How Man City changed the way you win the league

Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering side have not only set a new standard in the Premier League, they have changed the very complexion of the competition, writes Miguel Delaney

Friday 14 January 2022 13:18
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<p>Pep Guardiola has changed what is required to win the Premier League title  </p>

Pep Guardiola has changed what is required to win the Premier League title

It was on the bus to the 2021 Champions League final that Thomas Tuchel learned of Pep Guardiola’s decision to leave out both Rodri and Fernandinho. The Chelsea manager was stunned. Tuchel felt it was a move so drastic that it was effectively Guardiola taking on all responsibility for the match. So it proved.

While Tuchel has been more successful than most in working out how to beat this Manchester City, he privately admits that final came down to Guardiola’s selection.

It was almost a case of the English champions beating themselves rather than getting beaten. That may be what the rest of football is relying on this season.

Tuchel is naturally spending these days before Saturday’s showdown looking for a new way to get at City, but he knows this is a very different proposition to last season’s games. There’s a different pressure, too. It’s not just about Chelsea.

If City win on Saturday, that is essentially it. A fourth title in five years is settled, with three of them secured before European football restarted.

So much for an unprecedented three-team title race. Guardiola and his club have instead given the Premier League something else that’s never been seen before.

They have changed the very complexion of the competition. They have “destroyed the Premier League”, to use Guardiola’s own words. That should bring new debate as well as acclaim.

Is this too much? Is it actually healthy for English football? Is the Premier League in danger of becoming another one-club division?

A common response to all of this is that it’s no different to the dynasties of Liverpool and Manchester United over much longer periods of time. The reality is they are not the same.

Liverpool’s dominance was in such a different football world in terms of finances that it almost has no relevance. Sides like Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest could both win the league and European Cup.

Manchester United were then the first club to realise the marketing potential of football and maximise it, which gave them a significant financial advantage to go with Sir Alex Ferguson’s genius. The most points they still got in a season was 91, and some of their Premier Leagues were won with 75, 79 and 80 points.

They gave you a chance, in other words. Or at least, as emphasised by so many late winners and title surges, there was a sense of jeopardy.

That just isn’t the case with City. Rivals have to pretty much be perfect to match them. With an average of 2.52 points per game, Guardiola’s side are currently on course for 96 points.

Man City have won three of the last four league titles

That would make them just the fifth side in history to accumulate more than 95. Two of those were Liverpool in 2018-19 and 2019-20, but only one of them won the title. That was because the other two were City in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Guardiola’s side forced Jurgen Klopp’s to levels that were virtually unsustainable. Even the Catalan’s one recent “bad season”, in 2019-20, brought 81 points. That would have been enough to claim three of the 17 titles not won by City this millennium.

Another common response to this is that Liverpool and Chelsea are currently on course for 80 points and 78, respectively, which would barely be enough to win any title this millennium. That is only a temporary drop-off, though, since both were pretty much level with City four games back. Now, the gap is almost terminally big. Spells that would have been seen as mere stutters a decade ago currently look like total collapses. It just feels unfeasible that City will drop enough points while it matters. The returns of Chelsea and Liverpool would not matter so much if City were on course for even 90 points, as they would still be in sight.

That does have another effect. The distinctive chemistry of title races usually means that teams will force themselves further if there is tension. This is what happened in 2018-19. It gives the necessary edge. If there’s even a subconscious sense it is lost, teams naturally tend to drop off.

There is now a danger that, by a weekend in mid-January, City will just be too far in front. If so, it will be the third time in five seasons that Guardiola has won the title with devastating mid-season runs no one can keep up with.

Man City’s title-winning runs

2017-18: 18 wins (26 Aug to 27 Dec)

2018-19: 14 wins (3 Feb to 12 May)

2020-21: 15 wins (19 Dec to 2 Mar)

2021-22?: 11 wins (6 Nov to present)

That has fostered fears for the future of English football, but that perspective should perhaps be spun around.

If you were to try and imagine what a state project with unlimited funds would produce, where they could afford the absolute best of everything, it would be this.

