Manchester City claim the title after United falling to Leicester
Every Premier League team started this season like no other with atypical navigation challenges.
Only one started this season with Pep Guardiola. And that still turned out to be the difference.
Manchester City clinched their fifth Premier League title on Tuesday after bitter rivals Manchester United lost 2-1 at home to Leicester City.
The biggest game in town this season is of course the Champions League final against Chelsea on May 29th. The victory that would sound loudest in the annals.
But this PL title, while lacking the objective enthusiasm for the 2011-12 campaign and the record-breaking 2017-18 rampage, is perhaps the one that will affect the sport the most. Because Guardiola and City won it without the goalkeeper (or strike tandem) who basically provided every Premier League champion in the league’s nearly three-decade history.
The idea of a “wrong 9” or a striker who falls deeper into midfield and helps with possession is hardly new. However, with the exception of Spain’s knockout stage at Euro 2012, there was still a focus for any such attack that gained anything significant. It was only last season that Roberto Firmino’s nominal center-forward game helped Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané to a total of 37 league goals and Liverpool to their historic title, while Lionel Messi, who was used as the wrong 9 for Guardiola’s revolutionary teams in Barcelona, is still very clear the goal was dealers in the troops.
Who is this man for this team in Manchester City? İlkay Gündoğan, a favorite for being named PFA Player of the Year, leads City with 12 league goals. Riyad Mahrez, who has been on a heater for the past few weeks, and Raheem Sterling each have nine league goals. Gabriel Jesus, who is the closest to a regular striker in Guardiola’s setup, has eight. Four others have scored at least four times.
To point this out in a reductive manner? Naturally. A clue as to why Guardiola and City won the league again? Absolutely.
The Premier League decided to cut the entire season to one month less due to last year’s pandemic hiatus, so everyone knew teams and players would be taxed like never before. It hit the City Striker Corps, with Jesus and Sergio Agüero missing with injuries and COVID-19, respectively, and by mid-December the club was in ninth place.
So what City did was a matter of necessity. It was more thanks to Guardiola.
As early as November, he complained openly and lacking City’s goals I hope Aguero would fix it. When it became clear that something more was needed, Guardiola began bringing the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Ferran Torres to the top of his lineup.
Whether by accident or by masterpiece, it unlocked the key to dominance of a crunching campaign. In falling back into possession, the false nines of this city squad caused overloads in every area of the field they occupied. With no real focus, City’s incisive, tornadic talent depleted opponents and, because of their function, limited their ability to sit back and absorb the blows of City’s talent edge. In other words, how do you bunker if you don’t know who to bunker specifically against?
It took a while for anyone to figure it out. City has 21 straight wins in all competitions as winter gave way to spring, including 15 in a row in the Premier League. The tactical fold provided Guardiola with the ability to drive players in and out of the lineup to keep them fresh.
And it could reverberate well beyond this season. Device overload was a problem long before COVID-19. Football, like other sports, can be cumbersome when it comes to change, but the brass tacks of the implication make sense. If you don’t have Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Robert Lewandowski or Kylian Mbappé or Erling Haaland to join the next generation, why should you attribute so much of your success to the hot and cold nature of a one-of-a-kind goalscorer?
Of course, not every team will try to emulate what City did. In fact, most of them won’t. But, given that City got away with the title under adverse circumstances, wouldn’t it be unwise if the sport’s other money powers didn’t ponder how well Guardiola has mastered the term?
He did it with no important parts of past titles, both the city and his own. Consider how different this team is from the team that won the league in 2019. Gone are club legends Vincent Kompany and David Silva, while Agüero, who will be leaving this summer himself, has only scored a meager two goals in this league campaign. In their place, Rúben Dias has risen, the 23-year-old revelation of a central defender; Rodri, the fulcrum of Manchester City midfield who can escape the press and rattle the ball back himself; and Torres and Phil Foden, with the former demonstrating his versatility and the latter fulfilling his deep promise at the age of 20.
This City team didn’t let fans hold their breath to win until the last day of the season, and neither was it in the league like it was three years ago.
It just outwitted all of England. Or rather, Pep Guardiola has won his ninth league title in 12 management seasons. However the job needs to be done, he just does gets done it.
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