Pep Guardiola is not surprised by Manchester United's rejuvenation this season as he could feel Manchester City's great rivals would bounce back.

A dismal start to Erik ten Hag's stint in charge saw back-to-back losses against Brentford and Brighton and Hove Albion at the start of the season spark concern, but United have fought back to sit just four points adrift of City ahead of Saturday's clash.

Since the mid-season halt of action for the World Cup, United have tallied six consecutive wins across all competitions, conceding just once, and can move within touching distance of City with a victory at Old Trafford.

While United's revival has surprised many, City boss Guardiola is not among them as he revealed he had a feeling they were back to their best.

Asked what has changed at United, Guardiola said: "Tactically not much, but when you see the commitment without the ball, I always had the feeling that the strength, the quality of the Manchester United was always there.

"Since I arrived there was [Romelu] Lukaku, [Paul] Pogba, and top-class players everywhere, in every season. It doesn't look like just City spend money in this league. Just see United and what they have done.

"I think United are playing now like they normally play in their history. So that's why it's not surprising for me. I said one month ago, I see something that United are back. And people say no, they're not back. I knew it. I felt it."

City come into the derby on the back of a surprise EFL Cup quarter-final loss against Southampton and know that defeat to United would drag them into a fierce battle for a top-four finish, as well as opening the door for Arsenal to extend their lead at the top to eight points when they face Tottenham.

However, Guardiola has no concern that his squad will not rise to the occasion and is confident they will show a response.

"Absolutely. I'm confident. I will never doubt them. Even if this season will be a mess and it will be not successful in the terms of the people's expectations, I would never doubt the players," he declared.

"But the fact I tell the truth doesn't mean that I don't rely on them. Against Southampton, I'll tell them the truth and maybe they are not used to it because they are surrounded by people who say how good they are.

"It's not like Erik ten Hag, who has been here one season. We are here for a long time and handling that is completely different."

Pep Guardiola always expected Manchester United would challenge Manchester City again as the sides head into Saturday's derby separated by only four points.

That gap was eight points after their previous meeting in early October, which City sensationally won 6-3 at the Etihad Stadium.

But United are the Premier League's form team, winning 15 of their subsequent 18 games in all competitions and losing just once.

Erik ten Hag has improved the Old Trafford outfit to the point they could really pile the pressure on second-placed City with a victory this weekend.

Guardiola was asked about United's progress ahead of that match and replied: "It's normal. A new manager arrived, many things must be settled, then the improvement of the team is clear.

"It's not just in terms of results, it's everything."

United have improved "a lot", he accepted, but a Red Devils revival was always on the cards at some stage.

"What happened in the previous seasons is a Man United problem, so I don't know, but now it's normal that United is there," Guardiola said. "Still there, top, fighting.

"The position is there because it's the position Man United has to be.

"For me, did they surprise me? No. Must be there? Yes. Alongside the other teams? Yes. That's why this competition is so difficult, but I'm not surprised at all."

Guardiola, entering his 500th top-flight match as a coach, said earlier in the week he had "a few ideas, thoughts, ridiculous ones" for taking on United, but he was in less entertaining mood following an EFL Cup exit to Southampton.

"A joke," he said of those comments. "It was a joke."

With the defeat to Saints fresh in his mind, denying him a fifth success in that competition, Guardiola was similarly unimpressed by discussion of the title race as City head into the weekend five points behind leaders Arsenal.

"It's not a knockout game, so there are many games still to play," he answered on the topic.

"Yes, it's important, it's always important against United, but it's a football game like many that are going to happen in the future.

Pep Guardiola feared a Manchester City performance of the like they delivered in losing to Southampton was coming this season after years of success, and he is now calling on his team to "recover who you are".

City exited the EFL Cup, a competition they have won four times under Guardiola, with a 2-0 defeat at St Mary's Stadium on Wednesday.

That quarter-final elimination was concerning beyond simply the result, however, as Guardiola's side failed to record a shot on target for the first time in almost five years.

City have little time to recover as they face rivals Manchester United in the Premier League on Saturday. Guardiola said his team had gone through "normal preparation for the next game" despite his concerns at what he saw against Southampton, but he had a response when it was suggested fans might be concerned by Ilkay Gundogan's post-match comments.

Gundogan, the City captain, suggested they were missing "a special recipe" as "the desire and hunger is maybe not as it was in recent years".

"City fans cannot complain about what this team is able to do, has done and will do," Guardiola said in a press conference on Friday.

