IN the end, Manchester City did not get to celebrate the Premier League title at home against Manchester United.
But perhaps seeing their city rivals slump, on Old Trafford, to the league’s worst side, to hand the crown to the ‘noisy neighbours’ was even more fitting for Pep Guardiola’s sublime champions.
If last week threw up questions of ‘why can’t United do that every week’, this debacle was an emphatic demonstration of why there is a 16-point gap at the top of the table.
Manchester City have not been in a title race. They’ve been champions elect for most of the campaign.
The Champions League elimination – sandwiching the missed derby opportunity – can only merely leave City, and Guardiola, with more to prove and build on next season. It cannot take the shine off their all-conquering season; it can just mean they are not Invincible (like Arsenal of 2003-4) or Treble Winners (like Manchester United of 1998-9) but their record speaks for itself.
A season that included 18 consecutive wins, 11 consecutive away wins and equalled the 2000-1 United side’s record for earliest Premier League title, after 33 games, there could be more history yet to come. With five games to play, Chelsea’s 95-point record haul from 2004-5 is under severe threat, with City, now on 87, a chance to crush the mythical 100-point points barrier.
Three wins from five will break a record, and 11 goals will set a new mark, and they can finish with the PL’s best ever goal difference by a four goal reduction. They’re two points adrift of the biggest margin between first and second in PL history, too.
Most significantly, they are a league above their so-called ‘top six rivals’. With the narrative pointing to a symbolic Spurs performance at Wembley, City stood tall to show their resilience after a tough 10 days, to cap off a campaign where they beat each of their top six adversaries.
Perhaps the most symbolic and galling sign of that dominance came the day they passed a record 902 times against the defending champions Chelsea, with Ilkay Gundogan setting an individual record of 167 successful passes, in a 1-0 win.
The Leicester fairy tale gave us extraordinary sandwiched between Jose Mourinho’s and Antonio Conte’s incarnations of the one-hit ruthless Chelsea wonders; this, however, is a tribute to football that is nothing short of aspirational.
Of course, it has been lavishly assembled with over £450m spent on Ederson, Mendy, Walker, Danilo, Laporte, Gundogan, Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane and Bernardo Silva. But Manchester United fans will tell you spending loosely doesn’t guarantee success. And from that outlay, only Claudio Bravo and Nolito have been blunders.
This is a side that is the product of elite, incomparable coaching.
City’s style has been rightly lauded all season, but how Guardiola has executed it deserves more focus than his blemish against Liverpool, headlined by his implosion at half-time at Etihad Stadium.
Much will be made of Mourinho and United, Pogba and Sanchez, after this ridiculous home defeat to a side set for the drop.
Instead, it should be looked at within the context of City’s success.
1) Youth: Where Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Luke Shaw and co look befuddled and burdened at United, each of City’s young stars has flourished. Raheem Sterling has 22 goals this season; Leroy Sane has nine goals and 12 assists, Gabriel Jesus has 10 of his own, sharing duties with Sergio Aguero and fighting back from injury. He unleashed talent and was rewarded.
2) Improvement: Given Nicolas Otamendi’s regression over the last week, it’s amazing to think City have gone through the season and leaked just 77 shots with the Argentine in their side. But that’s a testament to how much he, and the likes of John Stones, Fernandinho and the like have improved under Guardiola’s tutelage. (Centre-back is still an area you expect City could spend on in the summer.) Somehow, David Silva, at 32, is in career best form; Fabian Delph has emerged at left-back and City didn’t miss a beat and even veterans like Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero have re-invented themselves.
3) Clear purpose and style: WhenUnited chased the game against West Brom their lack of invention and purpose came to the fore yet again. At City, that has never been questioned – even if, particularly at the end of last season, many questioned if that purpose would land Guardiola success in England. He stuck by his convictions. He spent on fullbacks, such a key position in his structure. He moved for goalkeeper Ederson. It all contributed to achieving what he was building towards. Possession football, dead? They’ve passed the ball more than 6,000 times than United this term. Make your own mind up over that.
4) Play to your strengths: we know what happened to Kevin de Bruyne under Mourinho at Chelsea. Under Guardiola, he is genuine world class. He has 15 assists, and leads the PL in ‘secondary assists’ (the pass before the key pass). Guardiola built his formation this term around giving the Belgian the license as a free ‘No.8’ to run the show in a three-man midfield. Pogba, meanwhile …
All this has come with fabled man management, with stories out of England about his meticulous detail, echoing anecdotes from the exceptional book Pep Confidential, which was a fly in the wall look at his methods at Bayern Munich. The most told tale in England’s papers this week has been over the directive to the club’s ground curators to make the City Football Academy turf no longer than 19 millimetres, to hone the side’s razor sharp, crisp brand of football. Given the harsher climate compared to Barcelona or Munich, a compromise of 23mm was reached.
It’s an obsessiveness that yielded 21 trophies in seven seasons in Spain and Germany. Make that 23 in nine seasons in Spain, Germany and England, with dominant league titles in all three.
This obsessive attention to detail has been coupled, however, with delicate man management – case in point being allowing David Silva time off to return to Spain when his son was born prematurely at the end of last year.
“I’ve never known a team spirit like this before,” Kevin De Bruyne, the City midfielder, said this month, a product of a reportedly strict ethos, including eating meals together, learning English, and having places at training where there’s no wifi available.
