The greatest lie in sport is that winners embody strength and character, that losers embody frailty and brittleness. That victory is the inevitable function of mental fortitude and warrior spirit, and defeat its opposite.
Manchester City’s eighth English league title was clinched at their moment of greatest weakness, in one of their worst performances of the season, from a place where all hope had deserted them. And it felt perfect.
As delirious fans hurdled the barriers and poured on to the great green expanse, as the goal into which City had scored three goals in five minutes caved and snapped under the weight of the throngs atop it, you could already sense the events of the afternoon passing into legend. History will lend this game a ring of inevitability. The record books will simply log it as another City title: their fourth in five years, Pep Guardiola's 10th, another silhouette to add to the mural. We will spend the days ahead chewing over where it was won and lost, what City did right and Liverpool did wrong, what it means for the legacy.
But none of this will really capture the utter despondency that gripped this stadium: the incoherence, the frustration, the rage and anguish of a team and its people staring into the abyss. Sometimes it can be hard to glimpse the human face behind this sprawling superclub, with its empire of satellites, its bottomless pockets, its frictionless passing triangles, the sense of something pristine and merciless that you will never quite be able to touch. City is money, it’s a political project, it’s art, it’s vanity, it’s power. But like any club it’s also its people, people who suffer and fear like any other. And for 76 minutes City showed us something we have so rarely seen in the Guardiola era: genuine vulnerability, genuine hurt, a superhuman team playing on human emotions.
That skittishness was there right from the start. It was there from the first press by Gabriel Jesus, charging down the goalkeeper and forcing him to punt the ball straight out of play. From the uncertain early touches of Aymeric Laporte. From Aston Villa's nihilistic time-wasting. From Guardiola bawling at a ball boy. From the muted cheer that greeted the news that Wolves had scored at Anfield. Nobody was getting excited because nobody was remotely enjoying themselves.
With a pounding inevitability, Liverpool equalised. Shortly before half-time the Villa's right-back Matty Cash headed in a cross from the left-back Lucas Digne. Various members of City staff angrily pointed at things. The moment the ball hit the net, several hundred City fans immediately stood up and disappeared down to the concourse for a pint, a pie, a cry and a rethink of their life choices.
In a way, City needed Villa to score again. Philippe Coutinho’s goal was a slap in the face, a bucket of freezing water, the cold hard truth that cuts you to the core. Going 2-0 down seemed to crystallise City’s mission. Meek, translucent through-balls and inky-dinky crosses were no longer going to cut it. Patience and composure were no longer going to cut it. The Guardiola mood book – mostly pastels, the odd flash of teal – would be flung out of the window. Nothing less than the holy fire of purgation would do from here.
And it was City’s fortune that Villa were just beginning to tire a little.
The heroic lunges that had previously formed an impregnable barrier to goal were now finding only fresh air. City's midfield, bolstered by the clever Ilkay Gundogan, was beginning to motor. First Raheem Sterling crossed for Gundogan to head in. Next it was Oleksandr Zinchenko with the presence of mind to cut the ball back, Rodri with the precision to find the bottom corner. Three minutes later, with the Etihad on the very brink of rapture, de Bruyne located his rampaging beast mode, rode two tackles, and slid the ball over for Gundogan's finish.
The noise was like nothing else. It is impossible to transcribe. Really it was about five noises at once: the guttural roar of triumph, the squeal of consummation, the exhalation of bottled anguish, a city united in relief.
You can’t buy moments like that. You can’t buy three goals in five minutes to win the Premier League title. You can buy the players who might do it, the coach who might make it happen. But the moment itself: that comes from sheer collective will, the furious mobbed energy of a public who had seen Dickov at Wembley and Aguero against QPR and Kompany against Leicester, who know how City used to do things the hard way, who never dreamed they would have to do so again.
Watch Guardiola as the third goal goes in. Gundogan sprints for the far corner, pursued by his team-mates, the cameras, most of the City bench and the sound of 50,000 people. But Guardiola turns the other way: away from the pitch, away from the bench, staring up into the stands, towards his family, his people. Five years ago to the day, Guardiola was sitting at home when he received news that an attack had taken place at the Manchester Arena, where his wife and daughters were watching an Ariana Grande concert.
In that moment he was no longer the world’s greatest manager, no longer the representative of a club or an ideology. He was a father, possessed by the sort of mortal terror you would not wish on your worst enemy. Guardiola’s family came home that night. Twenty-two people, including young children, did not.
Guardiola's first words in his post-match press conference were to pay tribute to the victims. And it felt strangely fitting that at its moment of triumph, Manchester City became its people again. They flooded the pitch and took selfies and cantered across the grass and waved their flags. They sang songs about Steven Gerrard. Eventually the crowd dispersed and two of the groundstaff were finally able to remove the broken goal from its moorings and carry it off the pitch, where it made the shape of a perfect W.