"We cannot talk on behalf of the City fans, because there are millions; I don't know what every single City fan thinks.

"Saying that, what happened didn't surprise me. We tried to avoid it. It happened, unfortunately.

"Hopefully it's not going to happen again, but it's happened because we've done four Premier Leagues in five years. Sometimes you have to reset.

"This competition, the [EFL] Cup, showed me exactly in terms of consistency that we were able to do it. This was our strength as a team, as a club in the previous seasons. After back-to-back two times, this could happen.

"It's normal it happens. We were not ready to go there and be ourselves. I'm not talking about winning the [EFL] Cup, I'm not talking about winning games, we must be ourselves, behaves how we have to in every single game.

"Unfortunately, I was a little bit concerned this season that it could happen. Unfortunately, it happened; I don't know if it's going to happen again.

Guardiola is at least confident there will be no repeat against United, adding he was "not concerned at all" about City's desire ahead of the derby.

But the wider implication of what the match might mean for the Premier League title race was not of interest to the City manager.

"After what happened after Southampton, the last thing I'm worried about is titles, these kind of things," he said. "It's to recover who you are game by game."

Manchester City will attempt to celebrate a landmark game for Pep Guardiola by securing a fourth consecutive win over Manchester United at Old Trafford on Saturday.

The eagerly awaited derby will be Guardiola's 500th match as a top-flight manager in an incredible trophy-laden career.

Of more importance for the City boss will be claiming a victory that would leave the champions only two points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal, who face a derby of their own at Tottenham on Sunday.

The Red Devils were hammered 6-3 when the two sides met at the Etihad Stadium in October, with Guardiola's men having done the double over their fierce rivals last season.

Fourth-placed United are flying under Erik ten Hag, though, and a win over City – who suffered a shock EFL Cup defeat to Southampton on Wednesday – would leave them only a point behind their neighbours.

Stats Perform has used Opta data to preview a huge derby showdown.


Another huge milestone for Pep

Guardiola has long since established himself as one of the best managers in the world, achieving great success with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City.

He took charge of 152 LaLiga games during his Barca tenure, 102 in the Bundesliga with dominant Bayern and this will be his 246th Premier League match as City boss.

Guardiola has won 379 of the 499 top-flight encounters he has overseen, suffered 52 defeats and drawn 68 games. 

With a win percentage rate of 76, he has the most victories and highest win rate - for managers who have taken charge of at least 100 games - of any boss in Europe's big-five leagues since his first top-flight season in 2008-09.

United on a roll

Ten Hag has lifted the gloom and there is more of an air of optimism at Old Trafford, with United having won eight consecutive games in all competitions.

Since and including their win over Liverpool on August 22, no team has earned more Premier League points than United's tally of 35, winning 11 of their 15 games during that time.

The Red Devils have won all three Premier League games since the World Cup without conceding a goal and reached the EFL Cup semi-finals with a 3-0 win over Charlton Athletic on Tuesday.

City to add insult to injury by breaking scoring record?

Erling Haaland and Phil Foden scored hat-tricks as City put United to the sword just over three months ago.

Guardiola's men could break their record for the number of goals scored against United in a season, which stands at eight established by 5-0 and 3-2 victories way back in the 1954-55 campaign.

The most goals the Red Devils have conceded against an opponent in a Premier League season is nine against Liverpool in 2021-22.

Rashford can do no wrong

Marcus Rashford can do no wrong at the minute, scoring in every game since the World Cup.

He came off the bench to help himself to a late double in the win over Charlton, making it seven goals in six matches since returning from England duty in Qatar.

Rashford, who found the back of the net twice for the Three Lions in the World Cup, has scored 15 times this season for United – who are certainly not missing Cristiano Ronaldo.

Pep Guardiola says Manchester City "don't have a chance" of beating rivals Manchester United at the weekend if they repeat the performance that saw them eliminated from the EFL Cup.

City started with the likes of Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne and Ederson among their substitutes for Wednesday's quarter-final tie at Southampton and were made to pay in a 2-0 defeat.

Sekou Mara put the Saints ahead when beating Kyle Walker to a cross, before Moussa Djenepo profited from Stefan Ortega's poor positioning to add a second before half-time.

De Bruyne was introduced as part of a triple substitution at the interval, while Haaland followed soon after, but City failed to register a shot on target for the first time this term.

