne to score the only goal in a 1-0 win over Chelsea.  City's players have freedom to do as they will in the final third but they must get there having followed the blueprint instructions laid down by Guardiola. At the moment, it looks unstoppable. Someone should steal those plans.

The genius of Pep Guardiola: Eight things he has done to make Man City so frighteningly good

It's agreed: Man City are not bad. But how has Pep Guardiola managed to oversee this turnaround in fortunes? And speaking of which, does he owe much of the early season's successes to said fortune? Without the players, Guardiola wouldn't have such a talented team, after all. Last season they didn't win anything, this season they might win it all. What's different? The goalkeeper fiasco Ederson de Moraes was clearly a heavily scouted, well-researched purchase. At 24 years old, he has potential to develop and form a long-lasting back line with John Stones and whoever happens to partner him, but crucially, is already one of the best ball-playing goalkeepers in European football. An instant improvement to the City defence. He offers more than shot-stopping though. Man City dominate possession by stretching the pitch and playing a high defensive line to force the opposition back deep in their own half, something opposition teams counter with balls over the top. In this system, Guardiola's goalkeeper has to play as a sweeper, racing off his line proactively to deal with passes aimed near the penalty area. Napoli did exactly this during their two Champions League games, with Ederson equal to most sent his way. In this example, Dries Mertens broke the offside trap and looked to be through on goal, Ederson flew off his line and headed away. With this safety net, City can push higher up the pitch. To control the game, City must keep the ball, which is why goal kicks aren't lofted forward even when it seems the safer option. Ederson is as comfortable on the ball as many of City's midfielders, which is especially useful considering he is required to play short passes under constant pressure next to his goal. Without this key component, Guardiola's team cannot build from the back and forgetting Claudio Bravo's dreadful attempts at preventing the ball hitting the back of the net, his inability to pass when pressed was what upset the rhythm last season. Dealing with second balls "Many times the ball is more in the air than the grass, and I have to adapt," said Guardiola shortly after arriving in the Premier League and he maintained his position on the matter in a recent BBC interview with Gary Lineker: "In Spain the value of the ball is so important, in Germany it's physically strong and counter-attack there is a strong weapon. Here the defender is here (points left) and the striker is here (points right) - so the ball don't (sic) travel with the team. This kind of ball if you win is good, if you don't it's counter-attack. But it's attractive for the people." Guardiola believes that you can only control the game if you have the ball and builds his sides to keep it. Contesting aerial battles in the centre of the pitch is like throwing a dice, and though you can increase your chances with bigger players, it leaves too much to random selection. "It's boring to train," he continues. "All the time long balls and I like to train the things I like."  Sam Wallace's Power Rankings 42:04 This season City are better at dealing with long balls because they have trained to deal with them, but also because they have increased their already enormous amount of average possession - an average of 70.5 per cent, as opposed to 65.47 last season. As a result they've had to make fewer tackles (193 to 148), fewer interceptions (157 to 114) and have also conceded fewer goals.  "It's possession with a meaning," said Kevin De Bruyne in a recent Sky Sports interview. After 11 games last season, City had made 6545 passes. This season that number is 7924. Learning how to divide the pitch How Pep Guardiola divides a pitch No more than three players can occupy the same horizontal space, and no more than two can be in the vertical at the same time. These are the rules Pep's players must adhere to maintain the team's structure while allowing freedom of movement. If someone switches position, someone else must take their place. It takes time to learn, with players having complained in past that they leave training sessions with a head-ache, but this season the lessons have sunk in. It took time too at Bayern Munich, just as it did at Barcelona, with Guardiola rolling out different aspects of the big picture in smaller bite-size portions to help everyone understand. Some get it quicker than others.  This is what it should like on a pitch (Stones is out of frame to the right in this picture): Developing an intuitive sense of where to be and when takes time and might not come naturally to many players. City tried to play like this last season but were obviously still learning, reacting to a teammate's movement instead of being able to predict it. Without these passing options, players like John Stones can be caught in possession while waiting for them to open up - that's when mistakes happen. The idea is that there are always open passing lanes in triangle shapes, to allow the ball to be played forward instead of sideways, something Guardiola hates. "Tiki-taka is a load of s***. It means passing the ball for the sake of passing, with no real aim or aggression. I will not allow my brilliant players to fall for that rubbish". Fernandinho is the central pivot, the wide players stretch the pitch, the attacking midfielders play in the space between midfield and defence and Stones or Otamendi act as a (really) deep playmaker while the other sits tight. Everyone has license to swap position and roam but only because there is a fundamental on-pitch understanding that his place will be covered.  Keeping the shape In his playing days, Guardiola was a number four, the holding midfield pivot position that links defence and midfield, and was coached into the Barcelona first team by Johan Cruyff, who he attributes as the mentor behind his meteoric playing and managerial career(s).  Guardiola always nominates one player to operate in that crucial role, almost as a human embodiment of himself on the pitch. An avatar. At Barcelona it was Sergio Busquets, at Bayern Munich he had Phillip Lahm, Thiago Alcantara or Xabi Alonso and now Fernandinho has become the main man. Fernandinho is a key part of Guardiola's Man City team Credit: PA Last season City struggled without someone capable in this position. They tried Yaya Toure but as a naturally more advanced, creative attacking midfield player, he didn't quite suit and would occasionally leave his crucial position vacant - the pivot must act as a weight bearer for the team and as soon as it goes missing, the ceiling is liable to fall in. Ilkay Gundogan got injured, Fernando was more of a ball-winning, box-to-box midfielder and Fernandinho was used at right-back to cover for a shocking lack of options. Even Pablo Zabaleta had a go at being a midfielder. This season it's a different story. However Guardiola has managed it, or perhaps just realised it, Fernandinho is the right player for the job. His positional awareness, tactical acumen and intelligence of movement makes him perfect for maintaining that position, while his ability to play in a number of different roles means he can cover for others in defensive situations when required. De Bruyne, Silva, Aguero and the rest of the goal-getters might take the headlines, but Fernandinho is the key to Man City maintaining their incredible momentum for the rest of the season. Made the squad smaller (and younger) The massive outlay on wingers and younger players by Guardiola was entirely necessary. To compete at the top level clubs need to pay the big bucks to import footballers good enough. City's wage bill went up 25 per cent in Guardiola's first season alone.  Man City's first team squad is made up of 20 players with an average age of 26.75, compared with 25 (to have appeared at least once in the Premier League) last season at an average age of 27.6, which doesn't look an initially staggering difference at first glance. Clearly there is a marked difference in signing Walker, 27 and at his peak, instead of Bacary Sagna, 34, still a free agent. Younger means room for potential and at full-back, improved physical attributes. The blistering pace of Walker and Benjamin Mendy (for a while) on either flank is devastating. Sterling, De Bruyne and Sane are three parts of an exciting Man City attack Credit: GETTY IMAGES Signing the likes of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus as youngsters instead of ready-made talent means City have players who haven't learned the bad habits that might have to be coached out of them in later years. It's not that old dogs can't learn new tricks, rather that it takes them longer and they might already think they know better. By developing an understanding of Guardiola's methods while still themselves developing, the team improves as a whole. Additionally, Guardiola has said that he hates telling squad members they won't be playing on match day and keeps the squad small as a result. Does a lighter squad encourage improved morale? With more playing time to share around there are fewer unhappy individuals. Staying patient Man City stick to the gameplan no matter what. Napoli pushed them hard over two Champions League matches but never once did they deviate from the plan of build from the back, press from the front. Guardiola admits the frenzied pace of Premier League football has an impact on his players. "We want to be patient but sometimes we cannot control it," - everyone in that team has control over their emotions this season. John Stones has been vastly improved, adding defensive steel to his composed nature. The difference to Stones is that his teammates are actively looking to be in the space he needs to pass the ball to. That picture is Stoke making a half-hearted attempt at closing down Ederson. Fernandinho has passed the ball and will move back into his little circle immediately after, just as Nicolas Otamendi will move wide right once Stones gets the ball from the goalkeeper. That triggers Walker and Delph to move higher up into the next division of the pitch, giving Stones options when he is closed down by more/other players.  Improving individuals Raheem Sterling, like most humans, is far better at his job when confident in his own surroundings and abilities. At times in the past, his finishing and choice of final pass wouldn't look out of place on a League One substitutes bench but with Guardiola's guidance Sterling has become one of the top scorers in the Premier League this season.  Delph has been a revelation at left-back, while Fernandinho and Stones are two of the most improved players in the league. Kevin De Bruyne is probably the very best of them all, with David Silva not too far behind. Jesus continues to improve, having already been described as one of the best players in the world by Dani Alves. The system suits the players who suit the system. With defensive stability and total tactical understanding, the forwards are free to create. It has resulted in gluttony of goals. "If you ask me the difference between this season and last season," said Guardiola, "we have the feeling when we get there (the box), we're going to score a goal. In the past last season we didn't have that. We create a lot but didn't score goals. That's so tough." Sergio Aguero has eight goals in all competitions, Gabriel Jesus seven, Sterling seven and Sane six. Midfielders and defenders have chipped in too - the team isn't reliant on just one performer and the quality of chances has improved too, with expected goals at 27.55 this season compared to 22.75 last season. Wing-backs who can play in centre midfield The huge outlay on wing-backs might have seemed excessive at the time, but it has proven to be entirely necessary. Mendy was excellent before injury ruined his season and Kyle Walker has proven an inspired buy, adjusting to Guardiola's tactical setup like a duck to complicated water. Kyle walker playing in central midfield against Arsenal "It’s just flowing, there’s a lot of one-two touches and creates a flow to the way we are playing, and everybody is moving gradually, and (then) you can do whatever you want," said De Bruyne in an interview with Jamie Redknapp. When De Bruyne moves out to the wing, he does so to create space for someone else. One of Sane or Delph might move inside, Jesus might drop deep. If the wide players overlap first, it creates space for De Bruyne to attack. This is all done without communication, it is learned and requires technically proficient players with tactical understanding. This stretching of play and switching of position is exactly what allowed De Bruyne to score the only goal in a 1-0 win over Chelsea.  City's players have freedom to do as they will in the final third but they must get there having followed the blueprint instructions laid down by Guardiola. At the moment, it looks unstoppable. Someone should steal those plans.

