Pep Guardiola believes Manchester City could be spurred to even greater heights by the prospect of Liverpool breathing down their necks all season.
City won the Premier League title with an unprecedented 100 points last season, 19 points clear of their nearest rivals, and have kicked off their title defence with 11 wins and two draws from 13 games, scoring 35 goals and conceding just five.
Liverpool are enjoying their best ever start to a Premier League campaign – they are also unbeaten and have conceded just five goals – but are still two points adrift of the defending champions.
They kept up the pressure on the leaders with a 2-0 win at Watford as City won 4-0 against West Ham on Saturday, and Guardiola believes that could serve to keep his players on their toes and ward off any complacency that could set-in after their record-breaking season.
The Catalan has been in this position before, when his Barcelona team followed up a treble-winning campaign in 2008-09 by romping to the Primera Division title with 99 points a year later.
Real Madrid, then coached by Manuel Pellegrini, were runners-up that season with 96 points, and Guardiola says his current squad could benefit from Liverpool’s challenge in the same way his former Barca squad reacted to Madrid’s persistence.
“I remember perfectly that season how tough it was, because more than the 96 points [they won], Madrid, with Manuel, played incredibly good. That’s why it was so nice, because we did the 99 points [after] we had won the treble with Barcelona.
“That’s why we maintained that level, 99 points. It was good, we did 99 points because someone from behind pushed us, and we knew that if we drop points Madrid is going to win the title.
“We can say Liverpool or Chelsea, or Tottenham and Arsenal as well. To compete we need good opponents close [to us] and of course this season we have it, here and in Europe.”
Guardiola spent pre-season and the first few weeks of the campaign warning his players of the dangers of complacency, having swept all before them on the domestic front last term.
Yet City’s results and performances so far this season have convinced him that that particular pit-fall has not been an issue for his players, so far at least.
The Catalan is keen, however, to ensure standards remain high and that was a running theme of his press conference following Saturday’s game at the London Stadium.
City, for example, lead 3-0 at the break but he insists he told his players that they had plenty of room for improvement in the second half.
“By explaining what was the reality of the first half,” he said when asked how he kept his players motivated.
“When we analyse 0-4, guys I am the happiest guy in the world, no complaints, but we have the duty to analyse how the game was, how we did things well and other things we have to improve. If you don’t, if you think, ‘Ok 0-4 is perfect’, around the corner is a defeat.”
“You can improve, today we saw it because we were lucky in some moments. They had two or three chances in the last four minutes before half-time, we conceded corners more than ever. We were a little bit less stable, I think because of the international break. From my experience, that always happens.”
Yet while Guardiola is willing to blame a less “stable” performance on the international fixtures, his players know they are rarely afforded any excuses.
“Riyad [Mahrez] knows he has to play good or [Raheem] Sterling will play, and Sterling knows has to play good, if not then Riyad plays,” Guardiola said in another response that spilled over into the topic of complacency. “The level is there. It’s the only way to compete after 100 points, if you want to fight for four competitions, or at least be there. When the team behaves in that way, you don’t have regrets.”
And he hammered the point home when discussing Leroy Sane’s return to the team after a difficult start to the season: “When you achieve something, there is always another one in front of the door. That is the reason why we are here, to let them see that because we have more experience. We have lived that situation before. My old manager taught me that when I was a player, like Sane, I felt that and I try to help them. If they get it, they get it. If they don’t, it will be their problem!”