When Pep Guardiola was asked just how hungry he is to follow-up a record-breaking season at Manchester City, he smiled and rubbed his stomach.
Yet the message that followed from the City manager, as he prepared for today’s Community Shield against Chelsea at Wembley, was a serious one. ‘The fear of losing the games makes me starving and hungry again,’ he said. ‘I don’t like the feeling of losing games.’
Winning the Premier League and becoming the first team to record 100 points in an English top-flight season, was some achievement, but recent history has rarely been kind to defending champions.
Jose Mourinho was sacked 207 days after completing Chelsea’s title-winning campaign of 2014-15. Claudio Ranieri was dismissed 284 days after Leicester City rounded off an extraordinary season by finishing top for the first time in their history. Antonio Conte, having brought the Premier League trophy back to Stamford Bridge in 2017, fared slightly better — he lasted a further 418 days before being sent on his way.
Guardiola is not in danger of suffering a similar fate, given the wholehearted support he enjoyed from the board at the Etihad Stadium, but he is all too aware that a title triumph can be followed by an almighty hangover.
Indeed, in the Premier League era, only two managers have defended the title: Mourinho at Chelsea and Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. No one has done it since Ferguson brought a third successive title to Old Trafford in 2009. It is why Guardiola is so wary and so hungry. For his own sake, he needs to win again. His wife Cristina and their children will be happier if he succeeds too.
‘When you lose a game, you feel guilty, you feel bad,’ he said. ‘Your private life is not good. Your relationship with the players is not good. So that is why you try to avoid that. Just that simple fear of losing a game makes you hungry.
‘I’m ready. From my point of view, the players don’t have to be worried. I’m ready to fight again.’
The players will testify that those are not empty words. The forthcoming Amazon documentary All Or Nothing, containing extensive behind-the-scenes footage, shows squad members taken aback by the force of Guardiola’s anger when they fail to meet his standards.
‘I will defend you until the last day of our lives in the press conferences, but here I am going to tell you the truth,’ Guardiola begins one rant. He later adds: ‘Some of you play better when you’re angry with me, so if you hate me, then hate me, guys. No problem at all.’
Guardiola said he had not seen a preview of the film, which is released on August 17, and yet even as he tried to play down the significance of his outbursts, he opened the door to reveal a little of the ways in which he motivates his players.
‘Sometimes you say some things in the heat of the dressing room,’ he said. ‘Sometimes when you are sitting here cold, you can analyse it in a different way. Some players need to be hugged and for you to be close to them to get their best performance.
‘Sometimes when you don’t speak to them, they play better. Every person is completely different. Others play better when they are angry with their manager or decisions or because you shout at them. The important thing is that they play better, not their relations with the manager.’
Guardiola needed time to settle at Manchester City, having won 21 trophies in seven seasons as a coach at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. His first season in England ended with nothing, yet as his players adjusted to his methods, success began to follow.
Those methods have attracted plenty of attention. Players at City have spoken of the manager reacting to a bad pass in training by stopping the session for up to 10 minutes in order to talk it through in detail.
Last season, Guardiola spent time during a training session explaining to Raheem Sterling exactly how to position his body when receiving the ball. The next night, Sterling followed his manager’s advice and scored the winner in a Champions League game against Feyenoord.
Guardiola’s tactical flexibility flummoxed opponents as City reached 100 points, yet his own players were always kept on their toes too. The manager sent out his players for a Premier League match against Watford in January with no team talk whatsoever; they responded by scoring after 38 seconds and winning 3-1.
If there was one disappointment for Guardiola last season, it was their Champions League quarter-final exit at the hands of Liverpool, a team whose attacking talent proved too much for City in three of their four meetings.
Putting that European wrong right would be a source of immense satisfaction, yet the manager sees Premier League performance as the ultimate test of the team’s standing. The Premier League is the main target,’ he said. ‘Well, now the main target is the Community Shield but the Premier League shows how you are as a team and if you are in a stable system.
‘In the Champions League, it is more unpredictable. One bad moment, some bad decisions, or a bad half-time can break all the work of the season. Barcelona, for me the best team in the world, won it first in 1992 and before that lost three finals. So it’s a problem to win it. It’s not an easy competition.
‘It’s important to be in it every season. And we are going to try to win it. But if you ask me what is the most important competition, it’s the Premier League.’
Out to buck trend How winning the title has proved costly recently…