Barney Ronay: Man City’s title is a triumph of class and refinement on the hoof
Look beyond the wealth and admire the solutions found by Pep Guardiola and his team
Pep Guardiola congratulates Phil Foden after his performance in the Premier League win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in January. Photograph: Andy Rain/AFP via Getty Images
Was it ever in doubt? Funnily enough, the answer to this question is yes. Such has been the serene, high-spec nature of Manchester City’s passage through the second half of the season it is easy to forget that the drive towards a third Premier League title in four years contained its own wrong turns, crunched gears and a sustained period of meandering in the doldrums.
Even the moment of triumph, Leicester’s victory at Old Trafford, following a careless defeat to Chelsea for a second-string City team, suggests a club easing through this series of weekly engagements with its biggest weapons safely holstered.
In reality this has been a league title characterised by refinement on the hoof – and a personal triumph for Pep Guardiola, whose success is often criticised on two fronts. Firstly, that he wins only because he has the best players.
This is both true and also pointlessly true, a paradox hard-wired into modern football, and one that will remain right up until the moment Guardiola takes a three-year sabbatical at Plymouth Argyle. The richest teams employ the most successful manager. Repeat until the coming revolution.
The second criticism of Guardiola is that he plays only one way, that he has a zealot’s attachment to a certain brittle style. And in more micro terms Guardiola has done something different this season, dialling back the more absolute elements of his ideologue’s style, allowing his team to breathe more, defend in more orthodox ways; and to find other ways of winning in this most draining, bubble-bound season.
Not that this was always evident. “We are struggling, we have to find solutions,” Guardiola mused in mid-November during one of those strangely open, unmannered press conferences where he seems, suddenly to be thinking aloud. City were 13th. Their goals total was the club’s lowest at that stage since 2006.
A lack of energy was diagnosed. There was widespread analysis of the dropping-off in City’s pressing stats, of opponents having found ways to break that grip high up the pitch. City’s declining ‘expected goals’ numbers were quoted, clinching evidence of a team doing the same old thing, just slightly worse.
In mid-September Darren Fletcher, now Manchester United’s director of football, was writing on the BBC website of profound systemic problems at City, pointing out that – Pep, mate, no offence – you’ll never get by without a proper No 9, and seeming unconvinced that the signing of “Benfica defender Rúben Dias” would be enough turn the defence around.
To be fair to United’s own key tactics and acquisitions ace, Guardiola echoed some of this, although his concerns in public were always more with his attack. “I have to find a way,” he moped after the 2-0 defeat at Tottenham, again surprisingly open about all this. Hm. What did he know?
It isn’t hard to locate the moment when those roots began to stir. Stamford Bridge in January felt like a step-change. Deprived of Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus, Guardiola picked a team of midfielders, with Kevin De Bruyne deployed, as he had been at times already, as the false nine.
For 10 minutes City felt their way into this shape. Then they scored three goals in 16 minutes and played out the rest of the game with a kind of light around them, finding novel spaces and giddy little triangles, capped by De Bruyne’s nutmeg assist for Phil Foden to clang the ball into the corner.
From there City were away, gone, hammering off into the distance. A run of 27 wins in 28 games in all competitions from winter into spring all but did for the title and nudged City towards the Champions League final.
This was a feat of controlled, pared-back excellence, a team happy now with their reduced pressing levels, built around two fine centre backs and something close to double pivot in front, with a spread of goals and incision in those massed attacking midfielders. Five players reached double figures last season. So far Ilkay Gündogan is top league goalscorer with 12.
Opponents have been allowed to play just enough, that high-pressing strangle dialled back, and the weakness to counterattack eliminated. City have conceded only nine goals away from home so far. Guardiola turned 50 in January. His mid-life crisis innovation, his tactical red Maserati, has been to become an effective orthodox defensive coach.
So much for the football then. There is of course a duality to this title win. Just as two things can be simultaneously true, there are at any stage two Manchester Citys, two registers of how exactly the world will measure these achievements.
We have the cleverness and the basic sporting joy of this team on the one hand. And on the other the fact City have the largest wage bill and the deepest squad, and can operate without financial constraints at a time when every other club is being squeezed by force majeure and their own wastefulness – not including the weird, talent-hoarding spree at Stamford Bridge.
This is a season when being exceptionally rich has conferred a very obvious advantage, when so many teams have looked ragged, drained and undercooked. In this context City’s early season chafing looks like false dramatic tension, a gratuitous car chase. Oh look. Lex Luthor has discovered some kryponite. Will Superman be able to somehow recover and win the day because he’s much stronger and essentially indestructible? As it turns out, yes.
Presented with a tide that sinks all ships, City always had the players, and indeed the most stable set-up. Does this devalue their achievement? The unarguable quality of this team was evident in the second-half evisceration of Paris Saint-Germain.
It has in many ways been a perfect season. Foden’s emergence as an outright academy-reared A-lister is a supporter’s dream, east Manchester’s gift to the England team, and a project-legitimising coup de theatre. De Bruyne has, despite absences, been the key part, a footballer so good he makes first principles – a pass, a run, a set piece – look like his own property, something he can refine and reinvent off the cuff. Even joining (and then leaving) the Super League has somehow turned out to be a PR coup.
But it is also clear that the real triumph of the Premier League this year is getting it on at all. Outside the champions the standard has not been high. Liverpool, forced to explore their own brittle second string, have produced a poor title defence. Tottenham, this droopy Tottenham, were top of the league with a third of the season gone. The second-best team, a worthy, improving Manchester United, don’t really look like title winners at one remove.
And here again is the duality of City. The boundless resources, the basic weirdness of a nation state owning a football club for PR reasons: this all remains. There are those who will be unmoved by success on the pitch, and unable to look past this. It is a logical position.
We are all, City fans included, being manipulated in our dear old home grounds by a state hungry for soft power. And yet because football is a spectacle that will not be degraded – not yet anyway – City have been able to do all this in a way that has been uplifting, and undeniably a work of skill and craft.
As a final thought, the current timeline has dished up the most miserable, digitised, alienating football season anyone will care to remember, or indeed see again. The world outside has been darker still. Watching the games has, for all football’s flaws, been an act of pure escapism, one that would have been hugely diminished without that cold, clear shaft of sky blue light. – Guardian