In the context of such a commanding season, Manchester City have had the week from hell. They blew a 2-0 lead against their rivals Manchester United – knowing that a win would secure the title much to the scorn of the red half of Manchester. Either side of the derby loss, City saw their Champions League hopes crumble away as they lost both legs to Liverpool. The crushing aggregate of 5-1 was almost enough to make football fans forget about the eight months of mesmerising football that had preempted this uncharacteristic collapse. But rather fortunately, after a convincing away win at Tottenham, City were crowned champions as Manchester United slumped to a shock loss at bottom side West Bromwich, who ended a 10-game winless streak in the process.
But even though it was a Manchester United-shaped pick-me-up that secured the title, memories of the 2017/18 season will rest on an extraordinarily dominant campaign from Manchester City that has really seen Pep Guardiola get to grips with the more aggressive style of the Premier League. Of course critics will point to the infinity of Manchester City’s bank account but compared to the mixed fortunes of other big spenders such as Chelsea and Manchester United this season, Guardiola has easily recruited better. The summer saw City revamp their defence to eyebrow-raising effect. Serial outgoings inevitably led to several new acquisitions, with Guardiola bringing in three new full backs in Danilo, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy as well as centre back Aymeric Laporte in January. The signing of faster, more attack-minded full backs, a reimagining of Barcelona’s Dani Alves and Jordi Alba, makes for a more malleable defence. Behind a midfield trio and two wingers that regularly rove inside and outside of the full back, City’s full backs have a lot of creative freedom. But more importantly they can retain defensive shape with ease when possession is lost.
“Very much in the vein of Manuel Neuer, Ederson’s shot stopping and distribution has brought a renewed calmness to the City rearguard”
In Laporte, City have an athletic, versatile defender who excels at centre back but can also slip into the full back position. Though, as good as Laporte is, his purchase in January felt like an intelligent reaction from Guardiola. With Mendy out for the season after rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament, City were left with Danilo as first choice left back and midfielder Fabian Delph deputising. With John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and Vincent Kompany at centre back, it’ll be interesting to see how and where Laporte features once Mendy returns from injury.
After the controversial goalkeeper debacle that saw fan favourite Joe Hart fall very much out-of-f
avour with Guardiola following the acquisition of the unreliable Claudio Bravo, the signing of relative unknown Ederson seems to have put Guardiola’s goalkeeping woes firmly behind him. Very much in the vein of Manuel Neuer, Ederson’s shot stopping and distribution has brought a renewed calmness to the City rearguard.
Further afield, City’s first choice wingers, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, have adjusted the traditional aspects of the wide positions to suit the contemporary attacking style of the full back. Sane in particular has utilised his pace, agility and dexterity in cutting inside often whereas Sterling often floats in behind the lone striker, switching between a false nine and attacking midfielder-style position in the final third of the pitch. This not only creates space for the full backs but draws defending players and holding midfielders into the centre of the pitch, alleviating space for the midfielders to work with.
“Where other teams may struggle to unpick defensively stubborn teams, the City formation is set up to provide numerous solutions”
City’s midfield formation, one that advocates both rigidity and fluidity in equal measure, has been the key element to City’s success this season. Sitting deeper is Fernandinho, as both a firewall for the defence and a quick, but elegant deployer of the long ball, turning defence into attack swiftly. When the full backs do push on, Fernandinho is a crucial body that absorbs counter attacks or at least slows them to allow the defence to reshape. Further forward are City’s two creators, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. With the defence and holding midfielder occupied by the nomadic Sane and Sterling and either Aguero or Gabriel Jesus as the lone striker, the centre of the pitch becomes very clogged. As a solution, Silva and De Bruyne now operate in freer roles that can either exploit the vacant wide spaces or passing triangles in the congested midfield. Where other teams may struggle to unpick defensively stubborn teams, the City formation is set up to provide numerous solutions.
At the tip of the formation is an interesting battle for position between the consistent, and underrated, Sergio Aguero, and the emerging Brazilian talent Gabriel Jesus. Crucially for City, they both offer something a little different to one another. Aguero’s low centre of gravity allows for greater agility and strength for a small striker. But, like most Brazilians, Jesus is a trickier customer and arguably a more industrial player than Aguero. But crucially, they both have a supreme eye for goal which has boosted City’s goal difference significantly this season.
But praise must finally be heaped upon Pep Guardiola. Admittedly, I doubted whether Guardiola could translate his dominance of La Liga and the Bundesliga, leagues where success is monopolised by a few or one dominant team, to a league where even the worst teams are still very competitive. But after ironing out the weaknesses and gaining a greater feel for the strengths of the players at his disposal, Guardiola has pushed City into a space reserved for the truly great Premier League teams such as Arsenal’s ’03/04 ‘Invincibles’ or Chelsea’s ’04/05 record point accumulators.
One of the key elements of City’s significant improvement has been Guardiola’s ability to get more out of not only his lesser players but somehow enhance seemingly world-class talent. Sterling has recorded his best goalscoring season whereas Fernandinho’s belligerence has been tweaked to transform him into a far more efficient holding midfielder. Even De Bruyne, as good as he is, has seen his creative output significantly increased by the implementation of a new, freer role. With City strong in every area of the pitch, and noticeably stronger than their nearest rivals, it’s difficult to see how the remainder of the top six can close the gap over the summer.