Next up for City is a trip to in-form United in the league on Saturday, and Guardiola accepts a big improvement is needed from his side at Old Trafford.

"It's a different competition, but of course if we perform in this way we don't have a chance," he said in his post-match press conference. "I know the momentum they have. 

"For many years they're looking forward to being in this position. We know exactly what to do to play better and we're going to try to do it."

Asked about his decision to leave out Haaland and De Bruyne for a second game running, Guardiola said: "Who knows if with Erling and Kevin it would have been different? 

"But when you play for four competitions it's important to use every player in the squad."

City suffered defeat inside 90 minutes of an EFL Cup tie for just the third time in 30 matches under Guardiola, who has won the competition four times in seven seasons.

The loss – City's fourth in 28 games this campaign – came just three days on from a superb performance in seeing off Chelsea 4-0 in third round of the FA Cup.

And Guardiola accepts there could be no complaints with his side's two-goal reverse at St Mary's Stadium.

"It was a bad night. I know them quite well. We didn't get close to what we are," he said. "Three days after facing Chelsea... I've nothing to say. 

"They were better, we congratulate them and accept it. We have to be prepared every single game when you play for Manchester City. Today we were not."

City defeated United 6-3 when the sides last met in October and are seeking a Premier League double over the Red Devils in a single season for the sixth time ever.

Ilkay Gundogan, who played the full 90 minutes against Southampton, is hoping the cup setback can spark some life into City heading into the derby.

"There's no room for any mistakes [against United], or for any poor performances like today," he told the club's official website.

"Hopefully, if there is something good we can take out of this game today, it was something like a wake-up call at the right time.

"Even though it is sad and disappointing to be out of this cup, hopefully, at the end, in a few weeks we can at least look back and take something good out of this game."

Pep Guardiola admits Manchester City were deservedly beaten by Southampton as they were "not prepared" for Wednesday's EFL Cup quarter-final tie.

Below-strength City were defeated 2-0 by the Premier League's bottom side at St Mary's Stadium through goals from Sekou Mara and Moussa Djenepo.

City made five changes for the contest, which followed three days on from an FA Cup third-round win against Chelsea and precedes Saturday's derby against Manchester United.

The visitors failed to register a single shot on target for the first time in a game this season, while their overall tally of seven shots is also a new low for the campaign.

After City suffered defeat inside 90 minutes of an EFL Cup tie for just the third time in 30 matches under Guardiola, the Catalan coach accepted his side were second best.

"The better team won," he told BBC Sport. "We didn't play good. We didn't play well in the start. There are many games you can start not good but recover and we didn't do it.

"When you are not prepared to play this game, you arrive one inch late and don't score a goal. When you are prepared, you score the goal.

"Tonight was a bad night, the opponent was better so we have to congratulate them. To win games you have to deserve it and tonight we didn't deserve it."

 

Kevin De Bruyne was brought on at half-time as part of a triple substitution, while Erling Haaland entered the fray soon after, but neither could make an impact for City.

Defeat for City was just their fourth in 28 matches this season, and their first since returning to action following the World Cup break.

While it was a hugely disappointing outing for City, Southampton celebrated back-to-back wins for the first time under Nathan Jones, who had been under pressure following a poor start to his tenure.

Following Southampton's second win in 16 meetings with City under Guardiola, Jones wants his players to push on in their battle to avoid relegation from the Premier League.

"We want to be hard to beat. This has to be our benchmark, the level we attain to. We had a lot of good situations today. It's a step in the right direction," he told Sky Sports.

"I'm really proud of the players, of myself and the coaches. We've gone through a lot recently, people questioning a lot of things. 

"That goes a little way to justifying why we're here and what team we're trying to create. I'm really proud of the club tonight and how we've come through a tough time."

Graham Potter accepts he has not been "absolutely perfect" at Chelsea but is confident he can win his critics around – just like Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta before him.

The Chelsea coach is under increased scrutiny as the Blues have won only one of their past seven matches in all competitions and one of their last eight in the Premier League.

Back-to-back defeats to Manchester City had Chelsea fans chanting for Potter's predecessor Thomas Tuchel.

But he only had to look as far as the opposition dugout for a source of inspiration, with Guardiola's approach not universally popular at the start of his City tenure.

Guardiola has urged for Potter to be given time – the Blues coach says the owners have been "nothing but supportive" – while Arsenal manager Arteta and Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp are other examples for him to follow.