The genius of Pep Guardiola: Eight things he has done to make Man City so frighteningly good

It's agreed: Man City are not bad. But how has Pep Guardiola managed to oversee this turnaround in fortunes? And speaking of which, does he owe much of the early season's successes to said fortune? Without the players, Guardiola wouldn't have such a talented team, after all. Last season they didn't win anything, this season they might win it all. What's different? The goalkeeper fiasco Ederson de Moraes was clearly a heavily scouted, well-researched purchase. At 24 years old, he has potential to develop and form a long-lasting back line with John Stones and whoever happens to partner him, but crucially, is already one of the best ball-playing goalkeepers in European football. An instant improvement to the City defence. He offers more than shot-stopping though. Man City dominate possession by stretching the pitch and playing a high defensive line to force the opposition back deep in their own half, something opposition teams counter with balls over the top. In this system, Guardiola's goalkeeper has to play as a sweeper, racing off his line proactively to deal with passes aimed near the penalty area. Napoli did exactly this during their two Champions League games, with Ederson equal to most sent his way. In this example, Dries Mertens broke the offside trap and looked to be through on goal, Ederson flew off his line and headed away. With this safety net, City can push higher up the pitch. To control the game, City must keep the ball, which is why goal kicks aren't lofted forward even when it seems the safer option. Ederson is as comfortable on the ball as many of City's midfielders, which is especially useful considering he is required to play short passes under constant pressure next to his goal. Without this key component, Guardiola's team cannot build from the back and forgetting Claudio Bravo's dreadful attempts at preventing the ball hitting the back of the net, his inability to pass when pressed was what upset the rhythm last season. Dealing with second balls "Many times the ball is more in the air than the grass, and I have to adapt," said Guardiola shortly after arriving in the Premier League and he maintained his position on the matter in a recent BBC interview with Gary Lineker: "In Spain the value of the ball is so important, in Germany it's physically strong and counter-attack there is a strong weapon. Here the defender is here (points left) and the striker is here (points right) - so the ball don't (sic) travel with the team. This kind of ball if you win is good, if you don't it's counter-attack. But it's attractive for the people." Guardiola believes that you can only control the game if you have the ball and builds his sides to keep it. Contesting aerial battles in the centre of the pitch is like throwing a dice, and though you can increase your chances with bigger players, it leaves too much to random selection. "It's boring to train," he continues. "All the time long balls and I like to train the things I like."  Sam Wallace's Power Rankings 42:04 This season City are better at dealing with long balls because they have trained to deal with them, but also because they have increased their already enormous amount of average possession - an average of 70.5 per cent, as opposed to 65.47 last season. As a result they've had to make fewer tackles (193 to 148), fewer interceptions (157 to 114) and have also conceded fewer goals.  "It's possession with a meaning," said Kevin De Bruyne in a recent Sky Sports interview. After 11 games last season, City had made 6545 passes. This season that number is 7924. Learning how to divide the pitch How Pep Guardiola divides a pitch No more than three players can occupy the same horizontal space, and no more than two can be in the vertical at the same time. These are the rules Pep's players must adhere to maintain the team's structure while allowing freedom of movement. If someone switches position, someone else must take their place. It takes time to learn, with players having complained in past that they leave training sessions with a head-ache, but this season the lessons have sunk in. It took time too at Bayern Munich, just as it did at Barcelona, with Guardiola rolling out different aspects of the big picture in smaller bite-size portions to help everyone understand. Some get it quicker than others.  This is what it should like on a pitch (Stones is out of frame to the right in this picture): Developing an intuitive sense of where to be and when takes time and might not come naturally to many players. City tried to play like this last season but were obviously still learning, reacting to a teammate's movement instead of being able to predict it. Without these passing options, players like John Stones can be caught in possession while waiting for them to open up - that's when mistakes happen. The idea is that there are always open passing lanes in triangle shapes, to allow the ball to be played forward instead of sideways, something Guardiola hates. "Tiki-taka is a load of s***. It means passing the ball for the sake of passing, with no real aim or aggression. I will not allow my brilliant players to fall for that rubbish". Fernandinho is the central pivot, the wide players stretch the pitch, the attacking midfielders play in the space between midfield and defence and Stones or Otamendi act as a (really) deep playmaker while the other sits tight. Everyone has license to swap position and roam but only because there is a fundamental on-pitch understanding that his place will be covered.  Keeping the shape In his playing days, Guardiola was a number four, the holding midfield pivot position that links defence and midfield, and was coached into the Barcelona first team by Johan Cruyff, who he attributes as the mentor behind his meteoric playing and managerial career(s).  Guardiola always nominates one player to operate in that crucial role, almost as a human embodiment of himself on the pitch. An avatar. At Barcelona it was Sergio Busquets, at Bayern Munich he had Phillip Lahm, Thiago Alcantara or Xabi Alonso and now Fernandinho has become the main man. Fernandinho is a key part of Guardiola's Man City team Credit: PA Last season City struggled without someone capable in this position. They tried Yaya Toure but as a naturally more advanced, creative attacking midfield player, he didn't quite suit and would occasionally leave his crucial position vacant - the pivot must act as a weight bearer for the team and as soon as it goes missing, the ceiling is liable to fall in. Ilkay Gundogan got injured, Fernando was more of a ball-winning, box-to-box midfielder and Fernandinho was used at right-back to cover for a shocking lack of options. Even Pablo Zabaleta had a go at being a midfielder. This season it's a different story. However Guardiola has managed it, or perhaps just realised it, Fernandinho is the right player for the job. His positional awareness, tactical acumen and intelligence of movement makes him perfect for maintaining that position, while his ability to play in a number of different roles means he can cover for others in defensive situations when required. De Bruyne, Silva, Aguero and the rest of the goal-getters might take the headlines, but Fernandinho is the key to Man City maintaining their incredible momentum for the rest of the season. Made the squad smaller (and younger) The massive outlay on wingers and younger players by Guardiola was entirely necessary. To compete at the top level clubs need to pay the big bucks to import footballers good enough. City's wage bill went up 25 per cent in Guardiola's first season alone.  Man City's first team squad is made up of 20 players with an average age of 26.75, compared with 25 (to have appeared at least once in the Premier League) last season at an average age of 27.6, which doesn't look an initially staggering difference at first glance. Clearly there is a marked difference in signing Walker, 27 and at his peak, instead of Bacary Sagna, 34, still a free agent. Younger means room for potential and at full-back, improved physical attributes. The blistering pace of Walker and Benjamin Mendy (for a while) on either flank is devastating. Sterling, De Bruyne and Sane are three parts of an exciting Man City attack Credit: GETTY IMAGES Signing the likes of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus as youngsters instead of ready-made talent means City have players who haven't learned the bad habits that might have to be coached out of them in later years. It's not that old dogs can't learn new tricks, rather that it takes them longer and they might already think they know better. By developing an understanding of Guardiola's methods while still themselves developing, the team improves as a whole. Additionally, Guardiola has said that he hates telling squad members they won't be playing on match day and keeps the squad small as a result. Does a lighter squad encourage improved morale? With more playing time to share around there are fewer unhappy individuals. Staying patient Man City stick to the gameplan no matter what. Napoli pushed them hard over two Champions League matches but never once did they deviate from the plan of build from the back, press from the front. Guardiola admits the frenzied pace of Premier League football has an impact on his players. "We want to be patient but sometimes we cannot control it," - everyone in that team has control over their emotions this season. John Stones has been vastly improved, adding defensive steel to his composed nature. The difference to Stones is that his teammates are actively looking to be in the space he needs to pass the ball to. That picture is Stoke making a half-hearted attempt at closing down Ederson. Fernandinho has passed the ball and will move back into his little circle immediately after, just as Nicolas Otamendi will move wide right once Stones gets the ball from the goalkeeper. That triggers Walker and Delph to move higher up into the next division of the pitch, giving Stones options when he is closed down by more/other players.  Improving individuals Raheem Sterling, like most humans, is far better at his job when confident in his own surroundings and abilities. At times in the past, his finishing and choice of final pass wouldn't look out of place on a League One substitutes bench but with Guardiola's guidance Sterling has become one of the top scorers in the Premier League this season.  Delph has been a revelation at left-back, while Fernandinho and Stones are two of the most improved players in the league. Kevin De Bruyne is probably the very best of them all, with David Silva not too far behind. Jesus continues to improve, having already been described as one of the best players in the world by Dani Alves. The system suits the players who suit the system. With defensive stability and total tactical understanding, the forwards are free to create. It has resulted in gluttony of goals. "If you ask me the difference between this season and last season," said Guardiola, "we have the feeling when we get there (the box), we're going to score a goal. In the past last season we didn't have that. We create a lot but didn't score goals. That's so tough." Sergio Aguero has eight goals in all competitions, Gabriel Jesus seven, Sterling seven and Sane six. Midfielders and defenders have chipped in too - the team isn't reliant on just one performer and the quality of chances has improved too, with expected goals at 27.55 this season compared to 22.75 last season. Wing-backs who can play in centre midfield The huge outlay on wing-backs might have seemed excessive at the time, but it has proven to be entirely necessary. Mendy was excellent before injury ruined his season and Kyle Walker has proven an inspired buy, adjusting to Guardiola's tactical setup like a duck to complicated water. Kyle walker playing in central midfield against Arsenal "It’s just flowing, there’s a lot of one-two touches and creates a flow to the way we are playing, and everybody is moving gradually, and (then) you can do whatever you want," said De Bruyne in an interview with Jamie Redknapp. When De Bruyne moves out to the wing, he does so to create space for someone else. One of Sane or Delph might move inside, Jesus might drop deep. If the wide players overlap first, it creates space for De Bruyne to attack. This is all done without communication, it is learned and requires technically proficient players with tactical understanding. This stretching of play and switching of position is exactly what allowed De Bruyne to score the only goal in a 1-0 win over Chelsea.  City's players have freedom to do as they will in the final third but they must get there having followed the blueprint instructions laid down by Guardiola. At the moment, it looks unstoppable. Someone should steal those plans.

