Not that there were ever many doubts once Manchester City found its suitable formula, but the club is back at the top of the Premier League. In the fourth moment of asking, Man City was finally confirmed as the Premier League champion for the 2020-21 season, as Manchester United, the only possible challenger left, lost 2-1 at home to Leicester on Tuesday. Çağlar Söyüncü’s goal in the 66th minute, headed from a corner by Marc Albrighton, is unlikely to be much remembered, but it was the final act of an oddly prolonged denouement of the season.
A slightly anticlimactic ending perhaps disguises the significance of what Pep Guardiola has accomplished this season. A campaign that started badly, with Manchester City’s worst start in 12 years, not only brought a third Premier League title in four years, but could culminate in Champions League glory at the end of the month, and it’s Europe has been the priority for the club (if not its fans) since the acquisition of Sheikh Mansour in 2008.
Last season, Liverpool’s league title was confirmed when Manchester City lost 2-1 to Chelsea. This season, it was at Stamford Bridge that Manchester City showed what a good team they had become, winning 3-1 in January with consummate performance, even if they have since lost to Chelsea both in the FA Cup and at home. in the league. Last season’s loss was characteristic: City in possession seemed irresistible, but were terribly vulnerable to balls playing behind their defensive line.
That was a problem Guardiola had faced over and over in Europe over the past decade. His teams had repeatedly fought in the knockout stages of the Champions League against opponents who were good enough to play through the press. What made him especially concerned last season was how many teams were able to expose the vulnerability. Anxiety over Lyon’s skills at the counter led him to adopt an unknown running back in last season’s quarterfinals, which only served to hamper his own team without fixing the problem.
This season has brought changes, although it is not clear what caused that. The appointment of Guardiola’s mentor and a coach he once moved to Mexico to play for, Juanma Lillo, may have encouraged experimentation. Lillo has a level of experience than his predecessor, as Guardiola’s number two Mikel Arteta did not and is perhaps more willing to challenge Guardiola and present his own ideas. But the nature of the schedule, with a tight preseason and compact schedule, has made constant and really tough pressure impossible, as Liverpool have discovered.
The city in those first few weeks of the season seemed unusually restless, even fearful. The decision to field two containment midfielders against Leicester in the second league game was counterproductive. The idea was presumably to offer additional coverage in front of the four behind, but what happened was that the press dwindled, with Kevin De Bruyne isolated, so it was easy for Nampalys Mendy and Youri Tielemans to get past him. Those struggles continued until mid-December and a 1-1 draw at home to West Bromwich Albion (whose coach Slaven Bilic was quickly fired; the club has since been relegated), which left City seventh in the table.
It seemed reasonable to wonder at the time if this was the worst team Guardiola had ever achieved, yet 15 consecutive league wins later, Guardiola was talking about his greatest achievement and the title was as good as City’s. Exactly what this means in terms of the broader evolution of football will only become apparent over the next two or three seasons as a more normal schedule returns.
With the rise of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, football had become more about getting the ball back than holding it. What City, and Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea, have done this season is find a new balance, a way to maintain possession and play with a relaxed enough press to offer additional protection. In their European semi-finals, both teams were prepared to defend themselves deeply in the second leg. For Guardiola, that was a radical step toward orthodoxy. This was a coach who once scornfully asked “What are tackles?” He is now a coach whose team was suddenly celebrating Oleksandr Zinchenko’s block against Paris Saint-Germain as a goal. The arrival of Rúben Dias, a center-back who seems to enjoy the old-fashioned virtues of a defender, can be as transformative for City as Virgil van Dijk was for Liverpool.
For now, at least, that synthesis between the high press and the more traditional defense seems dominant. It’s what has led Chelsea and Man City to the Champions League final. Whether this has been a great season for City or just a very good one will be determined in Istanbul, Porto or Wembley, depending on where the Champions League final is played, but the League Cup and Premier League titles they are remarkable achievements in any circumstances.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.