It would be so many records broken. It would be unprecedented feats like domestic trebles. It would be a series of seasons where the team gets over 95 points, in a way no one has been able to touch before.

Ferguson admitted that Jose Mourinho’s 95 points with Chelsea in 2004-05 forced him to change how he viewed title races, but City’s points records show this is a step up even from that.

The future is already here. It is owned by Abu Dhabi.

City have changed the way you win the league, and changed the game.

This shouldn’t be to absolve other big clubs, who for so long have wanted their own way. There are questions about FSG’s investment in Liverpool, as the Mohamed Salah contract stand-off shows. Manchester United are capable of generating the financial muscle to compete. Chelsea have an oligarch’s backing.

But the idiosyncratic way Roman Abramovich runs his club points to another difference. It’s that no football club has ever been structured like City, and it’s at least arguable no one can be again.

Abu Dhabi’s limitless money allowed the hierarchy to completely rip up the club and start again, to ultimately do something no one had conceived before in City Football Group.

They aren’t so much a football club in form but a cutting-edge multinational, an extension of a state. The sheer scale of it is unprecedented and often underappreciated.

This is what puts City so far in front, where it becomes about so much more than expenditure on players. The club have the financial platform and infrastructure to ensure they get the “best in class” from top to bottom. They are described within the game as “a beast”, “the model”, and “just the best in the business in everything they do”. Even in terms of commercial contracts, they are viewed as “better to deal with than most”. Such apparent superficialities are important because one of the main motivations in all this is that Abu Dhabi are seen as great to do business with, despite bodies like Amnesty and Fair Square describing them as a “surveillance state” with an “appalling” human rights record.

The club quickly followed the corporate policies at the top end of the emirate, and ensured they had excellence in every department. You only have to follow the thread of appointments. Khaldoon al Mubarak, who has dealt with heads of state as UAE’s “de facto prime minister”, was swiftly installed as chairman. Some of his interviews have enraged the wider game, but he is seen as a “class act” by the City players and coaches.

Khaldoon and the rest of the hierarchy looked around the sport for the “Apple of football”, saw it was Barcelona, and just appointed their 2008 hierarchy wholesale. Chief among them were CEO Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain. It was Guardiola’s relationship with the latter that ensured his arrival at City, since he felt indebted to his former teammate for trusting him with that first chance as Barcelona manager.

City did what Abramovich couldn’t. The Russian had long wanted Chelsea to emulate Barcelona, but only ever looked to bring in Guardiola himself and certain players. City went far deeper. By January 2013, former Barcelona president Sandro Rosell claimed “Manchester City have attempted to entice a number of staff from Camp Nou”. They did what no other club now can.

Much of this was put in place before Financial Fair Play, allowing City to raise a huge platform just before the drawbridge was raised. Newcastle United’s Saudi Arabian owners won’t be able to attempt anything like the same project.

The point of spelling this out is that it is unique in football. That project doesn’t just allow City to appoint the best. It allows them to demand the best. Soriano has put in place a corporate culture where mistakes are not tolerated for long. That could be seen in a situation as high profile as the Super League, and the decisiveness with which City pulled out, right down to recruitment.

If a signing doesn’t work out, they quickly upgrade. The progression in the team makes this clear. In goal, Joe Hart was abruptly replaced by Claudio Bravo, who was abruptly replaced by Ederson. There have been a series of expensive wing-backs, centre-halves and creators, to the point that City have bought Guardiola another full XI and a half on top of the squad he inherited. Ten of that 16 have come in for at least £40m each.

Man City’s major signings under Guardiola

Goalkeeper: Claudio Bravo £15.4m, Ederson £34.9m

Right-back: Kyle Walker £45m, Joao Cancelo £60m

Left-back: Benjamin Mendy £49.3m, Danilo £26.5m

Centre-half: Ruben Dias £62.1m, Nathan Ake £40m

Centre-half: John Stones £47m, Aymeric Laporte £57m

Midfielder: Rodri £62.8m

Midfielder: Jack Grealish £100m

Midfielder: Bernardo Silva £43m

Forward: Riyad Mahrez £60m

Forward: Leroy Sane £37m, Ferran Torres, £21m

Forward: Gabriel Jesus £27m

It should be stressed that Chelsea and United have matched this expenditure over the same period. Liverpool do not really come close, and that’s before you factor in net spend.