The genius of Pep Guardiola: Eight things he has done to make Man City so frighteningly good

It's agreed: Man City are not bad. But how has Pep Guardiola managed to oversee this turnaround in fortunes? And speaking of which, does he owe much of the early season's successes to said fortune? Without the players, Guardiola wouldn't have such a talented team, after all. Last season they didn't win anything, this season they might win it all. What's different? The goalkeeper fiasco Ederson de Moraes was clearly a heavily scouted, well-researched purchase. At 24 years old, he has potential to develop and form a long-lasting back line with John Stones and whoever happens to partner him, but crucially, is already one of the best ball-playing goalkeepers in European football. An instant improvement to the City defence. He offers more than shot-stopping though. Man City dominate possession by stretching the pitch and playing a high defensive line to force the opposition back deep in their own half, something opposition teams counter with balls over the top. In this system, Guardiola's goalkeeper has to play as a sweeper, racing off his line proactively to deal with passes aimed near the penalty area. Napoli did exactly this during their two Champions League games, with Ederson equal to most sent his way. In this example, Dries Mertens broke the offside trap and looked to be through on goal, Ederson flew off his line and headed away. With this safety net, City can push higher up the pitch. To control the game, City must keep the ball, which is why goal kicks aren't lofted forward even when it seems the safer option. Ederson is as comfortable on the ball as many of City's midfielders, which is especially useful considering he is required to play short passes under constant pressure next to his goal. Without this key component, Guardiola's team cannot build from the back and forgetting Claudio Bravo's dreadful attempts at preventing the ball hitting the back of the net, his inability to pass when pressed was what upset the rhythm last season. Dealing with second balls "Many times the ball is more in the air than the grass, and I have to adapt," said Guardiola shortly after arriving in the Premier League and he maintained his position on the matter in a recent BBC interview with Gary Lineker: "In Spain the value of the ball is so important, in Germany it's physically strong and counter-attack there is a strong weapon. Here the defender is here (points left) and the striker is here (points right) - so the ball don't (sic) travel with the team. This kind of ball if you win is good, if you don't it's counter-attack. But it's attractive for the people." Guardiola believes that you can only control the game if you have the ball and builds his sides to keep it. Contesting aerial battles in the centre of the pitch is like throwing a dice, and though you can increase your chances with bigger players, it leaves too much to random selection. "It's boring to train," he continues. "All the time long balls and I like to train the things I like."  Sam Wallace's Power Rankings 42:04 This season City are better at dealing with long balls because they have trained to deal with them, but also because they have increased their already enormous amount of average possession - an average of 70.5 per cent, as opposed to 65.47 last season. As a result they've had to make fewer tackles (193 to 148), fewer interceptions (157 to 114) and have also conceded fewer goals.  "It's possession with a meaning," said Kevin De Bruyne in a recent Sky Sports interview. After 11 games last season, City had made 6545 passes. This season that number is 7924. Learning how to divide the pitch How Pep Guardiola divides a pitch No more than three players can occupy the same horizontal space, and no more than two can be in the vertical at the same time. These are the rules Pep's players must adhere to maintain the team's structure while allowing freedom of movement. If someone switches position, someone else must take their place. It takes time to learn, with players having complained in past that they leave training sessions with a head-ache, but this season the lessons have sunk in. It took time too at Bayern Munich, just as it did at Barcelona, with Guardiola rolling out different aspects of the big picture in smaller bite-size portions to help everyone understand. Some get it quicker than others.  This is what it should like on a pitch (Stones is out of frame to the right in this picture): Developing an intuitive sense of where to be and when takes time and might not come naturally to many players. City tried to play like this last season but were obviously still learning, reacting to a teammate's movement instead of being able to predict it. Without these passing options, players like John Stones can be caught in possession while waiting for them to open up - that's when mistakes happen. The idea is that there are always open passing lanes in triangle shapes, to allow the ball to be played forward instead of sideways, something Guardiola hates. "Tiki-taka is a load of s***. It means passing the ball for the sake of passing, with no real aim or aggression. I will not allow my brilliant players to fall for that rubbish". Fernandinho is the central pivot, the wide players stretch the pitch, the attacking midfielders play in the space between midfield and defence and Stones or Otamendi act as a (really) deep playmaker while the other sits tight. Everyone has license to swap position and roam but only because there is a fundamental on-pitch understanding that his place will be covered.  Keeping the shape In his playing days, Guardiola was a number four, the holding midfield pivot position that links defence and midfield, and was coached into the Barcelona first team by Johan Cruyff, who he attributes as the mentor behind his meteoric playing and managerial career(s).  Guardiola always nominates one player to operate in that crucial role, almost as a human embodiment of himself on the pitch. An avatar. At Barcelona it was Sergio Busquets, at Bayern Munich he had Phillip Lahm, Thiago Alcantara or Xabi Alonso and now Fernandinho has become the main man. Fernandinho is a key part of Guardiola's Man City team Credit: PA Last season City struggled without someone capable in this position. They tried Yaya Toure but as a naturally more advanced, creative attacking midfield player, he didn't quite suit and would occasionally leave his crucial position vacant - the pivot must act as a weight bearer for the team and as soon as it goes missing, the ceiling is liable to fall in. Ilkay Gundogan got injured, Fernando was more of a ball-winning, box-to-box midfielder and Fernandinho was used at right-back to cover for a shocking lack of options. Even Pablo Zabaleta had a go at being a midfielder. This season it's a different story. However Guardiola has managed it, or perhaps just realised it, Fernandinho is the right player for the job. His positional awareness, tactical acumen and intelligence of movement makes him perfect for maintaining that position, while his ability to play in a number of different roles means he can cover for others in defensive situations when required. De Bruyne, Silva, Aguero and the rest of the goal-getters might take the headlines, but Fernandinho is the key to Man City maintaining their incredible momentum for the rest of the season. Made the squad smaller (and younger) The massive outlay on wingers and younger players by Guardiola was entirely necessary. To compete at the top level clubs need to pay the big bucks to import footballers good enough. City's wage bill went up 25 per cent in Guardiola's first season alone.  Man City's first team squad is made up of 20 players with an average age of 26.75, compared with 25 (to have appeared at least once in the Premier League) last season at an average age of 27.6, which doesn't look an initially staggering difference at first glance. Clearly there is a marked difference in signing Walker, 27 and at his peak, instead of Bacary Sagna, 34, still a free agent. Younger means room for potential and at full-back, improved physical attributes. The blistering pace of Walker and Benjamin Mendy (for a while) on either flank is devastating. Sterling, De Bruyne and Sane are three parts of an exciting Man City attack Credit: GETTY IMAGES Signing the likes of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus as youngsters instead of ready-made talent means City have players who haven't learned the bad habits that might have to be coached out of them in later years. It's not that old dogs can't learn new tricks, rather that it takes them longer and they might already think they know better. By developing an understanding of Guardiola's methods while still themselves developing, the team improves as a whole. Additionally, Guardiola has said that he hates telling squad members they won't be playing on match day and keeps the squad small as a result. Does a lighter squad encourage improved morale? With more playing time to share around there are fewer unhappy individuals. Staying patient Man City stick to the gameplan no matter what. Napoli pushed them hard over two Champions League matches but never once did they deviate from the plan of build from the back, press from the front. Guardiola admits the frenzied pace of Premier League football has an impact on his players. "We want to be patient but sometimes we cannot control it," - everyone in that team has control over their emotions this season. John Stones has been vastly improved, adding defensive steel to his composed nature. The difference to Stones is that his teammates are actively looking to be in the space he needs to pass the ball to. That picture is Stoke making a half-hearted attempt at closing down Ederson. Fernandinho has passed the ball and will move back into his little circle immediately after, just as Nicolas Otamendi will move wide right once Stones gets the ball from the goalkeeper. That triggers Walker and Delph to move higher up into the next division of the pitch, giving Stones options when he is closed down by more/other players.  Improving individuals Raheem Sterling, like most humans, is far better at his job when confident in his own surroundings and abilities. At times in the past, his finishing and choice of final pass wouldn't look out of place on a League One substitutes bench but with Guardiola's guidance Sterling has become one of the top scorers in the Premier League this season.  Delph has been a revelation at left-back, while Fernandinho and Stones are two of the most improved players in the league. Kevin De Bruyne is probably the very best of them all, with David Silva not too far behind. Jesus continues to improve, having already been described as one of the best players in the world by Dani Alves. The system suits the players who suit the system. With defensive stability and total tactical understanding, the forwards are free to create. It has resulted in gluttony of goals. "If you ask me the difference between this season and last season," said Guardiola, "we have the feeling when we get there (the box), we're going to score a goal. In the past last season we didn't have that. We create a lot but didn't score goals. That's so tough." Sergio Aguero has eight goals in all competitions, Gabriel Jesus seven, Sterling seven and Sane six. Midfielders and defenders have chipped in too - the team isn't reliant on just one performer and the quality of chances has improved too, with expected goals at 27.55 this season compared to 22.75 last season. Wing-backs who can play in centre midfield The huge outlay on wing-backs might have seemed excessive at the time, but it has proven to be entirely necessary. Mendy was excellent before injury ruined his season and Kyle Walker has proven an inspired buy, adjusting to Guardiola's tactical setup like a duck to complicated water. Kyle walker playing in central midfield against Arsenal "It’s just flowing, there’s a lot of one-two touches and creates a flow to the way we are playing, and everybody is moving gradually, and (then) you can do whatever you want," said De Bruyne in an interview with Jamie Redknapp. When De Bruyne moves out to the wing, he does so to create space for someone else. One of Sane or Delph might move inside, Jesus might drop deep. If the wide players overlap first, it creates space for De Bruyne to attack. This is all done without communication, it is learned and requires technically proficient players with tactical understanding. This stretching of play and switching of position is exactly what allowed De Bruyne to score the only goal in a 1-0 win over Chelsea.  City's players have freedom to do as they will in the final third but they must get there having followed the blueprint instructions laid down by Guardiola. At the moment, it looks unstoppable. Someone should steal those plans.

