When it comes to Manchester City, they’ll never be free of the debate or criticism that their success is bought through Saudi oil money. And their counter that they have the best manager in the world in Pep Guardiola will never be enough to convince anyone who focuses on the first point. The truth is probably both.
Man City clinched their fifth Premier League title in a decade this afternoon, and have a chance to add a third major trophy this season in the Champions League final in two-and-a-half weeks, because they’re the only team that could do so in this packed calendar. The other giants of the game certainly couldn’t. Munich crashed out of the Champions League in the quarters, and all it took was an injury to Robert Lewandowski to set their status to “wobbly.” Juventus are a simultaneous dumpster fire and goat fuck. Madrid and Barca might not win any trophies. PSG may strike out in both league and Champions League play and they have the far softer bed of Ligue 1.
Meanwhile, City are where they are for both of the reasons mentioned above.
Heading into a season packed with the same number of games as normal, but in a month-shorter window and a fraction of the normal offseason, Guardiola shifted City’s style to be more obstinate than poetic, figuring that his team was not going to be able to press furiously and still have anything left come the season’s second half. This is the team that hoarded 102 goals in the league last year, but only has 72 with three games remaining this season. However, it conceded nine fewer goals. Whereas City averaged 45 “pressures” in the attacking third per match last year, they’re down to 35 this year. (h/t to FBREF.com)
While it led some morons like this one to proclaim City had gotten so boring and how could they possibly do anything without their swashbuckling ways of the past as they were mid-table, Pep knew. But Pep also had the use of a squad packed with world-class (and flexible) talent that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. He could bed in new signing Rúben Dias to revitalize the defense, and relegate Aymeric Laporte, his best defender the previous two seasons, to a reserve role. What other club could even conceive of such a thing? Dias’ introduction rescued the career of John Stones, who is probably now the first name on England’s team-sheet and has been one of the best defenders in the league all season after spending years as a Vaudeville act.
All the games meant serious rotation, but no team is built for regular rotation like City, thanks to their spending. Take İlkay Gündoğan, who in a previous life was the engine for Jürgen Klopp’s explosive Borussia Dortmund teams and a full German international for most of his career. He had never managed more than 23 starts before this season, a total he looks set to match, but comes in from a squad role to be the team’s leading scorer from midfield. It’s easy to just use that to highlight City’s ridiculous depth that only they can afford, but it’s another thing to keep a player like Gündoğan happy not playing as much as he did and to see him flourish so quickly when turned to. That’s a credit to Guardiola.
The development of Phil Foden is another. Guardiola has been lauded for his patience with Foden, who has been orbiting the first team for two or three seasons without diving in before this one. And he should, because Foden wasn’t overexposed and is now one of the most exciting players in the world. You could argue no one under 25 has played better than him in the world. Still just 20, Foden threatens to reach Ballon d’Or levels in the coming years.
But what other club could afford to wait on Foden? What team wouldn’t have to give in to the promise and talents Foden had? No one else could have boasted Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Sergio Agüero, Riyad Mahrez, or Leroy Sane in attack in previous years or Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, or Gündoğan in midfield. Keeping Foden in his original packaging would have caused any other team to lose out on too much. He was developed beautifully, but in the only place he could be.
Riyad Mahrez, or Leroy Sane in attack in previous years or Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Gundogan in midfield that keeping Foden in his original packaging wouldn’t hurt. He was developed beautifully, but in the only place he could be.
Quite simply, City under Guardiola runs at a rate that teams can match for a season, maybe even two, but then fall away. Chelsea did it for one season in 2016-2017, winning the title under Antonio Conte. They finished fifth the next year. They’re only getting back to that space now. Liverpool ran all the way with City in 2018-19, finishing with 97 points to fall one short, and then backing that up with 99 to win the title last season. They’ve been an utter mess this term, both due to the rigors of the season on their squad and missteps from their manager Klopp.
City never drop from this level, because of their manager and the toys he gets to play with. One wouldn’t work without the other. They can negotiate this unique and overbearing season because they have that squad, but also the guy who knows all the buttons to push.
Teams can sprint with them for a short amount of time. But they break down and have to rearmor to try again. City just don’t. They’re always built for this, whatever “this” may be.