John Stones thinks he knows why Manchester City is off to the best start in Premier League history. And it’s not just the unprecedented $290-million spending spree in the summer transfer window, the payroll of $321 million or a lineup so deep Raheem Sterling, whose seven goals are third most in the league, has started in only half the team’s games.
According to Stones, the clothes the team wears also may have something to do with it.
“A lot of it is down to preparation,” the second-year City defender told English journalists.
And under coach Pep Guardiola, much of that preparation has focused on promoting unity and esprit de corps among his players. One rule the coach enforced required the team to wear identical outfits from London-based fashion house Dsquared to Italy for a Champions League game three weeks ago.
City won 4-2.
But if the clothes make the man — or in this case, the team — Guardiola’s guidelines and attention to detail have gone well beyond simply dressing for success.
The Spanish manager has banned pizza and sodas from the training table, requires the team to eat breakfast, lunch and post-game meals together and insists foreign-born players — 18 of whom, like Guardiola, grew up speaking something other than English — learn the language, going so far as to administer regular exams.
“Nutrition and rest are important because we play continuously,” defender Nicolas Otamendi, one of City’s English students, told an Argentine radio station. “Guardiola is quite picky with diet.”
And other things, with Guardiola turning parts of the team’s lavish complex into Wi-Fi-dead zones, forcing the players to turn off their tablets and iPhones and actually talk to their teammates.
But rather than sparking a rebellion, midfielder Fabian Delph says, the measures have produced the best locker room he’s ever been a part of.
“The togetherness is there,” he told Sky Sports’ “Soccer Saturday.” “It is definitely the strongest since I’ve been at the club. Everyone interacts perfectly; everybody gets on well, on and off the pitch.”
That wasn’t always the case under former City managers Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, each of whom was sacked the season after winning a Premier League title. Guardiola’s approach, however, has paid off with early-season success unmatched in the Premier League’s 26 seasons.
With Saturday’s 2-0 road win over Leicester City, the Sky Blues are 11-0-1, having dropped just two points in 12 games. Their 40 goals in league play are second to France’s Paris Saint-Germain among teams in Europe’s top seven leagues and their goal differential is a staggering plus-33.
Manchester City is also perfect after four games of Champions League play and has won 16 consecutive games in all competitions, dating to an August EPL draw with Everton.
Not all of that can be attributed to a snappy wardrobe and no Wi-Fi. Turns out Guardiola has been paying attention to detail on the field as well, where his team’s flexible 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 formations have formed the foundation for an aggressive, high-intensity attack built around possession and movement.
That, of course, has always been Guardiola’s preferred style, first at Barcelona, where he won three consecutive La Liga titles and two Champions League crowns, then at Bayern Munich, where he won the Bundesliga three years in a row.
Guardiola stumbled to a third-place finish in his EPL debut last season, but this fall, after a makeover that included last January’s addition of Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus and the summer acquisitions of Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson, English defender Kyle Walker and Portuguese midfielder Bernardo Silva, the players have bought into their manager’s philosophies. And the team-first concepts Guardiola has pushed off the field have paid off on it, producing an entertaining — and successful — free-flowing style of play.
With Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne quarterbacking an unselfish offense, City has eagerly distributed the ball, attempting nearly 1,600 more passes than any other team in the EPL league, completing more than 89% of them. It also has controlled the ball for more than 58 minutes of every game — the best possession rate in any major European league — and has averaged more than 17 shots a game.
City hasn’t just beaten teams, it has bludgeoned them. On three consecutive weekends in September, Guardiola’s team outscored Liverpool, Watford and Crystal Palace by a combined 16-0. Then it opened October by scoring seven times against Stoke City.
Still, while that’s helped City jump to an eight-point lead in the standings over Manchester United 12 games into the season, people on the blue side of Manchester know fast starts mean nothing. In 2011-12, City lost just once in its first 18 games then began to struggle, eventually winning the title on goal differential thanks to two stoppage-times goals in its final game. Even last year, the first under Guardiola, City led the EPL through 10 games only to fall to second in early November, never reaching the top again.
Stones, who left Saturday’s game in the first half with an apparent hamstring injury, is betting that won’t happen this year.
“The boys have won titles and are hungry to do it again. That’s driving us,” he said.
“I’m enjoying my football. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but when you’re enjoying it, playing well, your mind is free and things come off.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11