The genius of Pep Guardiola: Eight things he has done to make Man City so frighteningly good

It's agreed: Man City are not bad. But how has Pep Guardiola managed to oversee this turnaround in fortunes? And speaking of which, does he owe much of the early season's successes to said fortune? Without the players, Guardiola wouldn't have such a talented team, after all. Last season they didn't win anything, this season they might win it all. What's different? The goalkeeper fiasco Ederson de Moraes was clearly a heavily scouted, well-researched purchase. At 24 years old, he has potential to develop and form a long-lasting back line with John Stones and whoever happens to partner him, but crucially, is already one of the best ball-playing goalkeepers in European football. An instant improvement to the City defence. He offers more than shot-stopping though. Man City dominate possession by stretching the pitch and playing a high defensive line to force the opposition back deep in their own half, something opposition teams counter with balls over the top. In this system, Guardiola's goalkeeper has to play as a sweeper, racing off his line proactively to deal with passes aimed near the penalty area. Napoli did exactly this during their two Champions League games, with Ederson equal to most sent his way. In this example, Dries Mertens broke the offside trap and looked to be through on goal, Ederson flew off his line and headed away. With this safety net, City can push higher up the pitch. To control the game, City must keep the ball, which is why goal kicks aren't lofted forward even when it seems the safer option. Ederson is as comfortable on the ball as many of City's midfielders, which is especially useful considering he is required to play short passes under constant pressure next to his goal. Without this key component, Guardiola's team cannot build from the back and forgetting Claudio Bravo's dreadful attempts at preventing the ball hitting the back of the net, his inability to pass when pressed was what upset the rhythm last season. Dealing with second balls "Many times the ball is more in the air than the grass, and I have to adapt," said Guardiola shortly after arriving in the Premier League and he maintained his position on the matter in a recent BBC interview with Gary Lineker: "In Spain the value of the ball is so important, in Germany it's physically strong and counter-attack there is a strong weapon. Here the defender is here (points left) and the striker is here (points right) - so the ball don't (sic) travel with the team. This kind of ball if you win is good, if you don't it's counter-attack. But it's attractive for the people." Guardiola believes that you can only control the game if you have the ball and builds his sides to keep it. Contesting aerial battles in the centre of the pitch is like throwing a dice, and though you can increase your chances with bigger players, it leaves too much to random selection. "It's boring to train," he continues. "All the time long balls and I like to train the things I like."  Sam Wallace's Power Rankings 42:04 This season City are better at dealing with long balls because they have trained to deal with them, but also because they have increased their already enormous amount of average possession - an average of 70.5 per cent, as opposed to 65.47 last season. As a result they've had to make fewer tackles (193 to 148), fewer interceptions (157 to 114) and have also conceded fewer goals.  "It's possession with a meaning," said Kevin De Bruyne in a recent Sky Sports interview. After 11 games last season, City had made 6545 passes. This season that number is 7924. Learning how to divide the pitch How Pep Guardiola divides a pitch No more than three players can occupy the same horizontal space, and no more than two can be in the vertical at the same time. These are the rules Pep's players must adhere to maintain the team's structure while allowing freedom of movement. If someone switches position, someone else must take their place. It takes time to learn, with players having complained in past that they leave training sessions with a head-ache, but this season the lessons have sunk in. It took time too at Bayern Munich, just as it did at Barcelona, with Guardiola rolling out different aspects of the big picture in smaller bite-size portions to help everyone understand. Some get it quicker than others.  This is what it should like on a pitch (Stones is out of frame to the right in this picture): Developing an intuitive sense of where to be and when takes time and might not come naturally to many players. City tried to play like this last season but were obviously still learning, reacting to a teammate's movement instead of being able to predict it. Without these passing options, players like John Stones can be caught in possession while waiting for them to open up - that's when mistakes happen. The idea is that there are always open passing lanes in triangle shapes, to allow the ball to be played forward instead of sideways, something Guardiola hates. "Tiki-taka is a load of s***. It means passing the ball for the sake of passing, with no real aim or aggression. I will not allow my brilliant players to fall for that rubbish". Fernandinho is the central pivot, the wide players stretch the pitch, the attacking midfielders play in the space between midfield and defence and Stones or Otamendi act as a (really) deep playmaker while the other sits tight. Everyone has license to swap position and roam but only because there is a fundamental on-pitch understanding that his place will be covered.  Keeping the shape In his playing days, Guardiola was a number four, the holding midfield pivot position that links defence and midfield, and was coached into the Barcelona first team by Johan Cruyff, who he attributes as the mentor behind his meteoric playing and managerial career(s).  Guardiola always nominates one player to operate in that crucial role, almost as a human embodiment of himself on the pitch. An avatar. At Barcelona it was Sergio Busquets, at Bayern Munich he had Phillip Lahm, Thiago Alcantara or Xabi Alonso and now Fernandinho has become the main man. Fernandinho is a key part of Guardiola's Man City team Credit: PA Last season City struggled without someone capable in this position. They tried Yaya Toure but as a naturally more advanced, creative attacking midfield player, he didn't quite suit and would occasionally leave his crucial position vacant - the pivot must act as a weight bearer for the team and as soon as it goes missing, the ceiling is liable to fall in. Ilkay Gundogan got injured, Fernando was more of a ball-winning, box-to-box midfielder and Fernandinho was used at right-back to cover for a shocking lack of options. Even Pablo Zabaleta had a go at being a midfielder. This season it's a different story. However Guardiola has managed it, or perhaps just realised it, Fernandinho is the right player for the job. His positional awareness, tactical acumen and intelligence of movement makes him perfect for maintaining that position, while his ability to play in a number of different roles means he can cover for others in defensive situations when required. De Bruyne, Silva, Aguero and the rest of the goal-getters might take the headlines, but Fernandinho is the key to Man City maintaining their incredible momentum for the rest of the season. Made the squad smaller (and younger) The massive outlay on wingers and younger players by Guardiola was entirely necessary. To compete at the top level clubs need to pay the big bucks to import footballers good enough. City's wage bill went up 25 per cent in Guardiola's first season alone.  Man City's first team squad is made up of 20 players with an average age of 26.75, compared with 25 (to have appeared at least once in the Premier League) last season at an average age of 27.6, which doesn't look an initially staggering difference at first glance. Clearly there is a marked difference in signing Walker, 27 and at his peak, instead of Bacary Sagna, 34, still a free agent. Younger means room for potential and at full-back, improved physical attributes. The blistering pace of Walker and Benjamin Mendy (for a while) on either flank is devastating. Sterling, De Bruyne and Sane are three parts of an exciting Man City attack Credit: GETTY IMAGES Signing the likes of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus as youngsters instead of ready-made talent means City have players who haven't learned the bad habits that might have to be coached out of them in later years. It's not that old dogs can't learn new tricks, rather that it takes them longer and they might already think they know better. By developing an understanding of Guardiola's methods while still themselves developing, the team improves as a whole. Additionally, Guardiola has said that he hates telling squad members they won't be playing on match day and keeps the squad small as a result. Does a lighter squad encourage improved morale? With more playing time to share around there are fewer unhappy individuals. Staying patient Man City stick to the gameplan no matter what. Napoli pushed them hard over two Champions League matches but never once did they deviate from the plan of build from the back, press from the front. Guardiola admits the frenzied pace of Premier League football has an impact on his players. "We want to be patient but sometimes we cannot control it," - everyone in that team has control over their emotions this season. John Stones has been vastly improved, adding defensive steel to his composed nature. The difference to Stones is that his teammates are actively looking to be in the space he needs to pass the ball to. That picture is Stoke making a half-hearted attempt at closing down Ederson. Fernandinho has passed the ball and will move back into his little circle immediately after, just as Nicolas Otamendi will move wide right once Stones gets the ball from the goalkeeper. That triggers Walker and Delph to move higher up into the next division of the pitch, giving Stones options when he is closed down by more/other players.  Improving individuals Raheem Sterling, like most humans, is far better at his job when confident in his own surroundings and abilities. At times in the past, his finishing and choice of final pass wouldn't look out of place on a League One substitutes bench but with Guardiola's guidance Sterling has become one of the top scorers in the Premier League this season.  Delph has been a revelation at left-back, while Fernandinho and Stones are two of the most improved players in the league. Kevin De Bruyne is probably the very best of them all, with David Silva not too far behind. Jesus continues to improve, having already been described as one of the best players in the world by Dani Alves. The system suits the players who suit the system. With defensive stability and total tactical understanding, the forwards are free to create. It has resulted in gluttony of goals. "If you ask me the difference between this season and last season," said Guardiola, "we have the feeling when we get there (the box), we're going to score a goal. In the past last season we didn't have that. We create a lot but didn't score goals. That's so tough." Sergio Aguero has eight goals in all competitions, Gabriel Jesus seven, Sterling seven and Sane six. Midfielders and defenders have chipped in too - the team isn't reliant on just one performer and the quality of chances has improved too, with expected goals at 27.55 this season compared to 22.75 last season. Wing-backs who can play in centre midfield The huge outlay on wing-backs might have seemed excessive at the time, but it has proven to be entirely necessary. Mendy was excellent before injury ruined his season and Kyle Walker has proven an inspired buy, adjusting to Guardiola's tactical setup like a duck to complicated water. Kyle walker playing in central midfield against Arsenal "It’s just flowing, there’s a lot of one-two touches and creates a flow to the way we are playing, and everybody is moving gradually, and (then) you can do whatever you want," said De Bruyne in an interview with Jamie Redknapp. When De Bruyne moves out to the wing, he does so to create space for someone else. One of Sane or Delph might move inside, Jesus might drop deep. If the wide players overlap first, it creates space for De Bruyne to attack. This is all done without communication, it is learned and requires technically proficient players with tactical understanding. This stretching of play and switching of position is exactly what allowed De Bruyne to score the only goal in a 1-0 win over Chelsea.  City's players have freedom to do as they will in the final third but they must get there having followed the blueprint instructions laid down by Guardiola. At the moment, it looks unstoppable. Someone should steal those plans.

