In Pep Guardiola’s squad of world-famous superstars, the unsung hero of Manchester City and the driving force behind this year’s title-winning campaign was Rico Lewis, an 18-year-old who left the academy and had no first-team experience before this season.
“Some players here have won five Premier League titles,” said Guardiola at the turn of the year.
“Why do you think you should fight again?” That’s why we need Rico. For him it is: “Wow, this is new, I want to play, I want to win a Premier League.” “That energy is contagious.”
That statement was significant. Guardiola has his finger on the pulse and knew that something was wrong with the hunger and desire of the team. They had lost points in six of their 20 La Liga and Champions League games before Christmas.
Joao Cancelo was set to become a victim when Guardiola unleashed an internal storm. Cancelo, a regular before the World Cup, fretted over his missed minutes after Lewis was called on for his first start on December 28.
Rico Lewis (R) has been the unseen driving force behind City’s Premier League season
Lewis (left) was taken out of Manchester City’s academy as he had no first-team experience before this season
Pep Guardiola (back right) has cracked the code behind his young Man City squad
Cancelo started at Chelsea just a week later but was tied by Guardiola at half-time and replaced by the teenager. He would have been embarrassed. But Lewis was a real eye-catcher and justified his choice.
All of this had a real impact on the team. Cancelo became a sacrificial lamb. The game against Chelsea was Cancelo’s penultimate Premier League appearance in a City shirt before he was loaned out to Bayern Munich.
That must have sent shockwaves through the troops. Guardiola was saying: if you don’t show me your hunger, you won’t play, and in fact you won’t even be here.
Permission to leave Raheem Sterling, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus in the summer should have removed any doubt that the players are in their comfort zones after so many trophies. But that wasn’t the case and he had to act to create even more hunger.
Guardiola looked at Arsenal and was perhaps envious of the fire in their bellies. The Gunners found themselves back in the title race for the first time in years and it seemed they might want more from him.
He saw Lewis’ attitude as a bright spot and wanted to give him a chance. He would have seen that Lewis had an effervescent energy. He threw balls forward and is a natural at pushing his way into midfield, displaying great composure.
The young lad was later to lose his place when ahead of big games – Liverpool and Arsenal – Guardiola opted to be more secure in defence, choosing John Stones as an extra player in midfield. This was another brilliant innovation.
With Erling Haaland on the team, Guardiola needed to bring more body to midfield to dominate games. “Rico showed us the way,” Guardiola said recently. “He’s our little Philipp Lahm.” We’re now seeing the Stones taking those positions and getting plenty of praise from fans and pundits alike.
Lewis’s (left) effervescent energy gave him a chance at City
When one of the back four – be it Lewis at full-back or Stones from the central areas – pushes into midfield, City are overloaded and able to take control before going on the attack.
Losing matches in the knockout rounds of the Champions League would have been very painful for Guardiola in recent seasons. City would dominate teams, but then they would lose on counterattack.
But this new system allows them to leave three belligerent defenders behind to create an impressive wall in front of goalkeeper Ederson.
Another unsung hero in that title win is Manuel Akanji, who played 70 percent of City’s games and was a formidable figure in defence. He has shown agility, speed and calmness on the ball.
Ruben Dias, the organizer, sits between Akanji and Kyle Walker, the world’s fastest defender. Now his strengths come into their own. Nathan Ake is another player who has come through his formative season and made an impressive impression.
The manager told us Walker couldn’t play that reverse role but now Guardiola has figured out how to get the best out of the Englishman.
This fine-tuning of his system could make it the best team he has ever created.
Manuel Akanji (centre) has played 70 percent of City’s games and has been a standout figure in defence
The departure of Joao Cancelo (left) paved the way for Lewis’ chance at Man City
At Barcelona he inherited most of the squad but this team is pretty much his own creation. With the exception of Kevin De Bruyne, every player was signed by Guardiola himself.
Now they are nearing the end of the season and two cup finals.
If they can beat Inter Milan in the Champions League – City’s second European Cup final in three years – Guardiola will feel they have cracked the code and City’s young side could be the dominant force on the continent for years to come.
Guardiola has put seven years of work into creating this football monster and I don’t think he will lose his ambition or give up this team any time soon.