The last team to defend the Premier League title successfully was Manchester United in 2008-09. In fact, that victory completed a hat-trick of domestic championships for Red Devils. Arguably, Sir Alex Ferguson did not manage a better side in his 26-year long tenure at Old Trafford. With individuals like Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Nemanja Vidic, and Edwin Van der Sar — there were more — that United team became the gold standard for the Premier League. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal from the 2003-04 ‘Invincibles’ campaign was the only other side to be spoken of in such exalted terms.
Since then, Premier League football has transformed beyond recognition and there was a yearning for a team that would represent the shift to a more proactive way of playing football. As football writer Ken Early noted in an article for the Irish Times recently, on average, the number of passes in a Premier League match has gone up by 25 percent since the 2007-08 campaign. There are fewer tackles and crosses, but more control. Teams are more comfortable playing on the front foot. The best sides like to dictate the tempo and mood of the contest.
Manchester City is the embodiment of this brave, new world. This season, every Premier League team made more tackles than City. But every team has also scored fewer points. Manager Pep Guardiola once famously revealed that he does not train his side to tackle. Not because it is against his ethos of beautiful football, rather tackling by one of his players would serve as an admission of strategic failing. As Paolo Maldini once said, “If I have to make a tackle, then I have already made a mistake.”
Instead, Guardiola’s City is full of nibblers. Nobody is cleverer than his team when it comes to committing sly tactical fouls; the duty is carefully spread across the team in order to avoid bookings. However, it is not a tactic that City have to rely on often as the side is well-drilled to press and counter press when possession is lost. And the ball is not lost frequently; City ended the Premier League campaign with an average of 64 percent – slightly down from last year’s 66.4 percent – but still considerably more than second-placed Chelsea who managed just about 60 percent.
Such is City’s control in games that opposing teams fail to even leave a trace of their presence – no team was fouled less than Guardiola’s side and Brighton. On average, both sides suffered 7.9 fouls per match and for very different reasons. Brighton’s time spent on the ball is, on average, 20 percent less than City. One would think that the incidence of being fouled would increase with possession but you cannot foul Guardiola’s players if they keep you at an arm’s length.
City’s control is the story of another successful campaign. Guardiola’s tactics represent the shift towards this proactive brand of football better than any other Premier League team. Just like Ferguson’s league champions from 2006-09 responded to the Roman Abramovich-inspired rush for star names — no other side could boast of attacking riches as diverse as Manchester United —Guardiola’s back-to-back title wins epitomise the victory of the system. You may have the best individuals, but to turn them into a winning side you still need a great manager who can mould them into a tactical plan that works. Guardiola understands this better than most.
After the manager’s opening season in England, there were many who doubted whether his plans would suit the Premier League. The competition’s cheerleaders tend to think of English football as an esoteric plane that can be mapped only if you instill work rate and wax eloquent about the pub-going fan. However, the likes of Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, and Mauricio Pochettino, among others, have shown that it was the Premier League that required a different lens to come in line with the higher standards set in Western Europe.
In a way, the presence of four English sides in the final of the European competitions is a victory for all the foreign coaches who arrived in England and refused to have a truck with old orthodoxies. It is, indeed, remarkable that the best Premier League club is not among the quartet. But this moment shows the depth of the top English sides better than anything else – many reasons abound for this development, but none is more important than the sustained economic boom of which the Premier League teams are supreme beneficiaries.
Guardiola was among the vociferous naysayers and the glut of trophies won by City in the last two campaigns has left little doubt over who was right. This season did not bring 100 points but the Premier League champion won as many matches as it did in 2017-18 – 32. City did lose four times but it also conceded four fewer goals; its watertight defence remained underappreciated even as Guardiola’s men racked up 14 wins in a row to seal the title.
Of course, it could all have ended differently if Liverpool had drawn one match less. But the remarkable thing about City’s march to the title was the inescapable realisation that the team could have played better. Perhaps, that view is informed by the stunning football that Guardiola’s side displayed last season. Even so, to rack up 198 points out of a possible 228 is a performance with no parallels in the history of English football. It is, indeed, a measure of City’s ever-spreading boundaries that one always feels that there is more to this group of players. To win the tightest of league races without your best player, Kevin de Bruyne, for half the season speaks volumes about Manchester Club’s financial resources and the way they are managed.
So, the question remains, can City improve on this stupendous achievement and do the three-peat like that famed United side? It’s no exaggeration to say that it will be a surprise if Guardiola’s team does not lift the trophy twelve months from now. The extent of City’s resources means that the squad will be strengthened in the summer while the astoundingly talented Phil Foden is likely to play a larger role in the 2019-20 campaign.
And as City continues to spread the gospel of the football that defines the current moment, it would not be reckless to claim that Guardiola and his players have surpassed their time. No other Premier League team in history can reasonably match up to the excellence that has become quotidian for Manchester City. The Premier League has not been witness to a more iridescent bunch of footballers than Guardiola’s players. The Invincibles and a couple of Ferguson’s teams were indeed great but never could they dominate the competition like City has done since the autumn of 2017. The trendsetters will be in vogue for some time to come.
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Updated Date: May 13, 2019 13:46:48 IST