That camaraderie might explain why a side that had previously lacked backbone was able to ride through the busy winter months, and in November, started a run of scratching 2-1 wins with a comeback at Huddersfield, which was the first time in nearly 23 years a Citizens outfit had turned a half-time deficit to win away in the top flight.
There’s much about Manchester City, and the City Football Group, that presents a case for the scourge of modern football so rife with commercial interests, power and politics.
Strangely, and incongruously, the team they’ve built, pieced together this year by Guardiola, is the case for why it’s called the beautiful game, and why City fans do not care one iota.
HOW GUARDIOLA MASTERMINDED TRIUMPH – by AP’s Steve Douglas
Guardiola didn’t win a trophy in his first season at City. His reaction?
To spend 200 million pounds ($260 million) of the club’s Abu Dhabi owners’ riches in the offseason, upgrade and tweak the weakest parts of the team, and deliver arguably the most stunning brand of football ever seen in English soccer. Here’s a look at how Guardiola achieved the turnaround:
The blueprint for this season’s record-breaking success was laid in the second half of last season, when Pep Guardiola found his formula.
Largely sticking to a 4-3-3 formation with Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling as wingers, Guardiola dispensed completely with his occasional use of a three-man defense. City lost just two of its last 24 games in all competitions from the middle of January last year, providing momentum to take into the 2017-18 campaign.
Throw in some key summer signings and some tactical tinkering, and City has proved to be unstoppable.
Full backs were City’s offseason priority – 30-somethings Gael Clichy, Aleksandar Kolarov, Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta all departed over the summer – and the club spent 120 million pounds ($155 million) to bring in Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo.
Pep Guardiola places huge significance on the impact of full backs in terms of his team’s attacking game plan, needing them to act as both wingers and defenders.
Mendy got injured in September so his impact has been negligible while Danilo has been little more than a backup. It’s Walker’s presence that has added a new dimension to City, his raids up the right wing allowing Raheem Sterling to come inside more and give the team greater numbers in the box to convert chances. It’s no surprise that Sterling has had the most prolific season of his career, scoring 22 goals in all competitions so far.
Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson Moraes joined for $45 million from Benfica and has been a huge upgrade from Claudio Bravo with his shot-stopping and pinpoint long passing with a booming left foot.
Bernardo Silva, signed for $55 million from Monaco, has slowly developed into a key squad player, providing cover for Sterling and Leroy Sane.
TWO PLAYMAKERS It’s a minor tactical switch that has had a major impact.
Pep Guardiola’s decision to deploy Kevin De Bruyne in a deeper central-midfield role has allowed the Belgian to demonstrate his all-round skills, notably his vision, work rate and reading of the game. He’s been able to keep up his regular supply of assists, too, setting up 16 goals, with passes and through balls that are beyond many of his peers.
One performance, in a 7-2 win over Stoke in October, stands out. In that game, De Bruyne set up one goal with no-look pass to Leroy Sane, before supplying the winger for another goal with a diagonal through ball that sliced through four defenders.
De Bruyne’s new role also got the best out of central midfield partner David Silva, who has played just ahead of De Bruyne and been given license to go forward more.
The use of two central-midfield playmakers is new to English soccer – and has produced handsome results.
When City beat Swansea 4-0 on Dec. 13, the team established an English top- flight record of 15 straight victories – surpassing the 14-match winning streaks of Arsenal (2002), Preston (1951), and both Manchester United and Bristol City in 1905.
City would go on to win three more games before drawing 0-0 at Crystal Palace on Dec. 31, ending the winning run at 18.
City was undefeated at that stage, raising the prospect of going through the season unbeaten like Arsenal’s Premier League “Invincibles” of 2003-04. A 4-3 loss at Liverpool on Jan. 14 put paid to that, but the league title was virtually wrapped up already.
That winning run started with Raheem Sterling’s goal in the seventh minute of injury time in a 2-1 victory at Bournemouth on Aug. 26. It wouldn’t be the last decisive late intervention by the winger.
He scored an 84th-minute winner against Huddersfield on Nov. 26, a 96th-minute winner against Southampton three days later, before David Silva grabbed an 83rd- minute winner against West Ham four days after that. All three games finished 2-1, and it revived memories of the winning goals scored in so-called “Fergie Time” by Manchester United’s trophy-winning teams under Alex Ferguson. City, it seemed, wasn’t just playing the best football in the division, but had more resilience and fortune than any other team, too.
Along the way, some notable performances established a champion-in-waiting aura around City.
The first was a dominant 1-0 victory at Chelsea on Sept. 30, when the defending champion was played off the field at Stamford Bridge. Two weeks later, that 7-2 win over Stoke featured some imperious attacking play.
Then there was the 2-1 win at Manchester United on Dec.10, featuring scrappy goals at set pieces from David Silva and Nicolas Otamendi, that left City 11 points clear of its neighbor. With not even half the season gone, United manager Jose Mourinho said his team’s title hopes were “probably” over. Back-to-back wins across 72 hours in early March – 3-0 at Arsenal and 1-0 at home to Chelsea – all but confirmed what everyone had known for weeks: City was going to be champion.
It just needed clinching then. A 3-2 home loss to United in the derby denied City the chance to win the league in record time – with six games left – but Guardiola’s team only had to wait another week.