When Pep Guardiola arrived at Manchester City in 2016, he was always going to change the landscape of English football. Five years later, the Spaniard and his players have torn up the record books and the rulebook by being the dominant force in the Premier League, and their current title victory — their third in four seasons — confirms their place in the pantheon.
This season’s league title is City’s fifth in nine years, with two FA Cups and six EFL Cups added to their trophy cabinet since owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan took over in 2008. This time, however, they have won the title after violating the unwritten rule of not having a 20-goal striker and finishing first despite having had the club’s worst start to a season in more than a decade.
For a team to win a championship, everything has to be fine, but City did it by checking just a few of the boxes that have long been considered essential components of a championship-winning team. Nonetheless, doing so in this manner is pure Guardiola. Why obey the rules when you can do it better by demonstrating to everyone that they no longer apply?
The manner of City’s Premier League title triumph would undoubtedly be forgotten due to their long wait for European glory if they win the Champions League for the first time when they face Chelsea in the final on May 29. Although this title triumph does not have the same record-breaking feel as the others, it might prove to be the most important because of where it places Guardiola’s team among the greats.
When City won the Premier League title in 2017-18, they made history by being the first and only team to reach 100 points in the league’s history. That year, they also won the title with the largest margin of victory, 19 points, surpassing Manchester United’s 18-point margin in 1999-2000.
A year later, Guardiola and his squad won the domestic treble, becoming the first team in English football history to do so in a single season, but it is this year’s title that cements City’s place alongside the great Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 1980s and Sir Alex Ferguson’s United teams of the 1990s and 2000s.
Between 1976 and 1990, Liverpool won 10 league titles and four European Cups (UCL), while Ferguson’s United won 13 titles and two European Cups between 1993 and 2013. It is the two periods of supremacy that distinguish those clubs in the English game’s history, but City now has five titles in nine years.
How did they do this time
City have ticked the majority of the “boxes” that any champion would tick on their way to glory this time around.
Every title-winning team needs an excellent goalkeeper: there hasn’t been a champion with an error-prone No. 1, and City has arguably the best in the world in Ederson. The Brazilian is on track to win the Golden Glove award with the most clean sheets in the league (he has 18 so far this season), but he is far more than a goalkeeper.
His excellent distribution allows him to convert defence into attack, and there have been many times this season where a long, precise clearance by Ederson has resulted in a goal at the other end of the pitch seconds later.
A strong defence, headed by at least one commanding centre-half, is another essential component of a title-winning team. Last season, Virgil van Dijk was Liverpool’s defensive rock, and John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Vincent Kompany, and Sol Campbell have all played similar positions for their teams in the past. City has had two this season in Ruben Dias and John Stones, with Aymeric Laporte possibly becoming the best backup central defender in the Premier League.
Dias and Stones have been the cornerstone of City’s defensive solidity since establishing their partnership in the aftermath of the 2-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur last November, which left City languishing in 11th place in the table. By that point, City had conceded 11 goals in eight league games, but they’ve only allowed 15 in their last 27. For the vast majority of the games that followed, Dias and Stones were at the core of the defence.
Dias, who joined from Benfica for a club-record £64.3 million last summer, has been a game-changer at the back. Dias arrived with little fanfare after failing to replace former captain Kompany when the Belgian was hired as player coach at Anderlecht a year ago. However, his impact has been immeasurable. The 23-year-old has not only provided City with continuity, reliability, and a physical presence, but he has also enabled Stones to resurrect a career that had stalled to the point where it seemed his time at City was coming to an end. Dias and Stones have established a defensive partnership that could challenge the likes of Ferdinand-Vidic and Terry-Ricardo Carvalho in the years to come.
Goals from midfield are another important component for any top team; consider Frank Lampard’s contribution at Chelsea or the goals of Paul Scholes and David Beckham when Manchester United were regularly winning titles. Midfielders have scored 28 of City’s 71 league goals this season, with Ilkay Gundogan (12) leading the way, followed by Phil Foden (7) and Kevin De Bruyne (6). (5). Only Fernandinho, who has made significant defensive contributions in front of Dias and Stones, has not scored among Guardiola’s regular midfielders.
Guardiola’s invention also key
Guardiola has always been willing to go against the grain when it comes to using players in a variety of positions. Guardiola has used Foden, De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, and Raheem Sterling as false nines this season, but he has also used Joao Cancelo at left-back and right-back, and Gundogan has excelled in both attacking midfield and defending. He’s also joked about handing over the team’s fines to Ederson.
However, it is in the future the City will really defy tradition.
The history of Premier League champions is littered with legendary strikers doing the heavy lifting with their goals, particularly in key games. Thierry Henry, Alan Shearer, Mohamed Salah, Didier Drogba, Sergio Aguero and Cristiano Ronaldo have all hit 20 or more league goals to help fire their teams to a Premier League title over the years, but this season, neither of City’s recognised strikers — Aguero and Gabriel Jesus — has even managed double figures.
Jesus has just eight goals in 25 appearances while Aguero, sidelined by injury and COVID-19 at times this season, has scored twice in 11 games. But City have cruised to the title without an out-and-out striker, often playing with Foden or Bernardo as a false nine. Riyad Mahrez (9) and Sterling (10) have both outscored Aguero and Jesus this season, but none of City’s forwards has been prolific.
Despite their unusually low return of goals from their strikers, City have still outscored every other team and established a double-digit lead over second-placed United with two games remaining. They have been ruthlessly efficient, winning 27 out of 28 games in all competitions between mid-December and early-April, and doing so without ever really needing to hit top gear.
There have been few dramatic fightbacks or wins against the odds, no defining game or moment which encapsulates their league season.
It has been like watching a long-distance runner moving through the field after a slow start to eventually win at a canter, which also fits City’s steady movement towards the same status as the great Liverpool and United sides. By the time they were winning titles with unerring regularity, they didn’t have to reach the heights to do it. Winning had become second nature, something that could be achieved on autopilot, and that is the story of City’s latest title success.