"You have to understand [the criticism] is part of the job," Potter said ahead of Thursday's game against Fulham.

"You only have to look at some of my colleagues in a similar position.

"Pep, for example, in his first season, was being criticised quite heavily. I think Mikel Arteta has had a period of criticism. Klopp, in the first few years, would have had criticism as well. These guys are fantastic.

"You understand football is emotional. When you lose, you feel it; you feel the pain; you feel the suffering; you feel the discomfort.

"Sometimes it's hard to understand the 'why', and it's easier just to blame somebody. I'm sitting here saying it's not like I've been absolutely perfect, so they're not completely wrong, but I think it's always very complex.

"You just try to put it into perspective. You try to remember you're capable; you try to remember how you got here.

"Two months ago, I was considered to be a top coach. If you consider the people I've played against and played with, they'd probably say the same.

"But at the same time, I acknowledge the results we've had haven't been good enough for us. You have to accept and deal with it as best you can. Try to put it in perspective and keep moving forward."

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has no doubt Phil Foden has the capability to play at the heart of midfield.

Foden, used mostly on the wing for both club and country, has often been touted as a future central midfielder.

He has played in the role occasionally for City, including in Sunday's 4-0 hammering of Chelsea in the FA Cup.

Having struggled to get into the game when playing on the flank in City's 1-0 Premier League win at Stamford Bridge three days earlier, Foden looked sharp in a central role and capped off a sublime team move to put City 3-0 up.

Guardiola believes Foden is learning the role, as he compared the 22-year-old's ability to City great David Silva, who moved from the wing to midfield during his 10-year stint at the club.

"He can play inside, but inside you have more attributes to do more things and pay attention more because there are more people, it is not just 'I am going to press and run', it is when and where," said Guardiola ahead of City's EFL Cup tie with Southampton.

"The spaces are minor. Wider you have time but what is important is Phil has the quality to play in these small, small spaces, it is not easy to find.

"Bernardo [Silva] and David Silva can do it and Gundo goes close to the pockets of the central defenders – Phil has the quality and ability to do it.

"He is really good in small spaces, the goal he scored [against Chelsea], he is there. The action is good, the overlap from Kyle [Walker] and the right moment, the right tempo, the pass from Riyad [Mahrez], but in that moment he is there and to score a goal you have to be there.

"In that position, especially when they play five at the back it is important to have an extra player there. We maybe missed it a bit [in the draw] against Everton.

"Phil has these attributes. Of course he can play wider on both sides, he played top class in the last years playing wider but he can play in the middle."

 

What did the data say?

Foden had 45 touches against Chelsea, with 41 coming in open play.

That was the most he had managed in a City match since November 12, when he had 80 in a defeat to Brentford. Indeed, bar that game, the last time Foden had more touches was against Sevilla in the Champions League on November 2; he had 64 on that occasion, playing in central midfield.

Guardiola will want more creativity from the England international should he play in the role. Against Sevilla, Foden crafted three chances and had 10 touches in the opposition box – he only managed four in Sunday's game, albeit one of those was that fine finish to put the game to bed, and did not create a goalscoring opportunity.

Foden attempted 34 passes, more than only Julian Alvarez (18) of City's starters, completing 29 of those, while he won three of his six duels.

Gareth Bale's retirement announcement sparking a new wave of golf-related jokes and memes was par for the course – he might not have expected Pep Guardiola to chip in, though.

The Wales great confirmed on Monday his career in professional football has come to an end after representing his country at the 2022 World Cup.

Despite his brilliance as footballer over the years, it is certainly not the only sport Bale is closely associated with.

During his time in Madrid, Bale's penchant for taking to the golf course while injured began to tee Los Blancos fans off, and former player Predrag Mijatovic once suggested the Welshman's priorities were "Wales, then golf, and after that, Real Madrid".

Wales fans subsequently turned it into a chant and slogan, with Bale even among the players holding a flag that read "Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order" as the team celebrated reaching Euro 2020.

Ever since, it has been a running joke largely used to poke fun at Madrid, and Guardiola – while paying tribute to the 33-year-old – made the most of a gimme opportunity with a quip of his own.

When first asked if he had ever tried to sign Bale, Guardiola said with a grin: "Too expensive.

"What a player. Fantastic career, won a lot of things, and I think he represented Wales and won more than 100 caps.

"And now he will become a fantastic golf player."

While Guardiola may not have ever invited Bale to join him at Manchester City, Bayern Munich or Barcelona despite occasional links, it seems he did approach him about hitting the course.

