You know when you are in an argument and you think you have had the last word? But just as you are walking away smugly, the other person comes back with a quip that is just too good? That has been Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City this season.
The Cityzens were crowned Premier League champions for the third time in four years after Manchester United lost to Leicester City at Old Trafford, taking Liverpool’s crown at the top of the English football pyramid.
After an underwhelming season in 2019/20 which saw them finish 18 points behind their Merseyside competitors, City have come back with a vengeance. It was not all smooth sailing though, as City did not begin the season well. They languished in mid-table for the initial weeks, with their 5-2 defeat to Leicester at home in September being particularly concerning.
However, as winter rolled around and other teams dropped off, Guardiola’s men started to steam forward. After losing to Tottenham in November, City went 26 matches unbeaten, including 21 consecutive wins, in all competitions which ended in March with a 2-0 defeat at home to Manchester United.
THE STARS BEHIND THE SUCCESS
With Ruben Dias and John Stones hitting form together, City’s defence was impregnable. Ilkay Gundogan stepped up when Kevin de Bruyne got injured while Phil Foden finally became the player everyone knew he could be. The best two players of the season for City have certainly been Dias and Gundogan.
Dias has arguably been the signing of the season in England along with Emiliano Martinez to Aston Villa. He has commanded the City defence well, taking up the mantle (a season late) from Vincent Kompany. He has given them some steel to go with the silk.
Kylian Mbappé didn’t take a single shot vs. Man City tonight.
Harry Kane didn’t take a single shot vs. Man City on Sunday.
Keeping the world’s best quiet. 🤫 pic.twitter.com/y5boRxaJKD
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) April 28, 2021
Gundogan has been their surprising top scorer with 12. His rich vein of form in December and January was exceptionally important as his team leapfrogged several rivals to climb to the Premier League summit.
GUARDIOLA’S FIRST SECOND CYCLE
As a manager, Pep Guardiola has received very valid criticism that he has never attempted let alone completed a squad rebuild. He left Barcelona after four years, Bayern Munich after three. This season was the first time that he took charge at the same club for five years in a row.
Although this side is not very different from the one that won back-to-back titles, breaking most Premier League records, there are some notable differences. Kompany, David Silva and Leroy Sane have been major departures who have been replaced adeptly, if expensively.
Pep Guardiola on keeping the intensity for five years:
"Yeah but for myself it is a challenge for me. I have never been five years in one club and also the challenge for me to prove myself that we can have the level we have had in previous seasons." pic.twitter.com/Wl5TU3Wiu3
— City Report (@cityreport_) July 20, 2020
However, the key change in the side has been one of approach. Guardiola has let go of some of his dogmatic ideals and put results before outlook. Dias and Stones are exceptional players but they both have one obvious flaw – neither is good on the turn will players running at them or in-behind.
Guardiola’s decision to drop the defensive line deeper has come as a result of that. It symbolizes an unexpected pragmatic turn from the Catalan manager which has been integral to City’s success this season.
City were also without the outgoing Sergio Aguero for most of the season. Gabriel Jesus was not trusted to take up the mantle of the primary striker and so, Guardiola, being the overthinking genius that he is, played large parts of the season without a striker. Foden, de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Ferran Torres and Raheem Sterling all played the central attacking role. It was truly all about the system and less about the personnel.
DEPTH DEPTH DEPTH
However, the biggest contributor to City’s success has been their unparalleled squad depth. Guardiola has the tools to put out two completely mutually exclusive starting elevens that can beat any other team in the world on their day. In a congested, pandemic affected season this has been priceless.
— Carabao Cup (@Carabao_Cup) April 25, 2021
City were able to rotate 7-9 players in a congested Spring period as they fought on four fronts and still had players with the quality of Sterling, Aguero and Jesus on the field.
Liverpool, Leicester and Manchester United have all suffered major injuries which have hampered their campaign. So have City. The difference has been that Guardiola always had a replacement available with little or no drop-off in individual quality.
TREBLE IN SIGHT
City’s form this year has been so impressive that they were in contention for an unprecedented quadruple until a few weeks ago. Their FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea has thrown water over those works but the recent League Cup final win against Spurs makes it two trophies already.
🗣️ İlkay Gündoğan: "I love the Champions League. To me, it has always been the greatest tournament in the world. Can you imagine what it would mean to me to win it?"#MondayMotivation | #UCL pic.twitter.com/HWmPG9kqh3
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) April 26, 2021
City have already qualified for the Champions League final defeating PSG comprehensively. They have a chance to make history later this month in their first ever European Cup final. Given their imperious performances this season, the Premier League champs will fancy their chances to complete three trophies in a season.
Guardiola’s team have already become etched in English history, can they go a step further in Europe?