‘What the f**k?’ might no longer be Pep’s Quadruple response
It took all of eight consecutive victories for an eventually sweary and very shiny Pep Guardiola to be left almost speechless by a question about the possibility in September 2016.
By the following season, lessons had been learned: it needed progression to the League Cup semi-finals, in conjunction with advancing to the Champions League knockout stages and an 11-point gap atop the Premier League table, for Guardiola to insist that we “forget about it” in December 2017, the same month Manchester City registered their eighth successive win because victory via penalty shoot-out is a draw and there will be no further comment on the matter.
A new record was set in the next campaign when, while his players openly discussed the subject even before the start of the season, Guardiola was able to go until January 2019 before being asked. He saw it as “fantasy”, Manchester City having won seven games in a row to reach the League Cup final, FA Cup fourth round and Champions League knockout stages, whittling Liverpool’s Premier League lead down to four points.
Infuriating inconsistency and the sheer brilliance of a dominant challenger to their Premier League crown was enough to render any discussion moot in 2019/20. But despite Manchester City breaking new ground with a record 15th win in all competitions by an English top-flight side on Wednesday, the wait goes on for Guardiola to publicly address a topic that has followed him incessantly since his first game as manager.
“Fernandinho had some problems, some niggles in the quads,” was about as inadvertently close as he came to talking about the prospect of Manchester City winning four trophies in a season. Suffice to say that the chance of unprecedented success has crept up even on this side and manager, for whom talk of the Quadruple is rarely more than some solid form away.
Perhaps that is the natural product of a compacted season in which teams have been forced to play at least twice a week with unerring regularity. It inevitably makes it more difficult to take stock of positions, of progress, even in the case of Manchester City and their fabled fortnight-long “break” around Christmas.
But the conversation surely is not far. Manchester City have won ten Premier League matches in succession, most recently crushing the current champions at their home to pull five points clear with a game in hand. They are in the League Cup final. Their upcoming Champions League opponents are seventh in the Bundesliga, defeated by relegation-battling FC Köln at the weekend. And Swansea experienced their ludicrous quality first hand at the Liberty Stadium as a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals was secured.
It should be said that Steve Cooper made changes to his starting line-up; those Swans were not at full strength. Guardiola did the same but Aymeric Laporte, Benjamin Mendy, Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus coming in is a little different to Joel Latibeaudiere, Ryan Manning, Yan Dhanda and Jordan Morris being given their chance.
Most impressive was Manchester City’s attitude and application. They treated Swansea like any other team and assignment: with due professionalism and respect before summarily dispatching them. They had seven shots on target and misplaced 45 passes in 90 minutes against one of the hardest-working teams in the entire Football League. These are silly levels and no-one else is even remotely close right now.
Imagine the fanfare that would greet Liverpool or Manchester United for winning 15 games in a row. Morgan Whittaker became only the third opposition player to score against Manchester City since November 25 – a run of 22 fixtures – yet that sort of ludicrousness still feels like a footnote in the more dominant narratives about Virgil van Dijk’s knee or Scott McTominay’s emergence as the sport’s deadliest finisher.
That will suit Guardiola. For once, Manchester City ought to be satisfied that their exploits are going unnoticed or overlooked by so many. The longer they can operate in the shadows, the better. More fool those who take no notice of a team making bi-weekly strides towards history in the most challenging campaign in history. This baffling season should have exposed those meticulous planners who require the perfect conditions in which to work, the coaches for whom even the slightest diversion from the course has them uncontrollably careering off elsewhere. Yet Guardiola has thrived beyond any and all reasonable expectation. He was supposed to have been found out four months ago, incapable of adapting and rebuilding a new elite side from the ashes of the previous one. A man who does not coach tackling and thus does not understand defending. Now everyone else is struggling to keep up.
Greater challenges are still to come but a Manchester City side that treats previously troublesome obstacles like Swansea with reverence and commitment is a dangerous one. Guardiola described it as “almost impossible” to win the Quadruple in April 2019 and he was absolutely right. But then so was Sir Alex Ferguson when he described a team winning the domestic treble in such terms. Someone eventually comes along in the perfect circumstances and makes that dream become a reality.
The odds are still against Manchester City. That sort of consistent excellence requires no little physical and mental exertion over three more exacting months. But it feels like a matter of time until Guardiola is fielding those familiar questions once more. His response might be a little more ‘Why the delay?’ than ‘What the f**k?’.