If they were being managed by anyone other than Jose Mourinho, you just might have convinced me that Manchester United did not plan it all.
In the meanest of rivalry traditions, United refused to let Manchester City win the title on their own terms. Pep Guardiola and his men did not get to celebrate on the pitch in front of their fans but secured the title by watching United lose to the bottom-ranked West Brom in the league. Of course, City are equally to blame, given their lackadaisical performance in the derby, but many a City fan would have preferred a win for United on Sunday and then have City lift the title against Swansea City at the Etihad.
Regardless of the circumstances, however, City are champions. And there is not a sane voice in the world who would say that they have been anything less than deserving of the title.
Football on the computer screen vs football on the pitch
If you grew up playing FIFA or PES, there were certain tricks that were simply impossible unless you were Mr Fantastic. A host of incredible moves such as 360s, rabonas, heel flicks and other moves which used a second thumbstick could only be done on a joystick. To compensate for that, you used through balls, pace and quick passing to get the ball in the back of the net. In the earlier versions of these games where speed was king, this led to a tactic where you simply outran the defenders and then passed to a teammate at the last moment to score into an empty net. Popularly known as “sweaty goals”, scoring these would earn you many a curse in online games where individual skill was prized.
Accursed on not, they all count, and these high-percentage shots are a pretty useful way to win matches. Of course, real football is not FIFA and when hulking yet agile defenders are clambering all over you, creating a sweaty goal is easier said than done. Also, creating those situations means that you have a midfielder who has a 360-degree vision and the passing ability of a Xavi-Pirlo lovechild. It simply isn’t meant to happen consistently at the highest levels of football.
Fortunately or unfortunately, someone forgot to explain this to Guardiola.
Guardiola’s men playing the Guardiola way
The lack of pure strategic ability in the English league has shown in the teams which have won the league this decade. From Robin Van Persie’s preternatural poaching season to Yaya Toure crushing everyone on his path to goal to Eden Hazard dribbling through the tiniest of spaces, each campaign saw a couple of astonishing talents have career years to which other teams had no answer. In terms of tactics however, only Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City brought something interesting to the table. Eventually, teams then figured out ways to stop Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez and Ranieri was sacked sooner than you could say “Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong”.
The 2017-18 City squad, however, is a beast the likes of which the Premier League has not seen before. Helmed by the best coach in the world, this is a team which challenged the very way English teams played football. The recipe is not perfect yet (as evidenced by that horrible week that shall never be spoken of again), but this high-pressing team is as fun to watch as it is deadly to play against.
Guardiola arrived in Manchester to finally prove to his detractors that he could cut it in a competitive league with a squad somewhat less than extraordinary (Jesus Navas doesn’t exactly scream superteam). He quickly cut through the deadweight and after a decent first season, he finally put his pieces in place. In came very expensive full-backs and a goalkeeper with a penchant for risk-taking. An extremely technically astute midfield was already in place and up top were three of the speediest players in the game.
The personnel in place, it was time to play the Guardiola way. In the tradition of Manuel Neuer and Victor Valdes, Ederson was a maverick keeper who pings better passes than half the league's midfielders. Ahead of him a rotating cast of able (but not extraordinary) centrebacks held the fort with all sorts of help from Fernandinho. The full-backs constantly bombed forward and loved zipping low, hard crosses into the area. It was a hardworking defence even if their high-line defending left them a little susceptible to accurate long balls.
Of course, no one really watched City for the defence.
Pass, pass, pass and then pass it some more
Fast and unrelenting, City were the best passing team in the league by a mile and constantly went for the jugular. And at the heart of it was a wonderful midfield partnership for whom every game seemed to be playing in slow motion.
Everyone has known David Silva’s quality since the time he landed on English shores. Even on the wrong side of 30, he still has the deftness to keep the ball from the quickest of defenders. And with a vision paralleled only by his partner-in-crime Kevin De Bruyne, he can get the forwards on their way before opposing defenders can even perceive what just happened.
The most successful play that City ran is on their left side between Silva and Leroy Sane. Sane is the complete winger, as happy to go on the outside of the fullback and cross as he is to cut in and thread a measured pass to an open man. All through the season, we have seen Silva and Sane been in sync with their passing as they hit quick cutbacks from near the byline for Gabriel Jesus or Sergio Aguero to score. On the right side, it is usually the Kevin De Bruyne show with Raheem Sterling or Kyle Walker playing the Sane role.
While City have the capability to break down set defences, it is on the counter-attack that their true brilliance is seen. As soon as the other team gives up the ball, multiple blue shirts race off towards the opposition goal. And with Silva and De Bruyne hitting that perfect first-time pass, a little composure is all it takes to get on the scoresheet.
De Bruyne is ridiculous pic.twitter.com/7NECqbQ3tz
— Terje (@ArsenalTerje) April 14, 2018
The Guardiola system also works with a little tinkering as well. Bernardo Silva and İlkay Gündoğan got regular games and the style of play barely changed. Constant short passes near the goal with a lot of player movement to create space allowed for a lot of tap-in ‘sweaty’ goals. City became obsessed with passing the ball into the net (sometimes to a fault) but with 93 goals to their name already, who can really complain?
A good team sure, but a great one? Not yet
The second Guardiola season then ends with two trophies. It seemed like a Champions League final might not be out of the realms of possibility but it wouldn’t be City without the Cityitis. Only the grouchiest of City fans are grumbling though. This season has been special not just for the wins but for the wonderful football on display: City has been a team you watch to appreciate how much of an art football can be.
The team is not the finished article by any means. Sterling’s finishing can still make grown men pull out their hair in frustration, while Nicolas Otamendi is good for a couple of bad decisions each game. However, if the team keeps improving at the same pace it has under Guardiola and with Benjamin Mendy back in the squad, they might well be soon writing their names on the trophy with the big ears.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Apr 16, 2018 13:08:51 IST