Manchester City have secured another emphatic Premier League title success – their third in four years in another remarkable campaign for the club.
For months, the title going back to the Etihad has had a feeling of inevitability as City won game after game in imperious fashion.
This was not the same team who romped home to the 100-point league title in 2018 or saw off Liverpool in the edgy 2019 title race; this new version of City did not blow teams away but, even more scarily, they were even more controlled and often did not allow their opponents any meaningful opportunities in matches.
Their season has been defined by their winning run from late Christmas onwards – even prompting talk of an unprecedented quadruple – but it is easy to forget that until that point in December, City were having their worst start to a campaign under Pep Guardiola.
Transformation in results
Mid-December’s bore 0-0 draw at Manchester United came days before an equally pedestrian City were held at home to lowly West Bromwich Albion.
With just 20 points from their opening 12 matches, City had only the eighth best points-to-games ratio in the league. To put it another way, Newcastle United would draw level with them – a third of the way into the season – if they won their game in hand.
However, City then blew the opposition away with a remarkable winning run – totting up 15 successive victories at a time when all other sides hit patches of prolonged inconsistency and struggled to cope with a jam-packed schedule.
Guardiola reverts to trusted success
Pep Guardiola’s style of play and early successes were built on his side’s relentless domination of possession and control of the ball.
As with all tactics and styles of play in football, adaptation and evolution are essential if they are to stay as the predominant method of success.
In recent years, the Guardiola style that had initially been labelled ‘tiki taka’ became increasingly questioned – he had not led a team to a Champions League final since 2011 and domestic dominance had shifted to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
It was Klopp’s high-energy pressing style of coaching that had traditionally caused Guardiola the most problems and the Catalan had tried to adapt his system accordingly – encouraging his side to press higher up the pitch and move the ball quicker and more directly towards goal.
However, this season saw a notable drop off in running levels and intensity – brought on by a crowded fixture schedule, players not being afforded a pre-season and, somewhat less tangibly, the absence of fans in the stadium.
With teams running less and pressing less, Guardiola’s decision for his side to reserve their energy by reverting back to a purer form of possession football worked.
Interestingly, Leeds United – the side with the most pressing on opposition sides – had the most success against City this season, taking four points from their two meetings.
Change in backroom staff
Recently, Guardiola credited his assistants Rodolfo Borrell and Juanma Lillo for the role they played in the club’s turnaround in form, as they are “colder…in the bad moments.”
The appointment of Lillo last year – who replaced Mikel Arteta after his switch to Arsenal was a significant one.
Guardiola spoke last year about the importance of Lillo – whom the boss had long since admired and briefly played under in Mexico before moving into to coaching.
Guardiola told Sky Sports : “His knowledge. His intelligence. His humanity. The way that he prepares his sessions. We are quite similar in how we see football and how we understand the game. He is a friend.
“I need guys close to me who can help me to be a better manager for our players and make me see things that I am not able to see.
“The opponents and the way that they play. Tactical issues. Movements. Attack and defence. Different things that we can do. A few things that I did not realise myself.”
This injection of new ideas has been vital in helping City stay innovative and above the rest of the competition.
New year, new City
However, a series of events happened that played a big part in the season transformation. On Christmas Day, Gabriel Jesus and Kyle Walker tested positive for Covid-19. Days later, City’s trip to an in-form Everton side was postponed at late notice due to the outbreak in the camp.
At a time when squads were being stretched to their limit with constant matches, City’s adverse circumstances gave them a brief period of recuperation and allowed them to regroup.
Over a week passed from their Boxing Day win against Newcastle to their tricky trip to Chelsea; with goalkeeper Ederson, winger Ferran Torres and defender Eric Garcia among the Covid absentees.
City recorded an emphatic 3-1 victory and never looked back in the title race with Fernandinho explaining in a recent piece for The Players Tribune that he held a team talk on New Year’s Day due to the performance levels at the club.
The Brazilian said: “I’m usually not a guy who makes big speeches, but a few months ago I really had no choice,”.
“It was 31st December, New Year’s Eve. We were eighth in the Premier League table. And we had just finished training.
“And Pep wasn’t happy. To understand the whole story though, we need to go back to the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
“Oh man, the start of this season was so messy, for everyone. The way we had to come back after three months of inactivity, then we had practically no pre-season. Nothing like that had ever happened in our careers.
“It was not a good session. The attitude, the body language, the effort from some players, it was just obvious. You know exactly the kind of session I’m talking about, right? Misplaced passes, players not tracking back, not running, not looking interested.
“This was not us. This was not the team that had won two titles in a row, or that had set a record points total.
“After that session, Pep came and spoke to me as captain, as the leader of the team. He was blunt. He told me that not everyone was at 100 per cent. And, in this team, when you come to train, you do it at 100 per cent, or you stay home. Once you enter the pitch, there is no conversation, no negotiation.
“The next day, at 7 a.m. on January 1, 2021, I sent a message to our team manager and told him, ‘Set up a meeting with the players. We need to talk.’
“I arrived at the ground in the morning ahead of training, and I said, ‘Tell Pep we’ll start training a little later today.’
“It was an emergency. Once we got everyone together, I spoke openly to them. I spoke as captain, you know?
“I told them what Pep had told me, that some things are inexcusable. I told them that what you do in training reflects back at you later on in the game.
“It was very frank, very honest. After me, all the others spoke their minds too. Everyone already knew we needed to change, but we needed to hear it said. We needed to be shaken. And it was important that we talked.”
Consistency the key
Guardiola is renowned for his sarcasm and often displays a lack of patience with questions posed to him.
Speaking after the recent Champions League semi-final first leg victory today at Paris Saint-Germain, he responded to a question on why his side has triumphed: “I am a genius today because Riyad Mahrez shot a ball that passed between two hips and scored a goal. I am a genius and that is the reason why. Situations are analysed on these stupid things.
“We are good and the manager is incredible – Oh! A tactical masterclass! The wall from the Paris players was correct as they jumped, but the ball came inside two hips and we analyse how good we are as a team.
“We could draw or lose doing absolutely the same, like in the past. Against Lyon in last season’s Champions League) we missed and everything was a disaster.
“That’s why the consistency during 10 months and being there is the most important thing as a club.
“After that, in the final moments, if the opponent makes an incredible action and you can’t stop it, what can you do?”
Whilst the abrupt response was focused on ignoring small margins and in-game moments that dictate results, it also highlighted why City had enjoyed such a successful run of form: they are remarkably consistent.
Their victory in Paris showcased their quality of remaining calm in high-pressure situations and showing great reserves of self-belief in their methods.
Each of their goals in that game included a sizable chunk of good fortune, but City’s success is based on percentages – the more possession you have, the more patience you possess and the greater your self-belief, the higher the possibility that you will win.
City have the most money in the league, the best manager in the league and the best players in the league.
Their resources are such that they have two entire line-ups that could better any opponent in the Premier League.
However, success in football is much more complicated than that – it is never inevitable and whilst individual games can be decided upon moments, the longevity of a league campaign usually rewards the side with the greatest consistency.
Without doubt, Manchester City are deserving champions this year and it will require an almighty effort from rivals to halt their success next season.
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