Pep Guardiola made it clear yesterday that the script is as follows: Manchester City can forget about defending the Premier League title if mediocre performances continue.
Tuesday night’s defeat at Newcastle, a one-paced, lethargic display, acted as a shock to those on the outside. But others closer to the squad worried it had been coming for a while.
Liverpool’s anxious home draw with Leicester 24 hours later only exacerbated the frustration felt in the away dressing room at St James’ Park.
‘It’s much better,’ Guardiola said of City’s outlook following Leicester’s draw at Anfield, meaning the champions can move within two points of the leaders by beating Arsenal tomorrow.
‘But immediately I’d say, “How will our level be?” If our level is like the last game, it doesn’t matter if (the gap is) five points or two points or one, because we are not going to win. You are satisfied for the (Liverpool) result and that’s all. We have to improve our game, that’s the issue.
‘We’ve done it before and I know we can do it again. If we don’t do what we have to do, we will not be contenders until the end.’ That is the message Guardiola sent to his players during a 30-minute inquest in the North East, one of the longest of his three-season reign.
Sportsmail has learned the manager even locked a number of his own backroom staff out of the room as he delivered some home truths to the squad more intimately.
Fast-forward a day and, as Liverpool stuttered, Guardiola was attending the musical Jersey Boys with his family at Manchester’s Palace Theatre in Oxford Road. Perhaps the show’s second night of a short run in the city served as light relief.
For despite scoring 31 goals last month, City have not exactly been all-singing, all-dancing – 22 came in cup competitions spanning four games, three of which were against lower-league opposition.
Guardiola demanded his players ‘wake up’ at half-time in victories over Huddersfield Town and Wolves. He does, however, believe they will bounce back.
‘We are not happy with the last performance, everyone knows that. We knew immediately at half-time and after the game, but without motivation we’d not be here – where we are in all the competitions,’ the Catalan said. ‘It’s not new, we’ve done it many times. Get back on track with our principles. The players know what they have to do. It is the simple things, a few things we have to go back to doing. Little details.
‘We analysed, we talked about the way to attack some defensive structures like Newcastle, but it will be different against Arsenal.
‘I’ve said many times when people say we are a perfect team, or we are unbeatable, my answer is always the same: every game is a challenge on what you can do better.
‘There are a lot of games and sometimes to sustain it is tough, but those are the challenges and we want to face them.’
The City boss conceded he had ‘no idea’ how Vincent Kompany is feeling, with the captain having been battling injury since the victory over Liverpool on January 3.
The reintegration of Kevin De Bruyne, who has started the last four games after two knee injuries, is also taking time.
‘Our problems must be solved collectively,’ Guardiola said. ‘All the players are playing at a high level when the team plays well.
‘What we have to do is play good and it is then that the potential of individual players will increase. We have to focus.’