Indeed, so smooth, so serene has been its progress that it has been widely assumed that Guardiola and his players were immune to pressure, that the quality of the squad at his disposal rendered the challenge of the 14 opponents City has faced negligible. There have been times, even when Liverpool has led the table, even when Liverpool has won against the odds, when City has seemed entirely unfazed.
In reality, though, the pressure of the situation has bitten just as hard at the Etihad Stadium as it has at Anfield. Guardiola was talking about retaining the championship almost as soon as he celebrated winning it last year; when City visited Yankee Stadium last summer, the trophy was placed on display. Guardiola made a point, as he exited, of stopping and kissing it. “I love this one,” he said. He made it clear to his players that he expected them not to bring that affair to a premature end.
Liverpool has had to deal with the burden of history, of hope, of desperation. City’s load has felt just as onerous, at times: the demands of expectation, the strain borne by the favorite, the pressure that the team would be lacerated with criticism if it stumbled.
Occasionally, it has showed: there was a palpable tension during the recent home victory against Tottenham, only three days after City was eliminated from the Champions League; against Leicester City, City had all but run out of ideas until Vincent Kompany decided to shoot from 30 yards. Mostly, though, it has not. The reason for that is Guardiola.
Under the most intense pressure, faced with an opponent who simply would not subside, City was able to perform, to do as Guardiola asked, to execute his plans. That is testament to the skill, and temperament, of the players, of course, but it is also proof of the quality of the coaching.
Guardiola’s message is now instilled so deeply in his squad, his ideas so clear, that no matter the circumstance, City can fulfill them. It has become the players’ default. They have been successfully re-engineered, in most cases, as footballers as Guardiola would like them to be. He is the defining figure, the master of their destiny. In the context, missing out on a few individual prizes, a few gala dinners, is a small price to pay. The consecutive Premier League titles, the chance, next week, to record an unprecedented domestic treble, more than make up for it.