Thomas Mueller should return to action for Bayern Munich against Augsburg this weekend after three weeks on the treatment table

Thomas Mueller should return to action for Bayern Munich against Augsburg this weekend after three weeks on the treatment table (AFP Photo/Christof STACHE)

Thomas Mueller should return to action for Bayern Munich against Augsburg this weekend after three weeks on the treatment table

Bayern's Wagner interest confirmed by Nagelsmann

Sandro Wagner has been linked with a return to Bayern Munich and Julian Nagelsmann has confirmed the deal could happen.

Hoffenheim confirm Wagner's desire to move to Bayern Munich

The striker came up through the Bavarian club's youth system and is now keen on a return to his hometown side

Hoffenheim confirm Wagner's desire to move to Bayern Munich

Hoffenheim confirm Wagner's desire to move to Bayern Munich

Hoffenheim confirm Wagner's desire to move to Bayern Munich

Hoffenheim confirm Wagner's desire to move to Bayern Munich

Hoffenheim confirm Wagner's desire to move to Bayern Munich

The striker came up through the Bavarian club's youth system and is now keen on a return to his hometown side

John Stones is no longer a soft touch, but instead a rock at heart of Manchester City's defence – thanks largely to Pep Guardiola's patience

No one at Manchester City needs reminding what happened on their last visit to the King Power Stadium, least of all John Stones. Leicester won 4-2, having been three in front after just 20 minutes, and a stray pass from Stones late on allowed Jamie Vardy to complete his hat-trick and compound a game to forget for the England centre-half. Pep Guardiola responded to criticism of his team’s defending that day by declaring: “I’m not a coach for the tackles – so I don’t train the tackles.” Fast forward 11 months and it is not just a very different City side Leicester are likely to encounter at the same venue on Saturday afternoon but a very different Stones, too. City lead the Premier League table by eight points, but for all the goals and bewitching beauty of their football, the most eye-catching part of Guardiola’s revolution has been the sharp improvement in almost every single player. City fans can enjoy arguing over who has come on the most but there is good reason why Guardiola considers Stones, along with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane, to be like a new signing. The strides taken by Stones over the past three months, in particular, stand as glowing testament not just to Guardiola’s meticulous coaching methods but the way the player has grasped the Catalan’s exacting demands, absorbed what he has learnt and developed to the point of being the Premier League’s standout defender this term. That £50 million price tag no longer weighs heavily. Guardiola considers all his players to be personal projects within a big, unifying project. Yet, speaking to sources at City, it is clear the manager has considered Stones to be one with more scope than many to “shape and mould” and comparisons are now being drawn with the work he did with Jerome Boateng at Bayern Munich. Boateng was 25 when Guardiola arrived at Bayern, two years older than Stones is now, but his journey to becoming one of the world’s best centre-halves was not without its chinks and, like Stones, the German, for all his talent and athleticism, was prone to glaring lapses of concentration. Guardiola would tell Boateng that he needed to play the way he would drive a car: with much more focus and consideration, always looking left, right and in the rear mirror to check what is happening around you and the same is now being said to Stones. That lapse against Leicester was not an isolated incident. There were similar errors against Southampton, Barcelona and Everton, which led to persistent debate about whether Stones was learning, but he has cut a far more concentrated figure on the pitch this season, as evidenced most recently for England in the goalless draws against Germany and Brazil, a huge boon for Gareth Southgate. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola (left) has helped improve Stones's understanding of the game Credit: Getty Images But it is not just the improved concentration. Stones is visibly stronger and more aggressive and is proving far more effective and robust in one-on-one situations, an area Guardiola pinpointed as requiring serious improvement. Remember Stones being bumped off the ball by Radamel Falcao before the Monaco striker lobbed Willy Caballero in the Champions League in February? Contrast that to the way Stoke’s Jese, Watford’s Andre Gray and Crystal Palace’s Christian Benteke have been outmuscled by the City player this season. Stones was frustrated by the perception of him as some sort of soft touch defensively or, as one source put it, “just a pretty boy ball-playing defender”, but his self-belief has not wavered and there is a clear hunger for trophies. Mikel Arteta, the former Everton and Arsenal midfielder and a trusted member of Guardiola’s back-room staff, has worked closely with Stones on both the physical and mental aspects of the game. Aerially, Stones is far more commanding and dominant, the result of a significant step up in gym work since the turn of the year that, on a naturally lean figure, takes time to bear fruit but also substantial time spent practising runs and jumps and the timing of both. It is no surprise he is also contributing goals. He has three so far this season and has been a persistent menace in the opposition penalty area. There are, of course, other key factors behind Stones’ evolution. The arrival of goalkeeper Ederson, whom Stones loves playing with, has infused the defence with confidence after the struggles of Claudio Bravo last season and the signing of three new dynamic full-backs in Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo. Fabian Delph’s emergence has had a similarly transformative effect. Stones did not enjoy the best of starts following his big-money move from Everton Credit: Rex Features But no less significant has been Stones’s relationship with central-defensive partner Nicolas Otamendi. Guardiola wanted the pair to take on more responsibility and, in the absence once again of injured captain Vincent Kompany, they are demonstrating clear leadership at the back and, interestingly, communicating using a combination of English and Spanish. Stones is regarded as a future City captain and Guardiola’s trust in him is reflected by the number of times the manager calls him over in games to impart instructions. Otamendi would regularly frustrate City’s coaching staff with what they felt amounted to “lazy” defending – for example, diving in needlessly at the feet of opponents or too often standing on the wrong side of a rival, key details in a set-up that places such importance on positional awareness. But Otamendi has sought to address those shortcomings, and while he can still be rash, the Argentine has been far more assured. No less noticeable have been the improvements in Stones and Otamendi’s passing, which is one of the reasons City have been able to play a much higher defensive line this season. Stones’s passing accuracy has been almost 97 per cent this term compared to 88 per cent in his final season at Everton and nearly 93 per cent in the opposition half, a remarkable 15 per cent improvement from 2015/16. He is also averaging almost 23 more touches per game than then. Otamendi’s improvement is no less pronounced with 87 per cent of his passes in the opposition half find their target compared to 77 per cent two seasons ago under Manuel Pellegrini and he is now making 32 more passes per game than then. The De Bruynes and Sanes may be stealing the headlines but Stones, like Otamendi, is slowly changing opinions and forming a crucial central pillar in this City side. Vardy and Leicester should find it harder going this time around.

