Dubai: Manchester City’s latest Premier League title victory was a triumph of strategy, perseverance and no shortage of quality in a COVID-19 pandemic-affected season like no other, ultimately making it one of the most satisfying of Pep Guardiola’s distinguished career.
Here’s how City reclaimed English football’s biggest prize:
City started the league a week late owing to their involvement in the latter stages of last season’s Champions League, meaning an already compressed campaign — owing to the pandemic — was even more condensed. Guardiola tailored his strategy accordingly, going against many of his principles as a result. Game management was key, with energy preservation so important this season. Instead of going on the attack continuously, City were often seen sitting on a 1-0 or 2-0 lead. Guardiola publicly railed against the league’s decision to only give each team three substitutes, unlike every other major league in Europe, but then often didn’t make his full allocation of changes so that players not selected got a full breather. Guardiola’s line-ups, especially early in the season, often featured two sitting midfielders to reflect a more cautious approach by one of football’s most attack-minded coaches. All this, coupled with the depth of the squad, has helped City last the course of the season better than anyone else.
Still, it didn’t stop City from making an underwhelming start to the season. Goals were scarcer than usual with strikers Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus mostly unavailable, a 5-2 home loss to Leicester in City’s second game had Guardiola questioning himself, and playing catch-up with fixtures left the team languishing in midtable. After a 2-0 loss at Tottenham on November 21, City were 11th in the table on just 12 points from eight games and club captain Fernandinho felt enough was enough. “It was the moment that I decided to talk to everyone,” he said about a players meeting after which City improved. “I tried to show them our responsibility to represent Manchester City, what they expect from us, what the fans expect from us. So, it was a very frank conversation.” It wasn’t the only time Fernandinho delivered some home truths to the City squad. On January 1, the Brazilian held what he described as “emergency” talks with his teammates about their “inexcusable” performance in training. “Everyone already knew we needed to change. We needed to be shaken,” Fernandinho said.
It worked. City didn’t lose another game in any competition for more than three months, a club record-equalling run of 28 games that included 19 in the league. At one stage, City won 21 straight games — a record by a team in England’s top flight. The team won 53 from a possible 57 points in the league from November 28 to March 2, which took City from eight points off the lead to 15 in front. “We have come through hell and done something more than remarkable,” Guardiola said before the run ended with a 2-0 home loss to Manchester United on March 7. The unbeaten streak was even more astounding given the fact City were playing a game every three or four days because of their involvement deep into all four major competitions.
DIAS AND THE DEFENCE
The arrival of Virgil van Dijk transformed Liverpool to Champions League and Premier League winners, and Ruben Dias — another dominant and composed centre-back — has had a similar effect at City after joining from Benfica for 68 million euros two weeks into the season as one of the club’s most expensive signings. Dias is 23 but has the authority and organisational skills of a veteran and has been the rock upon which Guardiola has built the tightest defence in his five years at City. During that 19-game unbeaten run in the league midway through the season which effectively won City the title, the team conceded just six goals. City have let in 26 goals, comfortably the fewest in the league. In the second half of the season, Guardiola has rotated the rejuvenated John Stones and the back-in-favour Aymeric Laporte as the other centre-back but Dias is a constant. Van Dijk, meanwhile, has missed almost the entire season through injury, the key factor in Liverpool’s demise.
Ask the average football fan at the start of the season to predict who City’s top scorer would be, and Ilkay Gundogan would surely have been way down the list. After all, the Germany international has mostly been a back-up defensive midfielder since joining City in 2016 and the previous biggest haul in a single league campaign in his entire career was six, in 2018-19. Yet Guardiola has often talked up Gundogan’s ability in front of goal and it has been borne out this season during a remarkable scoring run in a two-month period starting on December 15, when he netted 11 goals in 12 league games. No City player has scored more than his 12 in the league, remarkable given the wealth of world-class attackers in the squad. Guardiola has often played without a striker this season, preferring a swarm of mobile attacking midfielders to disrupt opposition defences. No one has benefited more than Gundogan.