Bale's unavailability then meant they were unable to iron out the details, but he appears likely to get another offer soon.

Guardiola added: "He was busy, but now maybe he has time, I will invite him again."

Pep Guardiola is confident Kalvin Phillips can find his stride after a slow start to his career at Manchester City.

In December, Guardiola said the England international returned from the World Cup "overweight" and "not in the right condition to train", with Phillips yet to find his feet at Etihad Stadium following a move from Leeds United.

Six appearances this season have all come off the bench, including 32 minutes in Sunday's FA Cup victory over Chelsea – only the second time he has played more than 15 minutes for the club.

It has been reported Phillips will make his long-awaited first start for the club against Southampton and, while not confirming whether that is true, Guardiola expects him to reach City's requisite standard. 

"He's always ready. He needed a little bit of time but he's ready," Guardiola told reporters on Tuesday.

"We have to see [if he will start] but he's intelligent and normally a holding midfielder. He has an incredible work ethic, was educated at Leeds under Marcelo [Bielsa].

"He's committed in every game, there are patterns and movements that need time and games though. He arrived and had injuries, which meant he couldn't be there, but step by step he will get there."

Guardiola also feels facing Southampton, under Nathan Jones, leaves his side having to adjust to the new approach their opponents will adopt.

"It's an away game, so obviously it would have been better at home. They're in a difficult position, they have a new manager and are still getting used to it," he added.

"We knew Ralph [Hasenhuttl's] style of play, and now they have a changed style and different patterns, so we will have to adapt to that. We have to do our best to reach the semi-final."

Pep Guardiola is confident Kalvin Phillips is back to full fitness, having described the midfielder as 'overweight' following his return to Manchester City from the World Cup.

Phillips played twice for England in Qatar, coming on as a substitute against Wales and Senegal, but Guardiola was not entirely satisfied with his condition upon his return.

Having struggled with a shoulder injury during the first part of the season, which limited him to just one Premier League appearance, Phillips had to endure an extended wait to return for his second involvement in the league.

That came in Thursday's 1-0 Premier League triumph over Chelsea, where he was introduced off the bench in the 86th minute, and he is now pushing to make his first City start in the FA Cup against the Blues on Sunday.

While Guardiola is unsure whether he will be handed that opportunity, he believes Phillips is back in his best shape.

"I don't know whether Kalvin will play, on Sunday we will see. I had a good feeling last week, that he's back," he told reporters.

"He wanted to change our mind with the way he's going to play, maybe it will be a good lesson for him in the future.

"I have the feeling that a football player, for 12 months, has to be perfect, even on holiday. You can enjoy and do what you want but you must be ready because this game is so demanding.

"Last season with Leeds, for long parts he was injured, he came and couldn't train, he struggled with his shoulder. He fought to go to the World Cup, he got it.

"It was a long period without playing, without rhythm that was not there for five or six years. We need Kalvin, we need all the players."

Having beaten Chelsea in the Premier League, Guardiola is aware the Blues could change their approach for the FA Cup tie – particularly having been ravaged by injury issues, losing both Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic in the early stages of Thursday's game.

"It is better for us to play Chelsea at home with our fans, after a victory it is much better," he added.

"It will be a different game, maybe Graham [Potter] will change his shape, I know they are struggling with injuries. We have three days to think about it."

Pep Guardiola joked he is a "genius" and took advice from a journalist for the pivotal substitutions that helped Manchester City to a 1-0 win at Chelsea.

Jack Grealish teed up fellow sub Riyad Mahrez just three minutes after entering the fray in the second half at Stamford Bridge on Thursday.

Guardiola had earlier shaken things up at the break with Rico Lewis and Manuel Akanji replacing Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo after a lacklustre first-half showing from his side.

Asked about the inspired changes, Guardiola quipped: "I'm a genius! 

"In the last press conference it was [journalist] Jamie Jackson, and he said 'why did I make a substitution on 81 minutes against Everton?' And I took notes and I thought about him at half-time and I changed it at half-time."

Expanding on his thought process, Guardiola explained: "The first half was sloppy. We didn't create much, our pressing was so poor we were not well organised and in the second half especially with Manuel and Rico we were better.

"All managers try to make subs to improve the team. Sometimes the team are losing, but you are playing well. So why should I change when I have the feeling they are doing well? Why should I do it? 

