The last few years have been a rather interesting era in the Premier League. We’ve had our fair share of drama, slip-ups and last minute winners. We’ve seen clubs lift the much-coveted trophy using philosophies as diverse as the managers themselves. We’ve witnessed an Italian manager who won the title with traditional and disciplined Italian football the very next year after we witnessed another Italian manager winning the title with the promise of pizza parties after winning games. We’ve seen an arrogant and defiant Portuguese at his cockiest and at his lowest, using arrogance as a celebratory gesture and defiance as a defence mechanism. However, the most intriguing aspect of the Premier League era is this: ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, no manager has managed to win the league twice, with most of them getting the sack the very next season.
Therefore, when a triumphant Pep Guardiola returned to the Etihad this season after a record-breaking 100 point season, few believed and many hoped that this trend would continue. While they did go in as favourites, there were many who hoped desperately that one of the top six would knock the defending champions off their perch. Their first test would be at the Emirates Stadium where a refreshed Arsenal side awaited them, without Arsène Wenger for the first time in a very long time, and they passed with flying colours. They proceeded to win 2-0, wrecking havoc across a hapless Arsenal, simultaneously sending a message that they were here to stay. There was no looking back since then, and today, Manchester City stand poised to win the league for the second year running, barring a miracle. But then again, this has been a week for miracles, and only time will tell.
Manchester City have been called out for various reasons by rival fans. A team without history. The noisy neighbours of Manchester. A team fuelled by oil. A team that doesn’t represent the working man and his values. But behind all the criticism, there is grudging respect, even envy, for the team that is on its way to win a domestic treble. These statements aren’t baseless. The club was floundering at 10th ten years ago. Their marquee signing at the time, Robinho, believed he was signing for Manchester United. The club have spent close to 1 billion in transfers ever since they were bought by the Abu Dhabi group. The atmosphere at the Etihad is far from what one would call goosebumps-inducing. The hate is understandable, but then again, there will always be haters.
Manchester City’s success, undoubtedly, can be attributed to three major pillars: Money, Manager and Mentality.
While there is no denying that Manchester City aren’t exactly a model student when it comes to FFP regulations, it would be unfair to say that their recent success has only been powered by fossil fuels. Their neighbours. Manchester United, have a net spend of over 484 million in the red (pun intended), with not much to show for it. Fulham spent over 100 million this season, only to get relegated. Everton has been one of the biggest spenders over the last few years, only to wallow in the mediocrity of mid-table. It has not just been about the money, it has also been about the way it’s been spent. City’s financial independence allowed Pep Guardiola to buy just the kind of players he needed to fit in his system, and it was pretty much smooth sailing ever since.
Take the case of Kyle Walker, for instance. When the full-back arrived from Spurs at a befuddling fee of 50 million, everyone believed the man had lost it. However, Walker gave Pep just what he needed, extra width that allowed his wingers, especially Sterling, to get into goal scoring positions. Or take Ederson, if you’re not convinced. The Brazilian shot-stopper might have broken the transfer record at that point, but he has contributed as much to their campaign as any other player, calming the defence down with his ball playing skills and providing firepower to the attack with his distribution. While the club did break the bank with most of its signings, most of them have paid off, which is more than can be said about the other big money clubs in Europe.
“Of course, like many, many clubs around the world they have a lot of money, but they are also an incredible club. Incredible people working here, and how professional they are in all the departments,” he said.
“It’s an incredibly professional club, they try to do the good things in the right way. That is all I can say.” – Pep on City’s spending.
City’s series of smart buys and comprehensive player development is unquestionably a product of one of the biggest minds of modern day football, their manager, Pep Guardiola. The man needs no introduction, with his reputation preceding him. However, for someone who led both Barcelona and Bayern Munich to glory, the ‘philosopher’ couldn’t hit the ground running in England. It was difficult, but the Catalan slowly found his footing as the year progressed. Several smart buys, a ruthless squad overhaul and extensive development followed, and the ideals of simple attacking football with a strong defensive mindset was drilled deep into the core of every player, from the first team to the reserves. Pep learnt from his mediocre first season in England, where he was massacred by the press, pundits, fans and critics alike. Gone are the nervous and jittery press conferences. Gone are the shambolic performances peppered with errors and lost chances. It took its own sweet time and a gigantic price tag, but when it all fell into place, it worked like clockwork, making this City squad one of the most exciting and dangerous sides to play against.
He has had his critics, but he has his admirers too, some of his biggest fans being his own players. In his Football Tribune article, Kevin de Bruyne called him a perfectionist, a tactical master who set himself goals so high that they were almost impossible to reach. He has been instrumental in Raheem Sterling’s growth from fringe player to a world-class individual, supporting him from the press but not hesitating to criticise him either for his under-par performances. Never settling for less, Pep Guardiola has insisted throughout the season that his squad has only scraped the surface of their full potential, refusing to let his players bask in the glory of their collective and individual laurels in his undying quest to be the first manager in a decade to defend the Premier League trophy. And this mindset oozes in, out and through the club at all levels.
“People said he has always had better teams than I had but I would not even compare myself with him. I see his teams playing and I know that is really exceptional. I see what he did in different teams. The target for us is to come closer. But what he has been doing since he started his career as a manager, I never heard of something similar.” – Jürgen Klopp.
After Liverpool’s last-minute win against Newcastle, an ecstatic Jurgen Klopp called his team a bunch of mentality monsters, capable of turning around any situation. The same extends to this City side as well. 20 games into the league, Manchester City trailed Liverpool by seven points, a deficit which could have increased to ten had they lost the game to the Reds at the Etihad. Leroy Sane scored the winner in that game, signalling a comeback of gargantuan magnitude and relentless consistency, with the blue club of Manchester going on a streak of jaw-dropping intensity, picking up victories out of anywhere and nowhere. A one-nil win against a Burnley side that gave it their all? Check. Double victories over Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspurs in the same week? Check. Steamrolling over an inspired Wolves, who are currently having a dream run? Check. Beating Everton at Goodison Park, something four out of the current top 6 sides failed at doing? Check. Prior to Kompany’s goal against Leicester City, the defender had not scored a single goal from outside the box since 2013, and yet that sledgehammer of a shot somehow found itself in the back of the net. Like Liverpool, City have also been able to snatch clutch goals out of thin air, and this is what separates these two impeccable sides from the rest of the pack.
What makes this all the more exceptional is that City have been without some of their star players for most of the season. Kevin De Bruyne, City’s architect in midfield has been sidelined for most of the season. Fernandinho has missed 10 games this season, and Sergio Aguero was out for as many as three weeks before Christmas. Of course, City’s squad depth is such that they can easily field A and B teams that will comfortably make it into the top six, but nevertheless, the attitude and mindset of the squad since Christmas has been one of resurgence, resurrection and resplendence, especially with a momentous Liverpool side breathing down their backs, waiting, hoping and praying for even the slightest slip that might prove to be costly.
The Premier race has been a topsy turvy rollercoaster ride, with leaders switching every single game week. This will be the first time in history that both the first and second placed teams will end the season with 90+ points. Both teams have taken two entirely different paths to be here, and both teams deserve to lift the trophy. However, if all goes according to Pep’s plan, City will emerge victorious in this thoroughly intense, nail-biting season, and Wonderwall will resonate across the Etihad yet again. And regardless of your bias, irrespective of your allegiance, you cannot help but look at them with grudging admiration.
Kompany Image via NBC Sports
Guardiola Image via The Telegraph
Klopp and Guardiola Image via Sky Sports