The blue double decker bus carrying Manchester City’s treble winners pushed slowly through the streets of Manchester city centre on Monday evening to give the crowd a chance to celebrate a team that didn’t just complete the most successful season their club has seen, but one of the greatest seasons ever. The mood wasn’t dampened too much by the change in weather from sun to rain as City fans turned out to welcome their team home, after most players made a brief stop in Ibiza on Sunday night.
Pep Guardiola’s men, after winning the Premier League title, FA Cup and Champions League during the 2022-23 campaign, have taken their place among some of history’s most iconic teams including Ajax in 1972, Manchester United in 1999 and Barcelona in 2009. But as the afternoon sun turned into a typical Manchester rain shower, the trophies glinted and the beer flowed, it was easy to forget that this season has not been without its difficulties for Guardiola and his players.
As far back as July, Guardiola assessed his squad and told staff that he was concerned about their hunger for more success. He sensed the motivation had slipped, only slightly, having won back-to-back Premier League titles, but ever the perfectionist, he considered it a major problem. Worse though, according to some of those around the City manager, was that he didn’t know how to fix it.
Never staying for more than four years at either Barcelona or Bayern Munich in his previous coaching jobs, Guardiola was firmly in uncharted territory as he prepared for a seventh season at the Etihad Stadium. Despite spending part of the summer with his family in Barbados, he too felt a little jaded. There were points during the summer when he admitted he wasn’t looking forward to the new season, particularly with the prospect of a winter World Cup on the horizon.
However, Monday’s celebrations in the streets of Manchester proved Guardiola’s concerns to be ill-founded as Man City completed a remarkable campaign. Here’s how they got to football’s summit in 2022-23.
Building around Haaland
It was during preseason that Guardiola saw for the first time where the threat to City’s Premier League title might come from. After hearing that Arsenal had beaten Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea 4-0 in Florida, Guardiola raised his eyebrows and said, “Wow.” Afterward, Gunners manager (and former City assistant) Mikel Arteta tried to play down the significance of the result, but Arsenal had already caught Guardiola’s attention.
But before everyone else caught onto Arsenal’s title credentials, City’s season started with the Community Shield against their main rivals for the previous four years: Liverpool.
Erling Haaland, the striker signed amid much hype in the transfer window, missed a golden chance as City lost 3-1 at Leicester’s King Power Stadium and immediately the questions started about whether the Norway international could cut it in England. Guardiola sought out his striker after the game, believing he might need to lift his spirits, but before the conversation could start Haaland laughed and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll score goals.”
Much of Guardiola’s early-season work focused on how to get the best out of his new forward. Before Haaland arrived from Borussia Dortmund, Guardiola assured the player’s father, Alfie, that City could play in a way that would suit the 22-year-old, pointing in particular to his work with Robert Lewandowski at Bayern. But City’s 2021-22 title success was built around a system without a striker and it took time to adapt to Haaland’s skill set.
The plan that Guardiola developed involved asking the creative players to look for Haaland first when they received the ball. They didn’t have to pass to him, but they had to look before they made a decision about what to do next, and Guardiola wanted to see them do it.
During the early weeks of the season, Kevin De Bruyne, Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva were shown videos of Haaland’s movement and asked, “Did you look?” If the answer was “no,” there would be a slight reprimand and a reminder that a striker is no good without the ball.
Haaland has helped Guardiola as much as Guardiola has helped Haaland, too. The City manager, according to sources, has enjoyed the challenge of building another team around him but it was another young player, Rico Lewis, who was at the centre of a crucial spell in City’s season.
City’s unlikely saviour
The biggest fear around the club ahead of the campaign was that Guardiola’s contract — due to run out in June 2023 — could turn into a distraction. There were internal conversations about whether Julian Nagelsmann, then at Bayern, would be a good fit if a replacement was needed, and it was a relief when Guardiola travelled to Abu Dhabi during the World Cup break to sign a new two-year deal.
Even with Guardiola’s future secured, it was not all plain sailing when the season resumed. Guardiola wasn’t happy with the body language of some of his players in training and it was soon slipping into matches.
City drew with Everton at the Etihad in their second Premier League game after the restart and then in January suffered back-to-back defeats to Southampton in the Carabao Cup and Manchester United in the Premier League. In their next game, City had to come back from 2-0 down to beat Tottenham Hotspur 4-2, and afterward Guardiola exploded in his news conference, branding his players a “happy flowers team.”