John Stones is no longer a soft touch, but instead a rock at heart of Manchester City's defence – thanks largely to Pep Guardiola's patience

No one at Manchester City needs reminding what happened on their last visit to the King Power Stadium, least of all John Stones. Leicester won 4-2, having been three in front after just 20 minutes, and a stray pass from Stones late on allowed Jamie Vardy to complete his hat-trick and compound a game to forget for the England centre-half. Pep Guardiola responded to criticism of his team’s defending that day by declaring: “I’m not a coach for the tackles – so I don’t train the tackles.” Fast forward 11 months and it is not just a very different City side Leicester are likely to encounter at the same venue on Saturday afternoon but a very different Stones, too. City lead the Premier League table by eight points, but for all the goals and bewitching beauty of their football, the most eye-catching part of Guardiola’s revolution has been the sharp improvement in almost every single player. City fans can enjoy arguing over who has come on the most but there is good reason why Guardiola considers Stones, along with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane, to be like a new signing. The strides taken by Stones over the past three months, in particular, stand as glowing testament not just to Guardiola’s meticulous coaching methods but the way the player has grasped the Catalan’s exacting demands, absorbed what he has learnt and developed to the point of being the Premier League’s standout defender this term. That £50 million price tag no longer weighs heavily. Guardiola considers all his players to be personal projects within a big, unifying project. Yet, speaking to sources at City, it is clear the manager has considered Stones to be one with more scope than many to “shape and mould” and comparisons are now being drawn with the work he did with Jerome Boateng at Bayern Munich. Boateng was 25 when Guardiola arrived at Bayern, two years older than Stones is now, but his journey to becoming one of the world’s best centre-halves was not without its chinks and, like Stones, the German, for all his talent and athleticism, was prone to glaring lapses of concentration. Guardiola would tell Boateng that he needed to play the way he would drive a car: with much more focus and consideration, always looking left, right and in the rear mirror to check what is happening around you and the same is now being said to Stones. That lapse against Leicester was not an isolated incident. There were similar errors against Southampton, Barcelona and Everton, which led to persistent debate about whether Stones was learning, but he has cut a far more concentrated figure on the pitch this season, as evidenced most recently for England in the goalless draws against Germany and Brazil, a huge boon for Gareth Southgate. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola (left) has helped improve Stones's understanding of the game Credit: Getty Images But it is not just the improved concentration. Stones is visibly stronger and more aggressive and is proving far more effective and robust in one-on-one situations, an area Guardiola pinpointed as requiring serious improvement. Remember Stones being bumped off the ball by Radamel Falcao before the Monaco striker lobbed Willy Caballero in the Champions League in February? Contrast that to the way Stoke’s Jese, Watford’s Andre Gray and Crystal Palace’s Christian Benteke have been outmuscled by the City player this season. Stones was frustrated by the perception of him as some sort of soft touch defensively or, as one source put it, “just a pretty boy ball-playing defender”, but his self-belief has not wavered and there is a clear hunger for trophies. Mikel Arteta, the former Everton and Arsenal midfielder and a trusted member of Guardiola’s back-room staff, has worked closely with Stones on both the physical and mental aspects of the game. Aerially, Stones is far more commanding and dominant, the result of a significant step up in gym work since the turn of the year that, on a naturally lean figure, takes time to bear fruit but also substantial time spent practising runs and jumps and the timing of both. It is no surprise he is also contributing goals. He has three so far this season and has been a persistent menace in the opposition penalty area. There are, of course, other key factors behind Stones’ evolution. The arrival of goalkeeper Ederson, whom Stones loves playing with, has infused the defence with confidence after the struggles of Claudio Bravo last season and the signing of three new dynamic full-backs in Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo. Fabian Delph’s emergence has had a similarly transformative effect. Stones did not enjoy the best of starts following his big-money move from Everton Credit: Rex Features But no less significant has been Stones’s relationship with central-defensive partner Nicolas Otamendi. Guardiola wanted the pair to take on more responsibility and, in the absence once again of injured captain Vincent Kompany, they are demonstrating clear leadership at the back and, interestingly, communicating using a combination of English and Spanish. Stones is regarded as a future City captain and Guardiola’s trust in him is reflected by the number of times the manager calls him over in games to impart instructions. Otamendi would regularly frustrate City’s coaching staff with what they felt amounted to “lazy” defending – for example, diving in needlessly at the feet of opponents or too often standing on the wrong side of a rival, key details in a set-up that places such importance on positional awareness. But Otamendi has sought to address those shortcomings, and while he can still be rash, the Argentine has been far more assured. No less noticeable have been the improvements in Stones and Otamendi’s passing, which is one of the reasons City have been able to play a much higher defensive line this season. Stones’s passing accuracy has been almost 97 per cent this term compared to 88 per cent in his final season at Everton and nearly 93 per cent in the opposition half, a remarkable 15 per cent improvement from 2015/16. He is also averaging almost 23 more touches per game than then. Otamendi’s improvement is no less pronounced with 87 per cent of his passes in the opposition half find their target compared to 77 per cent two seasons ago under Manuel Pellegrini and he is now making 32 more passes per game than then. The De Bruynes and Sanes may be stealing the headlines but Stones, like Otamendi, is slowly changing opinions and forming a crucial central pillar in this City side. Vardy and Leicester should find it harder going this time around.

John Stones is no longer a soft touch, but instead a rock at heart of Manchester City's defence – thanks largely to Pep Guardiola's patience

