Image courtesy of Daily Mirror
As Manchester United catastrophically lost to West Brom at Old Trafford to hand Manchester City the 2017-2018 Premier League title, I felt more than a tinge of satisfaction. Not that I was delighted that Manchester United (the team I have supported since I was about 7 or 8 years old) lost, but rather that Manchester City, playing how Pep Guardiola intends them to, were crowned champions. And in doing so, decimated the field. It provides a stark contrast to the rudderless display of United’s individuals against bottom-of-the-table West Brom which itself was a microcosm of United’s season so far – no tempo, patchy fluency and lacking identity.
As Guardiola motioned “one more” to the Manchester City faithful at the end of their impressive 3-1 victory over Spurs at Wembley yesterday, only the craziest punter would have *expected* that “one more” would have meant a Manchester United home defeat to West Brom. After a difficult 10 days, in which his team lost 3 games on the bounce to United and Liverpool (giving up leads in two of those), there was talk about Manchester City’s air of invincibility being swept away, of cracks in a city build on sandy foundations. Cracks, perhaps – the quest for perfection is a never-ending journey, but after their dominant win at Spurs, we were left in no doubt about the stability of the foundations created. The 16-point lead between the Champions and United is built on a code, the Guardiola code.
Guardiola has never hidden his code. To give his team the best chance to win the game, it must dominate the ball. “Without the ball, we are a humble team”. Rather than gamble on giving the opposition a chance to test his team’s weakness, he takes away that opportunity – by having the ball. When they don’t have it, they hunt for it. For him, it is easier to control your fate when you possess the reason for the game you play. There is one ball – he wants his team playing with it (exclusively). He has remained faithful to it. From the sterling work he did with Barcelona B, to creating a steamrollering juggernaut with the Barcelona first team, and then moving to Germany where he converted Bayern Munich into a relentless winning blackhole, swallowing all points available in Germany. And now, Manchester City. Towards the end of last season, as his side closed in on third place (and a trophy-less first season), his methods were questioned by all and sundry. “You can’t win with small players”, “You can’t win without physicality”, “the pace of English football is too fast for your ‘brand of football’”. They came for him, pundits, journalists, ex-pros and the hardened Guardiola -sceptics. English football is not like Spanish or German football – “the best league in the world”, the competition, the pace and the physicality could never allow tiki-taka take hold on the British Isles. Guardiola got tetchy, got chippy, he delivered cheap shots (Gary Neville felt the burn), but amidst all this, was careful to explain why he would not change his code. Third place? A sure sign that English football had cracked Guardiola. It was only the 2nd time in his career his team had failed to win the league. What did he do? He simply doubled down. Arrogance? Pragmatism.
Image courtesy of Scoop Nest
With a team of Pinkies (the wee Silvas, Gundogans and Jesuses of the game) and the Brain (oh, and a brace-face goalkeeper better known for his passing and kicking), Manchester City, with 87 points from 33 games, are on track to record the following records:
- Most points in a season (currently held by Chelsea (2004/2005 – 95 points)
- Most goals scored in a season (currently held by Chelsea (2009/2010 – 103 goals)
- Best goal difference in a season (currently held by Chelsea (2009/2010 – 71 goals)
- Biggest winning margin (currently held by Manchester United (1999/2000) – 18 points)
Losses to Liverpool and Manchester United (but, Liverpool in particular) were put down to, among other things, “arrogance”. It beats the imagination. I argued that contrarily, arrogance was far a reason for those defeats as Russian chemical poisoning was. In the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final at Anfield, Pep Guardiola’s humility was on display for the world to see. You questioned his team shape? You questioned how his side set out to try and contain Liverpool? His insecurity came home to roost. And it crowed –too loud. In altering his team scheme and set-up so jarringly to counter Liverpool’s strengths, he nullified his own. He didn’t betray his code so much as he compromised it by his callow acceptance of the superiority of his opponent’s qualities. It is a lesson you hope he learns; to avoid tinkering too much. In many ways, he is like Rafa Benitez – they are obsessive in their desire to constantly adjust in-game. Of course, they operate by different codes, Benitez less a disciple of the school of “Possess the ball” than Guardiola, but both have suffered for this across their careers.
The next step for Guardiola is to build on the dominance of this season’s football. Exiting the Champions League should not detract from the sterling work he has done. They said he couldn’t win, that he would have to compromise – he did. Devastatingly. All it took was increased familiarity. The Champions League tie against Liverpool should be *the* learning point for next season. The code remains paramount but, just maybe, there is room to become a touch arrogant, to send your team out to fully commit to marrying the code with a willingness to always play games on their terms. The first leg at Anfield? Run with Liverpool. They press? You press too. Oh, and try to cut out the careless mistakes. Otamendi and Ederson were culpable for what I’d call some extraordinary errors across both legs which City could have done without.
Congratulations to Manchester City and Pep Guardiola – they have put together one of the most dominant seasons in English football history, playing football exactly as they desired to do so and winning games on their own terms.