Mesmerising, irresistible and persevering – Manchester City, champions of England, were all of that through a pandemic-affected season like none other, picking up their third title in four seasons, confirming their status as one of the greatest squads in English football.
A pizza party to celebrate the achievement on Tuesday evening was seemingly unlike any in England, according to Pep Guardiola, who said, “The party is always just alcohol and I don't understand why."
However, put aside the panache, the slick movement of City for a moment and consider this – their two strikers have scored 10 goals, they were 13th in mid-November and then 8th at Christmas, the lowest position occupied by an eventual champion, before Pep’s side found their footing, going on a 21-match winning streak.
City started their season a week late and keeping the squad fit right through was going to be Pep’s biggest challenge. If that wasn’t all, City, like the rest of the Premier League, was playing catch-up to the standards set by the rampaging Liverpool in the previous season.
The task to make it a defining season was cut out for Pep and co, who weren’t settling for anything less than making it their own era. It had to be the next port of call after they’d won everything domestically.
Unusually Slow Start
The powers that be at City handed Pep a contract extension and then saw the team slump to their worst start to the campaign since Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan took over in 2008. All talk about dominance from the blue side of Manchester seemed a distant memory with questions being raised about the hiring of the squad.
Points dropped West Ham, Spurs, West Brom, Leeds, and Leicester severely hampered, or so it seemed, Man City’s run in. Pep’s possession play wasn’t paying the dividends he would have liked and the imbalance with two defensive midfielders was causing havoc.
The defeat to Spurs, in November, was the wake up call they needed – captain Fernandinho gave the rallying cry and they responded in the only way they know – playing scintillating football, not losing another game till the Manchester derby in March.
The Unbeaten Run
Once Pep got his balance right, the moves became slicker, the players’ positions more fluid – very characteristically, and the lack of a striker was noticed, but not felt. After a couple of draws, against Man United and West Brom, they picked up the pace not losing another game in any competition for three and a half months.
Not playing a striker isn’t alien to Pep, who used Phil Foden, Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling as false nines, while Ilkay Gundogan enjoyed a golden run of form too, scoring 12 goals at the time the championship was sealed.
Sterling had 10, with Riyad Mahrez (9), Gabriel Jesus (8) and young midfielder Phil Foden (7) adding to de Bruyne’s five goals and 11 assists.
They won 53 from a possible 57 points in the league after the Spurs game till their next defeat in the derby on 7 March, which took City from eight points off the lead to 15 in front, and they did so without ever really needing to hit top gear.
While the attacking players scored the goals, the turnaround was based on a solid defence, where Ruben Dias, in his first year in England, along with John Stones stood firm – they conceded only 6 goals during a 19-game unbeaten run in the league midway through the season which effectively won City the title. With three games too, City let in only 26 goals – the fewest in the competition by a fair distance.
“We have come through hell and done something more than remarkable,” Guardiola had said in early March.
It would be foolhardy to not acknowledge the plethora of talent at Pep’s disposal and it would also be unjust to ignore the fact that they won at a canter, sifting through the field in time, setting it up perfectly for a few more years of unerring success.
The juggernaut isn’t in the mood to slow down, rest assured!
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