Pep Guardiola's Start as Manchester City Boss Has Been Close to Perfect

Rob Pollard@@RobPollard_Featured ColumnistAugust 20, 2016

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - AUGUST 20:  Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City reacts during the Premier League match between Stoke City and Manchester City at Bet365 Stadium on August 20, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

There’s plenty of room for improvement, but Manchester City have won three games out of three under Pep Guardiola and look vastly superior to last season already.

They were somewhat disjointed on the opening day of the Premier League season but managed to narrowly defeat Sunderland, 2-1. A comfortable 5-0 win followed over Steaua Bucharest in the Champions League, the club’s biggest-ever away win in Europe.

And their latest victory, a 4-1 triumph over Stoke City on Saturday, was their most impressive.

City have struggled in recent years to win away games against Stoke, registering just one Premier League win. The muscular approach of the Tony Pulis era caused City problems, and Mark Hughes’ more cultured side took them apart with ease last season, battering them from start to finish in one of the most comprehensive, one-sided matches you’re likely to see.

The difference this season was stark. City weren’t perfect, and there was a five-minute period just before Stoke’s goal that saw them surrender possession too easily, putting themselves under unnecessary pressure. But the result was never in danger.

City now fight harder when they lose the ball and show more purpose with it. Their quick, neat passing sees them leave opposition teams chasing shadows. Guardiola's side ran Stoke ragged at times by playing with a quick tempo and lots of movement.

Sky Sports Statto highlighted City's dominance:

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45 touches in the opposition box for Man City - most of any team in a PL match so far this season pic.twitter.com/jvClEDbkDD

— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) August 20, 2016

Guardiola has had around a month with his new players, and although his work is nowhere near finished, the improvements are obvious. City are sharper and more inventive under his leadership.

The moment that sums up Guardiola’s approach most acutely came in the 81st minute. City were 2-1 up but struggling to produce the right pass in the final third that would add to their lead.

Guardiola, rather than instructing his side to sit deeper to see out the game, brought on Kelechi Iheanacho, a fresh striker who could give the team additional energy and urgency in the final third.

Within minutes, the 19-year-old had played a significant role in creating City’s third. Then Nolito's goal put the game to bed, helping maintain the perfect start to Guardiola’s reign.

It was a bold move, but it was also the right move. City had largely controlled the game. Only a lack of poise in and around the area in the second half had seen them fail to increase their lead. Iheanacho, whom Guardiola said on Friday comes alive in the box, was just what was needed.

Three games in eight days have yielded three wins for Guardiola as City manager. They are yet to face a side of real quality, and in their midweek Champions League match, a poor Steaua Bucharest gave them a free pass. But this is a new, more vibrant City, and their immediate future is exciting.

Job done! ✅ pic.twitter.com/fOsx9N39Di

— Kevin De Bruyne (@DeBruyneKev) August 20, 2016

At the end, Guardiola blew kisses to the away fans who had sung his name on a loop for the final 10 minutes of the game. After the inertia of last season, this is exactly what they wanted to see: a manager who leaves no stone unturned in his quest for victory and a group of players fighting for every ball, capable of producing quality when it matters.

David Silva has been given a new lease of life. Those who suggested he would be a victim of Guardiola’s ruthlessness are beginning to look misguided. Guardiola wants Silva to have freedom to express himself, to move around the pitch into dangerous areas and cause damage wherever possible.

Free from the ankle pain that held him back, it’s an approach that suits the Spaniard. He looks back to his best and is once again the centre of creativity in the team.

Raheem Sterling wants the ball again and is prepared to take risks, Sergio Aguero’s double means he has scored six goals in Guardiola’s three games in charge and John Stones has settled in effortlessly.

The 22-year-old, signed from Everton, is physically capable and enjoys involving himself in the team’s passing game. After each match he’s played, he’s stepped in front of the cameras to face the press, a clear sign he is enjoying his move and the pressures that come with it.

Sky Sports Statto noted his good form from Saturday:

John Stones man of the match
54 passes
93% passing accuracy (best in match)
7 clearances
10.8km distance pic.twitter.com/W2EXLn8oTG

— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) August 20, 2016

Stones was happy with his team's performance after the match:

John Stones hails City's strength in depth following #stokevcity.

MORE ➡️ https://t.co/P8OvVt22Cc #mcfc pic.twitter.com/pavfljSVSg

— Manchester City (@ManCity) August 20, 2016

But it was perhaps Fernandinho who shone brightest against Stoke, which will come as no surprise to the City fans. He was the club’s most consistent player last season, and Guardiola is using his energy and determination to even greater effect.

He drops deep when City are in possession, allowing the full-backs to move in field and add weight to City’s attacks. When City lose it, he goes hunting to recover possession, something he does superbly. It was another intelligent display from a player who appears to be getting better and better.

“It’s impossible to say what is our target, what we can achieve,” Guardiola said afterwards. “It’s a short time together and my players have showed me how intelligent they are. They are really good players. We have a lot of quality.

“The way we celebrate at the end with our fans, that is the first step. We have to improve many, many things but, OK, we have time to do that, but I am surprised in the short time the level we play in Bucharest and here.”

The exciting thing for City is the prospect of adding Leroy Sane, Ilkay Gundogan and Vincent Kompany to this side. All three, when fit and at their best, are likely starters. They'll add steel, strength and flair to an already excellent team.

Guardiola has consistently spoken about the need to foster a good atmosphere at the club, both within the squad and between the team and the fans. The evidence on the pitch suggests the players are fighting for one another, and the new Guardiola song, to the tune of "Glad All Over" by the Dave Clark Five, suggests the fans have taken the new manager to their hearts already.

“I didn’t understand what they said! Hopefully next time I can understand what they say,” Guardiola said of the chant.

“But just to thank them [the fans]. From the beginning here I’m really impressed. I feel they are happy we are here and I am demanding to work more and more for them.

“When I go to the tunnel after the game and see their faces, how happy they were, that is the reason we are here.”

It’s been an excellent start for Guardiola—but bigger tests lie in wait.

      

Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and follows the club from a Manchester base. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @RobPollard_.

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