Over the years, I’ve been massively sceptical of claims that Pep Guardiola ranks alongside Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Sir Alex Ferguson and the all-time managerial greats.
I’ve always felt that, given the money he has had to work with at Manchester City and Bayern Munich, and the players he inherited at Barcelona, his achievements have been very good, but, frankly, what you’d expect.
I’ve looked at everything City have achieved under Guardiola in terms of winning the league with 100 points, retaining the title the year after, beating teams by fives and sixes as par for the course, and struggled to see what all the fuss was about.
After all, such is the myth of Guardiola that just about every team City have come up against here had deferred to them before they’d started – meaning winning games was so much easier as a result.
When you’re in a team which thinks, “We have no chance today, let’s be on the back foot rather than on the front foot”, you’re at a massive disadvantage even before the whistle has blown.
But that wasn’t the case at the start of this season after one or two cracks had started to appear last time out.
Teams were having a go at City and beating them, with the Blue Moonies missing key players and struggling for confidence, particularly at the back, and just not performing very well.
A 5-2 home mauling by Leicester in the second league game of the season saw them in a fragile place, a place that meant the players and manager all had to have a good look in the mirror.
I remember seeing an interview with Guardiola at that time and thinking he looked a little down, like a man who was wondering if he had it within himself to remedy the situation.
I’m not saying defending is his Achilles heel, but, if you were to list his best qualities as a manager, you’d focus on attacking football, possession and goals, not what goes on at the back. Which is why plenty of people – me included – thought it would be a tall order.
That’s the context in which I look at City’s remarkable 21-game winning streak and see it as the most impressive thing Guardiola has done in English football.
I just can’t fault a team that goes from having to take a long, hard look at itself to one that puts together such an astonishing run – especially not in the circumstances they have done it.
The lack of crowds and the more equal split of points among teams have made for the strangest of seasons, so what Pep and his side have done this season has been A-class, A-quality.
I say that with no ambiguity whatsoever – no, “Well, he was gifted £1billion and changed his whole back four”, just with utter admiration.
The manager had to find a system that made his side more defensively sound and he had to win matches largely without his two most influential players, certainly not at the same time.
Both he and his side deserve huge credit for the job they have done and I can’t see anything other than City extending their run to 22 games against Manchester United today.
Of course, there’s always a chance anything can happen in a derby but Bruno Fernandes can’t take on the whole City team and do what he has done for large chunks of the season.
City’s consistency will just be too much for United and it’s the consistency they have achieved, often without one or the other, or both, of their two biggest names, that deserves the biggest doff of the cap to all responsible.