No one at Manchester City needs reminding what happened on their last visit to the King Power Stadium, least of all John Stones. Leicester won 4-2, having been three in front after just 20 minutes, and a stray pass from Stones late on allowed Jamie Vardy to complete his hat-trick and compound a game to forget for the England centre-half. Pep Guardiola responded to criticism of his team’s defending that day by declaring: “I’m not a coach for the tackles – so I don’t train the tackles.” Fast forward 11 months and it is not just a very different City side Leicester are likely to encounter at the same venue on Saturday afternoon but a very different Stones, too. City lead the Premier League table by eight points, but for all the goals and bewitching beauty of their football, the most eye-catching part of Guardiola’s revolution has been the sharp improvement in almost every single player. City fans can enjoy arguing over who has come on the most but there is good reason why Guardiola considers Stones, along with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane, to be like a new signing. The strides taken by Stones over the past three months, in particular, stand as glowing testament not just to Guardiola’s meticulous coaching methods but the way the player has grasped the Catalan’s exacting demands, absorbed what he has learnt and developed to the point of being the Premier League’s standout defender this term. That £50 million price tag no longer weighs heavily. Guardiola considers all his players to be personal projects within a big, unifying project. Yet, speaking to sources at City, it is clear the manager has considered Stones to be one with more scope than many to “shape and mould” and comparisons are now being drawn with the work he did with Jerome Boateng at Bayern Munich. Boateng was 25 when Guardiola arrived at Bayern, two years older than Stones is now, but his journey to becoming one of the world’s best centre-halves was not without its chinks and, like Stones, the German, for all his talent and athleticism, was prone to glaring lapses of concentration. Guardiola would tell Boateng that he needed to play the way he would drive a car: with much more focus and consideration, always looking left, right and in the rear mirror to check what is happening around you and the same is now being said to Stones. That lapse against Leicester was not an isolated incident. There were similar errors against Southampton, Barcelona and Everton, which led to persistent debate about whether Stones was learning, but he has cut a far more concentrated figure on the pitch this season, as evidenced most recently for England in the goalless draws against Germany and Brazil, a huge boon for Gareth Southgate. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola (left) has helped improve Stones's understanding of the game Credit: Getty Images But it is not just the improved concentration. Stones is visibly stronger and more aggressive and is proving far more effective and robust in one-on-one situations, an area Guardiola pinpointed as requiring serious improvement. Remember Stones being bumped off the ball by Radamel Falcao before the Monaco striker lobbed Willy Caballero in the Champions League in February? Contrast that to the way Stoke’s Jese, Watford’s Andre Gray and Crystal Palace’s Christian Benteke have been outmuscled by the City player this season. Stones was frustrated by the perception of him as some sort of soft touch defensively or, as one source put it, “just a pretty boy ball-playing defender”, but his self-belief has not wavered and there is a clear hunger for trophies. Mikel Arteta, the former Everton and Arsenal midfielder and a trusted member of Guardiola’s back-room staff, has worked closely with Stones on both the physical and mental aspects of the game. Aerially, Stones is far more commanding and dominant, the result of a significant step up in gym work since the turn of the year that, on a naturally lean figure, takes time to bear fruit but also substantial time spent practising runs and jumps and the timing of both. It is no surprise he is also contributing goals. He has three so far this season and has been a persistent menace in the opposition penalty area. There are, of course, other key factors behind Stones’ evolution. The arrival of goalkeeper Ederson, whom Stones loves playing with, has infused the defence with confidence after the struggles of Claudio Bravo last season and the signing of three new dynamic full-backs in Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo. Fabian Delph’s emergence has had a similarly transformative effect. Stones did not enjoy the best of starts following his big-money move from Everton Credit: Rex Features But no less significant has been Stones’s relationship with central-defensive partner Nicolas Otamendi. Guardiola wanted the pair to take on more responsibility and, in the absence once again of injured captain Vincent Kompany, they are demonstrating clear leadership at the back and, interestingly, communicating using a combination of English and Spanish. Stones is regarded as a future City captain and Guardiola’s trust in him is reflected by the number of times the manager calls him over in games to impart instructions. Otamendi would regularly frustrate City’s coaching staff with what they felt amounted to “lazy” defending – for example, diving in needlessly at the feet of opponents or too often standing on the wrong side of a rival, key details in a set-up that places such importance on positional awareness. But Otamendi has sought to address those shortcomings, and while he can still be rash, the Argentine has been far more assured. No less noticeable have been the improvements in Stones and Otamendi’s passing, which is one of the reasons City have been able to play a much higher defensive line this season. Stones’s passing accuracy has been almost 97 per cent this term compared to 88 per cent in his final season at Everton and nearly 93 per cent in the opposition half, a remarkable 15 per cent improvement from 2015/16. He is also averaging almost 23 more touches per game than then. Otamendi’s improvement is no less pronounced with 87 per cent of his passes in the opposition half find their target compared to 77 per cent two seasons ago under Manuel Pellegrini and he is now making 32 more passes per game than then. The De Bruynes and Sanes may be stealing the headlines but Stones, like Otamendi, is slowly changing opinions and forming a crucial central pillar in this City side. Vardy and Leicester should find it harder going this time around.

Kane the same as Lewandowski, Eboue proclaims

Harry Kane has reached a similar level to Bayern Munich and Poland star Robert Lewandowski, Emmanuel Eboue has said.

World Cup Power Rankings: How the 2018 Field of 32 Nations Stacks Up

With the field of the 32 nations who will compete at the World Cup in Russia next summer completed by Peru's success in Lima Wednesday night, there's little time to waste in ranking the sides headed to the showcase event by making an initial assessment of their form.

Sure, there is plenty left to be decided. Which nations have managerial issues to resolve? Who knows what their starting lineup is likely to be? Who is praying for their key center forward to stay fit? Everything, of course, could change with the answers to those questions and the fallout from the group draw on Dec. 1, but, with all else being equal, who are the likely winners and who's just glad to going to Russia? Here's how we see the World Cup field stacking up:

1. BRAZIL

Six games into qualifying, Brazil had won only twice and looked in serious danger of failing to qualify. Going out of the Copa America Centenario in the group stage confirmed the moribund state of the Brazilian game. But then Tite replaced Dunga as manager, and the whole set-up changed. This Brazil plays modern, aggressive football, is far less reliant on Neymar and won 10 and drew two of its final 12 games to qualify, a full 10 points clear at the top of the CONMEBOL table.

Best Finish: Champions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)

2. SPAIN

Eliminated in the group stage in the last World Cup and then beaten by Italy in the last 16 of Euro 2016, the curtain seemed to have come down on the golden age of Spanish football. But after replacing Vicente Del Bosque, Julen Lopetegui has rejuvenated the side. Its 3-0 win over Italy in qualifying offered a clear warning that Spain is back.

Best Finish: Champions (2010)

3. GERMANY

Germany disappointed at Euro 2016, never really hitting top form and being well-beaten by France in the semifinal. Since then, though, it has qualified for the World Cup with a perfect 10-0-0 record and won the Confederations Cup with what was, in effect, a reserve side. Manager Jogi Low has used 36 players over the past two years, which for another manager might be a sign of chaos; for him it’s an indicator of strength.

Best Finish: Champions (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)

4. FRANCE

This is a ridiculously gifted generation of French players who really should have won the Euros on home soil last summer. The sense, though, is that Didier Deschamps is not necessarily the man to get the best out if them, and the 4-4-2 he has adopted of late seems a weirdly blockish solution that leads to predictability.

Best Finish: Champions (1998)

5. BELGIUM

Now that it has been relieved of the handicap of Marc Wilmots, can Belgium’s golden generation make good on its promise? Under Roberto Martinez, Belgium qualified with ease, dropping only two points. Kevin De Bruyne has thrived in a slightly deeper role, but the question, as ever with Martinez, is whether the side will be able to cope defensively against better opposition. De Bruyne has already questioned Martinez's tactics.

Best Finish: Fourth Place (1986)

6. ARGENTINA

Qualification was traumatic, but with the dust settled, Argentina remains in a strong position. For all the doubts about players coming through, this remains a strong squad, overloaded with gifted forwards and, by appointing Jorge Sampaoli, it did, at the third attempt, get the right manager. Lionel Messi’s (probable) final chance at a World Cup may be the one he takes.

Best Finish: Champions (1978, 1986)

7. PORTUGAL

Portugal is the European champion and breezed through qualification by winning nine games in a row after losing the opener in Switzerland. Cristiano Ronaldo gives the goal-scoring edge, but its real strength is in the solidity of the midfield.

Best Finish: Third Place (1966)

8. URUGUAY

The stereotype of Uruguay is of defensive resolve, stifling tactics and a pragmatism that can tip into cynicism. This side, though, had the second-best scoring record in South American World Cup qualifying and looks to take full advantage of the abilities of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

Best Finish: Champions (1930, 1950)

9. ENGLAND

A mood of persistent frustration hangs over England, so much so that the general reaction to its unbeaten qualification was a collective yawn about the way the Three Lions had trudged through a less-than-testing group. Harry Kane and a highly gifted emerging generation, though, offer some hope.

Best Finish: Champions (1966)

10. CROATIA

If football were just about players, Croatia would never have needed a playoff to qualify. It may lack a defensive midfielder but has a great wealth of creators. But with hardcore fans at war with the federation, which belatedly replaced their manager Ante Cacic, Croatia was underachieving desperately until Zlatko Dalic took over. He secured the win Croatia needed against Ukraine in the final qualifier, and the side then cruised through its playoff against Greece, winning 4-1.

Best Finish: Third Place (1998)

11. COLOMBIA

James Rodriguez was the breakout star of the last World Cup, and there is a sense that he has perhaps stagnated thanks to the glut of talent at Real Madrid. If he can rediscover his form at Bayern Munich, though, and with Radamel Falcao enjoying a late-career renaissance, Jose Pekerman’s side could be a threat.

Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2014)

12. SWITZERLAND

The Swiss qualified thanks to a very dodgy penalty in the playoff against Northern Ireland, and struggled to impose themselves in that series, but Vladimir Petkovic’s well-balanced side won all of its first nine qualifiers and has, in Ricardo Rodriguez and Stephan Lichtsteiner, a pair of excellent attacking fullbacks.

Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1934, 1938, 1954)

13. POLAND

Poland is ranked sixth in the world, which is evidence of just how much impact the trick of not playing friendlies can be. This, after all, is a side that in September lost 4-0 to Denmark. But it is generally solid and has, in Robert Lewandowski, one of the best strikers in the world.

Best Finish: Third Place (1974, 1982)

14. RUSSIA

Only one host nation has ever failed to make it through the group stage of a World Cup, but Russia could be the second. The gifted generation that reached the semifinal of Euro 2008 grew old together and Stanislav Cherchesov? has struggled to rejuvenate a squad that is heavily reliant on Alan Dzagoev for creativity.

Best Finish: Fourth Place (1966)

15. MEXICO

Juan Carlos Osorio is a controversial figure, with many feeling he rotates too often and question his hard-pressing. His players, though, seem generally enthused, and Mexico finished top of CONCACAF qualifying as well as getting out of their group at the Confederations Cup. After eliminations at the round of 16 in the last six World Cups, Osorio's first target must be set on reaching the quarterfinals.

Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1970, 1986)

16. ICELAND

After eliminating England to reach the quarterfinal of the Euros last summer, Iceland kicked on to become, by some distance, the smallest nation ever to qualify for a World Cup, finishing top of an awkward group that also included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. Gylfi Sigurdsson is the highest-profile player, but no side will have such a ferocious team spirit.

Best Finish: N/A

17. DENMARK

Denmark may have required a playoff to qualify, but that was because of results early in qualifying. More recently, the Danes put four past Poland and Montenegro and five past Ireland. Their Norwegian coach, Age Hareide, favors a direct approach and has made them defensively solid, but they also have the technical quality to unpick sides.

Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1998)

18. IRAN

Carlos Queiroz has been in charge of Iran for six years now. His side qualified unbeaten, letting in just two goals in 10 games in the final group, and can be relied upon to play in the characteristic Quieroz way, full of neat, technical, risk-averse football.

Best Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014)

19. NIGERIA

Inconsistency and underachievement have characterized Nigerian football over the past decade. The Super Eagles have failed to qualify for three of the last four Africa Cup of Nations tournaments but won the one they did get to. Under Gernot Rohr, though, there is a sense of renewal, and they ended up topping a brutally tough qualifying group with relative comfort. A 4-2 friendly victory over a (Messi-less) Argentina this week was hugely impressive.

Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)

20. SWEDEN

The Swedes dug deep and held firm to beat Italy over two legs and seem to have improved as a team since the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Memories of their dismal Euro 2016 lurk in the background, and there is a lack of obvious creativity, but this is a side that also beat France in qualifying.

Best Finish: Runner-up (1958)

21. MOROCCO

Herve Renard’s record as an international coach is remarkable. He’s the only man to win the Cup of Nations with two different sides (Zambia, Ivory Coast) and he’s now taken Morocco to its first World Cup since 1998, coming out on top of a group that included Ivory Coast–without conceding a goal.

Best Finish: Round of 16 (1986)

22. JAPAN

There is an awkward sense about Japanese football that it has plateaued. The Samurai Blue finished top of their qualifying group and have an experienced coach in Vahid Halilhodzic, but, having been knocked out of the 2015 Asian Cup in the quarterfinals, there’s no reason to believe they’ll improve on their habit of alternating between group stage and last 16 exits.

Best Finish: Round of 16 (2002, 2010)

23. SERBIA

No side that finished top of its group in European qualifying collected fewer points than Serbia. This is a talented group, particularly in midfield, but the specter of past disintegrations at tournaments haunts them, and the chances of another potential collapse were only increased when Slavoljub Muslin was removed as coach after qualifying essentially because his football had been insufficiently exciting.

Best Finish: Group Stage (2010)

24. EGYPT

This is Egypt’s first World Cup since 1990, but it won a hat trick of Cups of Nations between 2006 and 2010. Having failed to make the following three Cups of Nations, the Pharaohs returned to the tournament this year and showed all the familiar defensive qualities, augmented by the pace of Mohamed Salah on the break, to reach the final.

Best Finish: Group Stage (1934, 1990)

25. SENEGAL

Senegal qualified unbeaten at the top of an awkward group that included Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and South Africa. The Lions of Teranga have pace and attacking flair on the flanks with Sadio Mane and Keita Balde and solidity in midfield with Idrissa Gueye. They disappointed at the Cup of Nations, though, eliminated in the quarterfinal by Cameroon.

Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2002)

26. SOUTH KOREA

South Korea struggled to second in its qualifying group, behind Iran, losing three of its 10 games. The squad should be better than that, though, as it features the likes of Son Heung-min (Tottenham), Lee Chung-yong (Crystal Palace) and Ji Dong-won (Augsburg).

Best Finish: Fourth Place (2002)

27. PERU

Peru is ranked 10th in the world, which is another lesson about the benefit of not playing friendlies. Ricardo Gareca’s side is well-organized and has impressed in recent tournaments, reaching the semifinal of the Copa America in 2015 and losing on penalties in the quarterfinal of the Copa America Centenario a year later. If Paolo Guerrero’s doping ban is confirmed and extended through the summer, though, it will be desperately short of firepower.

Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1970)

28. COSTA RICA

Reaching the last eight four years ago looks like being the summit for a generation. Costa Rica has regressed since then, as a number of key players have aged. The Ticos finished second behind Mexico but managed just two wins away from home in the hexagonal.

Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2014)

29. TUNISIA

A 2-1 win over DR Congo in September effectively sealed Tunisia’s place in Russia, but it will go there with limited ambition after a hugely disappointing Cup of Nations in which it was eliminated by Burkina Faso in the quarterfinal. That led–eventually–to the departure of manager Henryk Kasperczak and his replacement, Nabil Maaloul.

Best Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)

30. AUSTRALIA

Ange Postecoglu’s side eventually qualified via a playoff, beating Honduras 3-1 over two legs, but the big concern must be that the Socceroos haven’t won any of their last nine games outside of Australia.

Best Finish: Round of 16 (2006)

31. SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi Arabia scraped to an automatic World Cup berth on goal difference ahead of Australia, but lost three of their five away games, beating only Thailand and Iraq on the road. The manager who guided the side through qualifying, Bert van Marwijk, failed to agree to a new contract and was replaced by former Argentina manager Edgardo Bauza.

Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994)

32. PANAMA

Hernan Dario Gomez’s side qualified in third place in CONCACAF, but averaged less than a goal a game and won only one game away from home in the hexagonal. It's a just reward for a veteran core, but there'll be a hill to climb in Russia.

Best Finish: N/A

Ancelotti is the coach Italy want to replace Ventura after qualifying fiasco

The former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid boss heads the list of candidates to rebuild the Azzurri, who missed out on the World Cup

Ancelotti is the coach Italy want to replace Ventura after qualifying fiasco

The former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid boss heads the list of candidates to rebuild the Azzurri, who missed out on the World Cup

Ancelotti is the coach Italy want to replace Ventura after qualifying fiasco

The former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid boss heads the list of candidates to rebuild the Azzurri, who missed out on the World Cup

Ancelotti is the coach Italy want to replace Ventura after qualifying fiasco

The former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid boss heads the list of candidates to rebuild the Azzurri, who missed out on the World Cup

Ancelotti is the coach Italy want to replace Ventura after qualifying fiasco

The former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid boss heads the list of candidates to rebuild the Azzurri, who missed out on the World Cup

Ancelotti is the coach Italy want to replace Ventura after qualifying fiasco

The former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid boss heads the list of candidates to rebuild the Azzurri, who missed out on the World Cup

Ancelotti is the coach Italy want to replace Ventura after qualifying fiasco

The former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid boss heads the list of candidates to rebuild the Azzurri, who missed out on the World Cup

Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski is the only outfield Bayern player to have featured in every match so far in the 2017 campaign

Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski is the only outfield Bayern player to have featured in every match so far in the 2017 campaign

Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski is the only outfield Bayern player to have featured in every match so far in the 2017 campaign (AFP Photo/Christof STACHE)

Lewandowski tells Bayern to sign 'young' striker

Bayern Munich are getting by with Robert Lewandowski as their only genuine striker this season, something the Poland star thinks is a risk.

VIDEO: Xabi Alonso Takes First Steps Into Management With Adidas Tango Squad

Former footballing wizard Xabi Alonso has taken his first steps into management after guiding Adidas' Tango Squad FC in their first match as a team; and of course, the former Liverpool legend took influence from his Champions League final experience as a means of motivating his players. One of football's greats, Xabi Alonso has won almost everything he could at club level, having experienced huge success at Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.  Naturally, most assume that the technical...

VIDEO: Xabi Alonso Takes First Steps Into Management With Adidas Tango Squad

Former footballing wizard Xabi Alonso has taken his first steps into management after guiding Adidas' Tango Squad FC in their first match as a team; and of course, the former Liverpool legend took influence from his Champions League final experience as a means of motivating his players. One of football's greats, Xabi Alonso has won almost everything he could at club level, having experienced huge success at Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.  Naturally, most assume that the technical...

VIDEO: Xabi Alonso Takes First Steps Into Management With Adidas Tango Squad

Former footballing wizard Xabi Alonso has taken his first steps into management after guiding Adidas' Tango Squad FC in their first match as a team; and of course, the former Liverpool legend took influence from his Champions League final experience as a means of motivating his players. One of football's greats, Xabi Alonso has won almost everything he could at club level, having experienced huge success at Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.  Naturally, most assume that the technical...

Robert Lewandowski's New Blonde Hair Colour Is Met With Mixed Reactions by the Instagram World

​Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski may be one of the best strikers in the world, but his decision to change his hair colour to blonde has not gone down well with everyone on Instagram.  On Tuesday, the Poland striker decided to change his look, switching his dark hair for a light blonde colour. He took to Instagram to unveil his new look, with a caption reading: "Sometimes you need to change something." The striker has received over 704,000 likes for his new hair, but a lot of Instagram...

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