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4
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Leg 2Aggregate: 2 - 3
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Pep's City or Arsenal's 'Invincibles'?

Arsenal
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Pep Guardiola's success as he unites Manchester City dressing room

The Exploding Heads take you through all the happenings from week 13 with Premier League in 90 seconds (plus stoppages).
Janusz Michallik credits Man City for staying true to their formula after they secured their 11th straight Premier League win.
Craig Burley evaluates Raheem Sterling's improved form with Manchester City and Pep Guardiola's role in his rise.
Craig Burley evaluates Raheem Sterling's improved form with Manchester City and Pep Guardiola's role in his rise.

Pep Guardiola inherited a fractured dressing room when he took charge of Manchester City in the summer of 2016.

It had become one of the unspoken truths of Manuel Pellegrini's final season in charge, both within the club and outside of it, that City's expensively assembled squad was nothing more than a disparate collection of cliques, and one with a number of big personalities who held as much sway in the dressing room as their manager.

It was an unhealthy situation, and a central factor in the club's failure to deliver the success it had been built to achieve, so Guardiola's first objective on his arrival was to banish the disharmony and create a unit of trust and respect among his players.

He made big calls, big decisions. Out went England goalkeeper Joe Hart, one of those powerful dressing room voices, and the rest of Pellegrini's so-called "Untouchables" found themselves in and out of the team.

Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero all had their star status dimmed by Guardiola in order to put the team centre-stage, rather than the individual.

There were bumps in the road, doubts raised over the futures of Aguero and the rest, but nobody talks about the big stars being unhappy and considering their futures now.

Almost 18 months on, Guardiola can stand back and declare his team unity mission to be a job well done, with Sunday's 2-1 victory at Huddersfield Town, and the collective celebration among the players following Raheem Sterling's late match-winner, highlighting that new reality at City of a group of players working as one.

And it makes a difference. One visible sign of the strength of the bond between a group of players is how they celebrate goals, and how many of them join in.

There were no lone City players drifting back to the centre-circle at Huddersfield after Sterling scored. All of them, with the exception of goalkeeper Ederson, were there to congratulate the England winger for producing the strike which restored the club's eight-point lead at the top of the table and maintained their incredible run of form.

City have now won 11 successive games in the Premier League and have won their last 11 away games in all competitions and a number of those victories have come with late goals, which is another sign of togetherness and belief in one another.

Guardiola's success in forging that tight unit is increasingly relevant now, however, with City approaching the same stage of the campaign which proved to be the start of their downfall last season.

Raheem Sterling celebrates his winner.
Manchester City have surged eight points clear with everyone pulling in the same direction for Pep Guardiola.

Back-to-back league defeats against Chelsea and Leicester City in the first two weeks of December exposed the weakness of the mentality of Guardiola's squad last season.

The Chelsea defeat was a comprehensive 3-1 humbling at the Etihad by Antonio Conte's team, while the 4-2 loss at Leicester highlighted Guardiola's difficulties in adjusting to the incessant weekly demands of the Premier League.

Worse was to come, with the 4-0 hammering at Everton in early January proving to be City's nadir last season, but from that point on, the wind has blown in a different direction.

So as City approach a similarly difficult December as last year, their ability to ride out any potential storm is clearly much stronger than a year ago.

City travel to Manchester United on Dec. 10 and then host Tottenham at the Etihad six days later, but they go into both games without doubts building over their durability, togetherness and belief in the manager's methods.

They will face United and Spurs with Sterling no longer being dismissed as a player struggling to realise his potential, Leroy Sane having developed into a devastating attacking force down the left wing, Kevin De Bruyne having the season of his life and the defence looking as resolute and organised as it has done since Roberto Mancini led City to the title in 2011-12.

It was back in that title-winning season under Mancini six years ago that sources at City believe that the initial cracks in the dressing room togetherness began to be exposed.

The Italian manager's hardline approach with the players unsettled many and soured the atmosphere, enabling the cliques to form.

Pellegrini initially restored a general sense of happiness among the players, but it did not last long and the challenge which faced Guardiola when he arrived, in terms of making City a "team" again, cannot be overstated.

The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach has achieved that, however, and it is why the task now facing the likes of United, Chelsea and Spurs in the title race is even more daunting.

Teams can always suffer a wobble which halts momentum and then sparks doubt and fear, but a tight-knit group in which everyone is pulling together is much harder to knock off its stride.

Guardiola's biggest achievement so far has not been to transform City's football, it has been making everyone in a blue shirt play for each other once again.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

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