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“Man City can win everything” — Pep Guardiola’s midfield Messi Rodri on tiredness, trebles, and perfect partner

It’s easy to conclude that nothing ever really changes for the relentless machine that is Manchester City.

Just like last season, when they wandered off with a historic Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League treble, they are primed and firmly in contention across those three competitions. It’s just what they do.

Last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Anfield left them third in the Premier League, a point behind Liverpool and leaders Arsenal in a knife-edge Premier League title race. The Gunners are up next at the Etihad Stadium after the international break.

Real Madrid will be out for revenge in the Champions League quarterfinals after being demolished by City in the semis last season, while Saturday’s routine 2-0 win over Newcastle United secured a record sixth-consecutive FA Cup semifinal spot. They will face Chelsea at Wembley.

However, sometimes the things the most important people in the building want to change don’t change. If City truly are inevitable, it becomes hard work for the likes of Rodri — arguably the most influential man in their locker room behind Pep Guardiola.

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“I don’t remember exactly the number of games I played, but I had a talk with the club and the coach because it’s not healthy,” Rodri told reporters on City’s preseason tour of Japan and South Korea last August, the glorious 2022/23 campaign that saw him score the winner in the Champions League final against Inter Milan having been one of hard toil.

The Spain international played 4,465 minutes across all competitions, 349 more than City’s next most-used outfield player, Erling Haaland. That’s the equivalent of almost four games.

“You can do it for one season, but when it’s two or three in a row, it can be worse for the team because your physicality can drop. So, I have to watch out. We have already spoken that it cannot always be like this.

“The important thing for me is that they know the situation and they know that for the next few seasons we will have to watch out.”

Fast forward to the Etihad Stadium mixed zone after his typically accomplished display against Newcastle and the Rodri who chatted to a small group of journalists while clutching a boxed-up post-match meal and a bottle of fruit juice certainly needed to refuel.

He’s already on to 3,012 minutes and would be City’s most-used player were it not for four matches missed through suspension. If Guardiola’s team go the distance once again, he’ll probably hit last season’s “never again” total.

“I know, I know, I agree with you,” he said with a rueful chuckle when his workload was raised. “To be honest, I’ve tried to take care of my body a little bit more. I spoke with the team in this sense and I think I have rested a little bit more. Let’s say it like this.”

Rodri has arguably become as important to Pep Guardiola as Lionel Messi

He didn’t sound overly convinced. But Rodri is also on a run of 62 games unbeaten across all competitions — a new record in English club football. If that’s enough of a reason to keep asking him to go back to the well, consider those four games he’s been forced to sit out this season. City lost all of them.

Save for him resting up as an unused substitute during the FA Cup games against Huddersfield Town and Luton Town, opportunities for recuperation have not been worth the wider risk of defeat. Guardiola’s teams are famed for their collective brilliance and it is hard to remember a time when removing one part has felt so undermining.

“It’s not only just resting. It’s a bit how you play also,” said Rodri, who is trying to find solutions on the go. “Maybe in the games you are 3-0, 4-0 up, not giving everything and trying to [manage] your body until the end of the season. This is something I’ve been working on this year.”

Rodri’s overwhelming importance to City’s trophy bids this time around also speaks of a team not quite up to the level of 12 months ago. If everything was working exactly as it should, no player, however excellent, would be as important as he is right now.

Yet the 27-year-old has no doubt we will see the best of this champion team at crunch time. Asked whether City have another level to find this year, he saw no reason to be diplomatic or manage expectations.

“Yes, of course. I always say the same: you will see the best version of this team at the end of the season,” he said.

“Always it happens because of the manager, because of the standards of the club, because of ourselves and the ways we have learned over these years. This is what we want to do.

“We asked the lads to rest as much as possible. I know it’s tough but we have friendly games [for our national teams]. It’s important to play for our national teams but also to think about the end of the season. I think the best is yet to come.”

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Does Pep Guardiola ever change his tactics?

In some respects, the impression of nothing ever really changing for City is Guardiola’s grand illusion — one he creates with countless tiny tweaks to keep the ship on course. It’s a trait of the managerial greats; something that, for example, makes talk of a “United Way” for those who pine for the Sir Alex Ferguson glory days at Manchester United a complete misnomer. He too was always changing and subtly shifting to keep on winning.

Consider the version of City that Guardiola settled upon 12 months ago, with John Stones roving into midfield from centre-back to create the numerical superiority of the false-nine City with the added bonus of Haaland plundering buckets of goals at centre-forward.

It looked as if Guardiola’s final innovation when it came to the full-back position was to kill it off completely. But a key element of the Newcastle win was both Kyle Walker and Josko Gvardiol playing high and wide, allowing Jeremy Doku and Phil Foden to enjoy themselves as inside forwards alongside Haaland.

Plenty of Guardiola’s solutions this season have been pragmatic rather than aesthetically pleasing. Take Julian Alvarez playing in midfield, often being careless in possession but weighing in with vital goals and assists. Walker and Gvardiol are hardly the fabled full-backs of Guardiola’s Barcelona when it comes to playing as auxiliary wingers, but their occupying space out wide allowed Foden to thrive as City’s creative fulcrum during Kevin De Bruyne’s five-month injury absence.

It means more clubs in the tactical bag of keen golfer Guardiola, but there was also something more familiar against Newcastle as Mateo Kovacic played alongside Rodri in midfield and the pair clicked through 293 passes — the same amount all 16 Newcastle players used managed between them.

Mateo Kovacic

Croatia international Kovacic was a low-key signing from Chelsea last summer and a loose-cannon showing against Arsenal last October — one of those Rodri suspension games — set him back in terms of having Guardiola’s trust for the big occasions. An exemplary substitute appearance against Liverpool where he played a huge role in quelling the Anfield storm should have put those fears to bed. Rodri certainly hopes so.

“If I give you my honest opinion, I think he’s great for me,” he said. “He’s the kind of player you can pass to him, he passes again and we control all the game. He’s an experienced player, he’s won a lot.

“You saw it in the last years at Chelsea and Real Madrid, wherever he is. He will be definitely so, so important for us until the end. I have no doubts about this.”

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“Champions again, ole ole” has been the Manchester City fans’ terrace soundtrack in 2023/24. And here they are again at the business end of the season. Different, but the same all at once.

“I think, if you ask ourselves before the season which position we would be able to be in, it would be exactly this one,” Rodri said. “Involved in every competition, wanting to fight for everything and this is the situation that we’re going to get after the international break.”

A double treble? Really?

“We can win everything, of course,” he added. “It will be so, so tough. We asked ourselves at the beginning of the season to put us in a situation where we could at least fight to the end and this is the situation.

“The job is done up until now and now we have to do the last push.”

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