Behind closed doors he was even more brutal, accusing his squad of being “soft” while also revealing that his preseason fear that the hunger had drained away was being proved right. One of the only positives, he said, was Lewis, the teenage defender who was thrust into the team after the World Cup.
Highly rated by the youth coaches who had worked with Lewis since he joined that club at eight-years-old, a year earlier he was playing for the Under-21s in a 5-0 defeat in front of fewer than 2,000 fans at Rotherham.
The 18-year-old, according to Guardiola, didn’t have the “arrogance” to expect to win every game just by turning up, and played like it. The manager encouraged others to follow the youngster’s example. Lewis also possessed the technical ability to show Guardiola that it was possible to play with a defender who also moved into midfield, a role John Stones perfected during the run-in.
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The emergence of Lewis also played a part in Guardiola accepting Joao Cancelo‘s demand to leave in the January transfer window after a furious row between the pair about the defender’s lack of playing time after returning from Qatar. Director of football Txiki Begiristain checked with Guardiola before accepting Bayern’s offer to sign Cancelo on loan, with the reply coming back that the atmosphere in the dressing room was far more important than any individual.
Meanwhile, the winter tension on the training pitch was being mirrored in the boardroom.
Feeding on adversity
On the morning of Feb. 6, City chiefs were given 30 minutes’ notice that the Premier League had charged the club with more than 100 breaches of financial rules between 2009 and 2018.
Speculation that a guilty verdict could lead to titles being stripped and even relegation quickly unsettled the dressing room. Begiristain and CEO Ferran Soriano addressed the squad and staff at the City Football Academy (CFA) to ease their fears before Guardiola spoke, telling his group that City had “already been sentenced” and it was up to them to “defend” the club on the pitch.
For some, City’s treble will come with an asterix until the club is cleared of any wrongdoing, although with no timeline for the process to be completed, it could be a while.
Guardiola insists the Premier League charges were not the turning point of the season, but after Feb. 6, City played 28 games in all competitions and lost just one, against Brentford in May when the title was already won.
At one point in early April, City were eight points behind Arsenal in the title race, but Guardiola’s message was consistent: stay in touch and get them to the Etihad. Arteta brought his team to Manchester on April 26 and were thrashed 4-1. Four league wins later, and City were crowned champions for the fifth time in six years.
How they finally won in Europe
City’s charge towards the title only really started in February, but the seeds of Champions League success were sown long before.
In the aftermath of last season’s semifinal defeat to Real Madrid in May 2022 — a tie City were leading until stoppage time in the second leg — Guardiola told his players to remember that their collapse in the Bernabeu had been put down to a lack of character and mental strength. He reminded them again before the second leg this season, telling them that as he watched the draw in his office at the City Football Academy, he had wished to get Real Madrid again because he “wanted it,” seeing the rematch as a chance to end the debate about the mentality of his group.
After playing out a 1-1 draw in the first leg of that semifinal in the Spanish capital, City destroyed the reigning champions of Europe 4-0 in one of the most devastating performances of the Guardiola era. Real Madrid were so lost that at one point Guardiola turned to Vinicius Junior as he stood on the touchline and asked, “Are you going to play?”
Vinicius didn’t have an answer. Neither did Madrid.
All season there have pictures of the Premier League trophy, FA Cup and Champions League trophy hung up around City’s training ground, above the caption “our goal.” In public, Guardiola played down the prospect of winning all three, at one stage calling the treble “impossible,” but in private he has encouraged his players to think about their chance to write themselves into the history books. After all, the only other English team to do it was United under Sir Alex Ferguson and that was nearly 25 years ago.
It culminated in a 1-0 win over Inter Milan in Istanbul on Saturday night. Perhaps fittingly, it was one of City’s most difficult games of a remarkable campaign, decided by a Rodri strike midway through the second half after City had weathered a surprising amount of pressure from their opponents. It was also the hardest-fought of City’s three trophies, and vindication for Guardiola after so many near-misses in Europe’s top competition since arriving in Manchester.
After celebrations on the Ataturk Stadium pitch for more than an hour, followed by cans of Heineken in the dressing room, the party moved to the rooftop bar of the Marriott. Some players, including Grealish, were still in their kits when they turned up, and when they did, they were introduced to waiting friends and family as “Manchester City, treble winners.” (The party continued all weekend as a large City contingent — led by Grealish, Stones, Foden and Haaland — flew to Ibiza for more fun prior to Monday’s parade in Manchester, with Grealish front and center there as well.)
After a season of ups and downs, problems and solutions, Guardiola’s impossible dream had come true.