Manchester City have had to spend big to win back-to-back Premier League titles but that doesn’t explain them being quite as good as this. Pep Guardiola is the difference maker, writes Adam Bate.
There is nothing particularly unusual about a team retaining their domestic title. Paris Saint-Germain have already done it this season and so have Barcelona. Next weekend, Bayern Munich hope to make it seven in a row. Juventus are now on a run of eight on the bounce. But for the first time in a decade, a Premier League team has retained the title too.
- Sky Sports pundits reflect on title success
- Analysis: Title gone but hope lives on for Liverpool
Liverpool could hardly have made it more difficult for Manchester City, amassing 97 points of their own. But even that was not enough to deny Pep Guardiola’s side.
“We knew for three or four months that we could not lose one point,” Guardiola told Sky Sports after the triumph. It took perfection – a run of 14 consecutive victories – but somehow they did it.
It speaks volumes for the mentality of this City side – one that has been questioned in the past after failing to mount a successful title defence under both Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini. “It’s incredible to do it after 100 points,” added Guardiola. “Normally you have a tendency to go down.” Instead, they just kept going and going and going.
There will be those who point to the financial advantage that City have over their rivals. This success needed the money. Of course it did. Money does not score goals, they say, but it has certainly assisted a few and it would be disingenuous to ignore that factor in this period of dominance – as much as the club’s supporters would like the media gaze to be elsewhere.
The numbers are eye-popping but others have spent big too. Enough to contest this title when spent well, as Liverpool proved with the key signing of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson for fees in excess of City’s transfer record. Manchester United, meanwhile, continue to make a mockery of the theory that throwing money around is a guarantee of success.
Their rivals’ struggles are a reminder that this success needed top-quality recruitment. There have been so many shrewd acquisitions at City that everyone has come to expect it, but the hit rate is high. Leroy Sane’s fee may rise to £46.5m but City could get double that now. Aymeric Laporte was no sure thing at £57m but he has been hugely impressive too.
Bernardo Silva cost £43.5m but what a bargain that looks two titles later. The Portuguese player has been used in midfield and on the wing, excelling in both roles, and Guardiola spoke for many when he said that no player has been better than Bernardo this season.
- Reaction: Pep salutes Liverpool
- Analysis: City’s mental strength
Guardiola did have two attempts at buying a goalkeeper but Ederson is now worth much more than the combined fee paid for both him and Claudio Bravo – and it would still be far less than the sum that Liverpool and Chelsea parted with to fill that position in the summer.
Riyad Mahrez did cost £65m, a club record fee, but how many of this Manchester City squad must now be worth much more than that? Raheem Sterling certainly falls into that category. Kevin De Bruyne will surely come back stronger. Gabriel Jesus has only just turned 22.
The structure at City is magnificent. There is world-class talent on the pitch and off it. There is a youth academy that delivers, with Phil Foden not only breaking into the first team but contributing to it. There is so much that’s right, so much that makes Guardiola’s working environment the envy of other high-profile coaches around the world.
Money and recruitment explain Manchester City being successful. But they don’t quite explain them being this good. To do that takes Guardiola.
“Winning back-to-back titles is about mentality, and he’s instilled that into that dressing room,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports. “He’s powerful, strong, and makes his players feel unbeatable. What a coach. How do they keep him for the next five or 10 years? They’ve got to keep him in Manchester. Whilst he’s there, it will be difficult for other clubs to get near them.”
Guardiola the game changer
How his critics revelled in his struggles during that fraught first season at City, when success like this looked anything but inevitable. The 15-game sequence that winter when Guardiola’s team lost more than they won, culminating in a 4-2 defeat to Leicester. The 4-0 reverse at Everton the following month that left them outside the top four in January.
Back then, Guardiola’s apparent refusal to compromise his principles was seen as a sign of stubbornness. His unwillingness to accept that the peculiar foibles of the Premier League set it apart was evidence of a weakness.
Instead, he doubled down on his methods and bent the English game to his whim, bringing his own style to bear on the competition. The man who infamously declared that he was “not a coach for the tackles” after an ignominious defeat to Leicester in 2016 – went and won the title again having made the fewest tackles of any team in the competition.
- The Sky Sports pundits’ verdict on the title race
Not that Guardiola should ever have been accused of naivety. Those tackle numbers are so low, in part, because for much of the time that City are on the pitch they are in possession of the ball. When they are not in possession of the ball, they win it back very quickly.
Tactical fouling? The stats show that no team over the past two seasons has allowed fewer opposition passes before making a defensive action. They win the ball back nearer the opposition goal than any other side. By fair means or foul, City stop those counters. It is an easily-overlooked quality but Guardiola has built a brilliant team out of possession.
In possession, his team passes and passes and passes some more. For the second season in a row, City had the most passes, most pass sequences of 10 or more, most pass sequences of 10 or more that ended in a shot, most shots, most shots from inside the box and the most high-quality chances. Hence they scored the most goals. In other words, his way works.
“The secret is to overload one side of the pitch so the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope,” he was once quoted as saying in Pep Confidential. “When you’ve done that, we attack and score from the other side.”
The plan continues to work for him.
How often do Manchester City seem to score that same goal by engineering a route to the by-line before passing to the far post where the ball is tapped into the vacant net? Seven of Sterling’s goals this season came from inside the six-yard boss, the most by any player. Sterling’s stunning form owes much to skill but it is also a triumph of good coaching.
There have been problems to solve. Benjamin Mendy’s prolonged absence required imaginative solutions that altered the dynamic. The injuries to De Bruyne and Fernandinho necessitated some manoeuvring too.
Think about the team that Guardiola picked for that final game against Brighton. A midfield three of Ilkay Gundogan, David Silva and Bernardo Silva, with a trio of attack-minded players ahead of them. It is a level of creativity seldom seen but Guardiola has found ways to incorporate that type of player while retaining a solid enough base to defend effectively.
It took a Brighton goal on the final day, coupled with Liverpool’s clean sheet, to deny Manchester City the best defensive record in the Premier League this season as well as the best attacking record. It is the first of Guardiola’s eight title wins in his top-flight coaching career in which his team have not had the best defensive record in the competition.
But in terms of results, in terms of the points total accumulated by this City side, this is as good as anything Guardiola has ever achieved. The depth of quality in the Premier League is much admired but the best two-season total that his great Barcelona side ever managed in La Liga was 195 points. This City side have racked up 198 of them in the past two years.