"Today, after 20 minutes, because you have to give the game a little bit of time, I realise I don't like what I'm seeing. Why do you have to wait? 

"Everyone saw it, from the first minute of the second half it was a completely different Manchester City."

It was an important win for City, who have trimmed the gap to leaders Arsenal back to five points after the Gunners were held to a goalless draw by Newcastle United on Tuesday.

Guardiola is content with the position he finds his side in, stressing the difficulty of motivating a team that has won four titles in the previous five seasons.

"We could lose here, but now we have a five-point gap. We have three less points to play for," he added.

"It means a lot, but we have to prove ourselves because it is normal to be in this position after four Premier Leagues in five years.

"We have the mindset that in November the people believe we are already champions, and this is impossible.

"Other teams that don't have this pressure because people say in September that City are going to win.

"After four Premier Leagues in five years it is not easy to push them again. That is why I am satisfied after what happened in recent years.

"We'd prefer to be closer but with the way Arsenal play they deserve to better. For us it was so important, especially in the second half, to be aware that we can do it again and again and again."

Pep Guardiola highlighted 18-year-old Rico Lewis' introduction as the turning point in Manchester City's 1-0 win at Chelsea on Thursday.

City were poor in the first half and somewhat fortunate to be level at the break, with Carney Chukwuemeka hitting the post for Chelsea.

But teenager Lewis, who had started each of City's two previous Premier League games, was introduced at half-time as Guardiola reverted to a back four.

Lewis slotted in at right-back but once again looked comfortable operating in central midfield areas, as Guardiola likes his full-backs to do, completing all of his 27 passes as City suddenly enjoyed much greater control – he was the only player with more than 16 pass attempts to record 100 per cent accuracy.

Riyad Mahrez scored the winner in the 63rd minute after a wonderful pass from fellow substitute Jack Grealish, but it was Lewis whom Guardiola singled out as being decisive.

"In the last games, Rico has the ability to make his team-mates play better," Guardiola told Sky Sports.

"So, there are players who play for themselves really well, but [Lewis] has the ability to make the whole team play better because every movement he does, he knows exactly what he has to do.

"He's playing the level he was playing against Chelsea in the EFL Cup, against Leeds, Liverpool. He changed the game."

For many, though, John Stones was the standout performer.

Not only was he typically assured on the ball – aside from one heavy first touch in the second half that invited pressure from Conor Gallagher – but he was solid defensively as well.

Stones tallied the most touches (102) and successful passes (85) of anyone on the pitch, meanwhile no one bettered his duels success (77.8 per cent – minimum two duels contested) and only Thiago Silva (five) recorded more than his four clearances.

It was not so long ago that Stones' City future was looking uncertain, but Guardiola believes the England international is playing the best football of his time at the club.

"He played extraordinary in the World Cup," Guardiola said. "He can adapt perfectly in the build-up with three [at the back], [playing] wider. He has the calmness, the composure.

"He is playing at the best level, maybe for the first time in seven years since we arrived together.

"When he is stable here [pointing to his head], when his mood is good, he is a fantastic, fantastic player."

Thursday's result reduced the gap to leaders Arsenal to five points, which certainly does not look unassailable for a squad as deep as City's with 21 games left.

Guardiola was keen to give Arsenal their due credit, however, adamant the Gunners have even been impressive in the few games they failed to win.

"Well, it could have been seven points, or 10 or eight, but now the gap is five points," Guardiola said.

"We have to look at ourselves, but I have to admit, the way they are playing, Arsenal deserve to be there.

"It's not just about the points, the way they are playing. Even when they lost against [Manchester] United and drew with Newcastle, the quality and the level they are playing is so good."

John Stones hailed the defensive shift Manchester City put in against Chelsea to secure a valuable 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge.

Riyad Mahrez's goal in the 63rd minute moved Pep Guardiola's side five points behind leaders Arsenal, with City bouncing back after a disappointing 1-1 draw against Everton on New Year's Eve.

While there has been an abundance of praise for City's attacking play this season, and the devastating form of Erling Haaland, it was at the other end where the defending champions had to make their mark.

The display from Stones was an integral part of Thursday's performance as he made a number of crucial interventions, and the England international revealed defence has been an area of focus in recent training sessions.

"It's a big three points for us. After the other day, the overriding feeling from the game was that we'd dropped two points and we should have got more out of the game," Stones told Sky Sports.

"We wanted to put it right today and how we played in the second half especially was brilliant. To come away with three points is just what we needed.

