Man City's shorthanded squad gives Pep Guardiola opportunity to learn vs. Liverpool
NEW YORK -- As with the majority of Premier League clubs during the season, media are mostly shut out of training sessions at Manchester City, barring Champions League matches. At the training facility of sister club New York City FC in Orangeburg, New York, press and cameras were allowed in for the full 90 minutes to see how Pep Guardiola is preparing differently in a bid to try to become the first manager to retain a Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson with Manchester United a decade ago.
Guardiola likes to keep his sessions fresh, to maintain the players' focus, but the principles always remain the same: working with the ball, concentration, passing, movement and winning the ball as quickly as possible. Rondos and small-sided games are key to maintaining those skills, but the players ran through punishing drills, to improve touch and movement, mainly under the guidance of coaches Lorenzo Buenaventura and Mikel Arteta. Guardiola sporadically stepped in to offer instructions but generally held a watching brief, although that may well have been because of the media's presence with the players on double sessions and a second workout planned for the afternoon.
Domenec Torrent, who has been by Guardiola's side for 11 years at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City, was there, but not involved. His move to NYCFC in the summer is a major change to the coaching team, but Guardiola has no plans to replace his close friend, with Arteta's influence increasing.
"Mikel, like all the people there, if they have opinions about the game, the situation in the locker room, they can do it," Guardiola told a news conference. "I'm not a guy who says you are the second, you are the third, you are the fourth, they are free to take decisions like a manager. I tell them to react like a manager -- the last decision is mine -- but they can do what they feel, we are not going to change. Just Dome not with us, but what they do, they did it last season."
First-team players that are in the United States also looked ready to step up their responsibility, particularly with big games -- the Community Shield clash with Chelsea at Wembley and Premier League opener away to Arsenal -- on the near horizon.
Riyad Mahrez showed off his exquisite individual ball skills that convinced City to pay Leicester City a club-record £60 million for him, Leroy Sane was sharp and dangerous with a point to prove after his shock omission from Germany's World Cup squad, while youngster Phil Foden displayed the touch and vision that has seen pundits describe him as a potential England player despite only turning 18 in May.
Guardiola, however, says there should be no focus on trying to force his way into Gareth Southgate's squad, and that any inclusion will be a consequence of playing well for his club.
"His target is to play as many minutes with us, and the national team is a consequence of that," he said. "The pressure of the national team you have to put on other players, not on Phil."
But the glaring difference in the United States is that so many of City's first team were missing. Of the 16 players to go to the World Cup, Bernardo Silva is the only one to join up with the first team, while Benjamin Mendy will be reunited with the squad when they arrive in Miami on Thursday. For now, the eccentric French defender is enjoying the final days of his summer vacation as delightfully showcased on his Instagram account.
It leaves Guardiola short of options ahead of Wednesday's International Champions Cup match against Liverpool at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, which could be a prequel to a rivalry that is set to intensify throughout the season.
City won the Premier League with a record-breaking 100 points and 106 goals -- three places and 25 points better off than their rivals. But Liverpool's three victories over City since the turn of the year -- including home and away in the Champions League -- suggests they are ready to run the champions much closer this season.
Jurgen Klopp could use the New Jersey game as an opportunity to put down a marker for the season ahead, and would seem further ahead in his preparations as key players like Mohamed Salah, Said Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum are in contention to start against City.
However, Guardiola can experiment with faces and formations after admitting he got his tactics wrong in the pivotal quarterfinal first-leg defeat at Anfield in April, and it may be that despite having so many players missing, he learns more from the friendly than his opposite number Klopp, who is so desperate to catch him.