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Why letting unhappy players go is key for Guardiola

The visit of Chelsea to the Etihad Stadium on Saturday pits Pep Guardiola against not one but two former Manchester City players. Raheem Sterling can consider himself a club legend. Many hoped that Cole Palmer would become one too.

Instead, the young forward has taken another path and is already Chelsea’s best player. There were hints of his talent in a City shirt but only 489 Premier League minutes in which to show them. Opportunity has allowed him to blossom. He returns as a star.

Any sense of regret for Guardiola is tempered by the feeling that this was unavoidable. Palmer has been excellent. But so too have City. They are on a run of 11 consecutive wins, a sequence in which they have become champions of the world for the first time.

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Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola look at how Cole Palmer has become a star

As Guardiola sees it, Palmer wanted to leave – and so he had to leave.

“How can you get the best from a player if he is not happy?”

It is one of his rules of management.

“If he is here for a contract, it does not work,” he tells Sky Sports. “People have to come here with passion, with love, to want to play and be happy to be here. I apply that to myself. If I am not happy, I will not be here. It does not matter about a contract.

“I think the players are happy here because how the club treats them is the best. But the players are here to play minutes and be happy. And normally when they do not play, they want to play. I understand completely. And they have to leave.”

City supporters are becoming accustomed to it now. Sterling and Gabriel Jesus left before the start of last season. Joao Cancelo departed midway through what would become an historic treble-winning campaign. The machine goes on regardless of this.

Perhaps even because of it?

It is Guardiola’s way and it works for him. “This player plays and the other one is not happy. It is always the same.” There was at least a sense that City had enjoyed the best that Sterling, Jesus, Cancelo and others had to offer. Palmer’s exit is frustrating, surely?

“Yes, of course,” he replies.

“But at the end of the day, the other players are good too.”

The conundrum is that Guardiola wants competition for places but he also wants a small squad. He wants players who will not settle for being second best but knows that if they have a problem with being out of the team then that can cause problems too.

“It is not easy to handle it. Listen, to be in this club and in this first team, you have to be of special quality,” he explains.

“Raheem had it and thanks to him, what we achieved together, it was massively decisive how important he was for us. Cole, I am pretty sure did not get the minutes that he deserved but it is what it is. The fact is that he is already a star. He is an unbelievable player.”

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Had he stayed, he may well have started against Chelsea on Saturday. Injuries to Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva in Copenhagen have complicated preparations for this game. Guardiola is not exactly relaxed about it but he has reason to be confident.

“We had five months without Kevin. Two months without Erling.” He is referring to De Bruyne and Haaland, of course. It did not stop Manchester City. “We want everyone fit. But with this schedule and with this rhythm, people get injured and we have to accept it.”

Instead, there may be an opening for Oscar Bobb to provide another turn out wide. He has taken on Palmer’s role within the City squad as the youngster stepping up from the academy. It was Bobb’s brilliant winner at Newcastle that managed to keep this winning run going.

“I am a little bit sad at myself,” admits Guardiola.

“The last two or three games he did not play one minute and the contribution before that was absolutely incredible. He deserves more minutes than I have given to him but it is what it is. The season is so long and now we have injuries so we need him.

“We are really pleased with him.”

Bobb’s integration into the squad ensures that the blend of youth and experience remains. Is that something that Guardiola thinks about? “I would say the sporting director has to think about it more than me,” he laughs. “But yes, of course. The balance is important.”

That squad pruning, that continual change is what keeps City sharp. Favourites to become the first English team to win the top division four times in a row. Favourites to become the first English team to retain the European Cup in the Champions League era.

It might be a tactical switch for the team or a new role for a player to help reinvigorate them. Presenting a new challenge keeps players on their toes. Phil Foden has embraced his opportunity in a more central role. Manuel Akanji has had to adapt to midfield duties.

“Sometimes we do it,” acknowledges Guardiola.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester City’s Premier League win over Brentford

And nobody is immune from his criticism.

Against Everton, during a frustrating first half in which his team failed to find the breakthrough, Guardiola did not like what he saw. Afterwards, he highlighted the poor body language of striker Haaland – the man who would go on to score both City goals.

Even the best sometimes need a reminder of the standards.

“It is the same in every job in the world,” he explains. “If you go to work and you are grumpy and sad, you cannot perform well. It is impossible to do your job. The body language has to be, ‘OK, let’s go. We want to do it. And with a smile. This is it.'”

He detected signs that Haaland was becoming disillusioned when the ball did not arrive into the penalty box. His words were a message to his goal machine that revealing that to the opponent was not the right way to react. “Sometimes it happens,” he adds.

“You expect something and it does not happen. Accept the reality that it is not always easy. Everything is complicated. The opponent always has their contribution. You cannot improve if you do not accept that the opponents are there to be overcome.”

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester City’s Premier League win over Everton

The constant reinforcing of messages, the relentless push for more from his players, it is just another little insight into his thinking. He expects a tight title race. “Always. Not just this season.” And he will not be letting up. City, it seems, are on another one of their runs.

“The fact that we have done it before many times, that does not mean we are going to do it again. But at the same time, it gives us the tools to know what we have to do. Focus and concentrate on the next one. Always we have done it that way. And it works.”

Watch Man City vs Chelsea on Sky Sports Premier League live from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm

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