"We rushed a lot of our play in the first half, we had too many crucial passes that got cut out, and we didn't retain the ball as well as we usually do.

"We spoke at half-time, we knew we had to use the ball better and wait for spaces to open. Credit to Chelsea, they played really compact, we couldn't get too many balls through the lines, we had to play wider, and it all came together in the second half.

"There were a few big moments, blocks and defending that we've been working on in training, and it came off today."

Pep Guardiola has frequently been accused of overthinking during his time as Manchester City manager, with some even putting their continued failure to win the Champions League down to this reason.

As a case in point, City lost to Chelsea in the 2021 final of that competition when Guardiola decided against fielding a naturally defensive midfielder.

Perhaps it has been a fair criticism at times, but by extension it highlights the self-belief that he can outmanoeuvre opponents before they've even set foot on the pitch.

He might even be accused of having overcomplicated plans for Thursday's trip to Stamford Bridge.

Yet Guardiola also inspired the 1-0 win over Chelsea with his own apparent recognition that he got his initial line-up wrong, his second-half changes proving key as City returned to winning ways after that disappointing 1-1 draw with Everton on New Year's Eve.

It took a while for victory to look likely, though, even with a patched-up Chelsea enduring an injury nightmare.

There was unmistakably a sense of bewilderment around the stadium as Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic sustained knocks that forced their withdrawal.

Only 22 minutes had been played. The double blow continued Chelsea's remarkably bad luck on the fitness front of late, with those two taking their injury list to 10 players having also lost Mason Mount in the previous 24 hours.

And if there's any team primed to capitalise on such misfortune, it's City.

Or, it usually is.

Despite Chelsea's predicament, they were the better team in the first half – quite comfortably so, some fans might even suggest.

Pulisic looked destined to score when John Stones produced the forceful – but clean – last-ditch tackle that ultimately forced the American's substitution.

Bernardo Silva made a similarly important intervention to block an attempt from Pulisic's replacement, Carney Chukwuemeka, who looked lively off the bench.

While it may not have been a case of City struggling to stay afloat, their lack of invention and control was curious, even against a team like Chelsea.

It was nothing like the City we've come to expect.

Still, though, Chelsea deserved credit. For all their problems and poor recent form, they looked sharp, up for a fight, and went agonisingly close just before the break as Chukwuemeka hit the post at the end of a rapid breakaway.

It was in moments like that, when the game was stretched, that Chelsea looked their most threatening – perhaps, then, it was no surprise to see Guardiola make changes at the interval.

City reverted to a back four. Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo were withdrawn; Manuel Akanji went to centre-back; Rodri moved back into midfield, and Rico Lewis came on as a right-back-cum-central-midfielder.

Almost instantly City had the greater control they'd desired. Suddenly Chelsea were struggling to keep their heads above water as the visitors relentlessly poured men forward and snuffed out any counter attempts.

Chelsea survived in the 52nd minute when Nathan Ake's header hit the post and Phil Foden saw a follow-up blocked; Kevin De Bruyne then drilled wide from inside the box a few minutes later.

But while Guardiola's half-time adjustments undoubtedly played a role in altering the course of the match, it was his additional tinkering on the hour that was truly decisive.

Foden's restoration to the starting XI would have been popular among the army of supporters calling for his return, but he was largely anonymous here – the impact of his replacement will have surely drawn a smug grin from Guardiola.

Jack Grealish, with his first major involvement three minutes after coming on, played the ball across the face of goal to put it on a plate for Riyad Mahrez.

He was left with a simple tap-in, opening the scoring with what was also Mahrez's first proper involvement as he got in behind Marc Cucurella.

It had been that area of the pitch where most of City's joy had previously come from, with Bernardo's substitution for Mahrez almost surprising at the time given the Portugal midfielder had been giving Cucurella the run-around in the first 14 minutes of the second period.

Yet Guardiola's decisiveness was crucial. He went back to the wide pairing that had become his favoured option lately, and they showed why that'd been the case in one simple move – and just a few moments after being introduced.

Chelsea's attempts to claw back the slender deficit were valiant, spirited, their young substitutes battling away encouragingly. It was ultimately beyond them, but there is only so much you can expect given the Blues' list of absentees.

No, this was all down to City and Guardiola.

Maybe Guardiola did overcomplicate things for himself, but if you don't have anyone good enough to play chess against, sometimes you've just got to play yourself.

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