Where the difference really lies, though, is in the depth of that infrastructure as much as the squad. City are so in sync at such a high level that they generally get more value out of most signings. It is difficult to see them tolerating the stale XIs that United seem to put out. Instead, it’s as if many of the players in certain positions are almost interchangeable, the team playing to the same level regardless of who is in it.

A £100m signing’s slow adaptation has been easily weathered because they still have Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez to go in.

That speaks to the depth of Guardiola’s coaching and also allows him to maximise the depth of his squad. Players can be rested as and when required. City can outrun anyone. This is what has astounded many opposition players. It always feels like they have a man more. All of their flair players generally put in 11-12km a game.

The influence of fitness coach Lorenzo Buenaventura is instructive. This is what people mean when they talk about best in class everywhere. This is how Guardiola combine-harvests points regardless of the league he’s in.

He and his staff quickly realised that the period that really makes the difference in the Premier League is that between the Champions League groups and knock-outs, from December to February. Buenaventura was detailed with devising a fitness programme that ensures City’s squad come to physical peaks in December and March.

It is how they are winning titles with mid-season runs. It is why they looked a level above Paris Saint-Germain in last season’s Champions League.

The issue for challengers is how they respond, as Ferguson did to Mourinho in 2006. An increasing number believe it’s futile, feeding a resentment in the rest of the game. It doesn’t help that so many individuals now want to work for City.

“They’re the best run club in the world, but with no friends,” is one common view.

The European giants all remain aggrieved at Uefa with how the CAS case turned out, and it was a significant factor in the Super League, that ironically included City.

The majority of Premier League clubs have other issues, including concerns over the extent of City’s superiority. A problem is there are too many factions, that all have competing agendas of their own.

There was a rare moment of unity with the recent vote on “associated parties”.

“Everyone realised they made a mistake with the City takeover in 2008,” one source says. The game was too naive for the nature of it. It’s one other reason Newcastle won’t be able to replicate what City did.

Some sources couldn’t help but laugh on Wednesday, when they saw how City had essentially come out of the Covid crisis unscathed. Their revenues were up 19 per cent to £569.8m, despite a pandemic that literally shut down revenue sources.

There is even a belief within football that City are in such a position of power that their transfer targets are not just about making their own team better. They’re about taking them off the market. One well-placed source insists that a reason they went cool on Harry Kane was because they realised no one else was in for him.

The ominous image, given how good they’ve been, is what they might have looked like had they managed to get a £150m striker.

All of this feeds into a wider debate about City and their style, which has accompanied their dominance.

It is inarguable that they produce football of the highest technical quality, to the point some matches almost feel like artistic exhibitions more than sporting performance.

It is very open to argument how admired this is, though. It isn’t generally revered, in the way Guardiola’s Barcelona were.

That feels like it’s down to more than the fact they were first, or even simple envy. It is down to the manner of it, and the nature. Put simply, Guardiola’s Barcelona had a hugely engaging story. A Masia product was returning as a coaching prodigy to take on a new generation. It felt an ideological landmark in football.

Some of that may be exaggerated, but it was emotionally persuasive. For those not connected to it, City’s progress feels comparatively emotionless. There’s similarly no escaping what it’s all for.

That is the glory of Abu Dhabi, who have essentially used a football club, and changed it so it is unrecognisable to its previous form or anything ever seen in the game. This is what lends an extra dimension to the debate. They are changing football, but for political aims rather than sporting.

Guardiola and the Catalan contingent don’t see it like that, of course. Abu Dhabi’s desire for dominance just happens to coincide with Soriano’s sporting desire. Dominance is meanwhile what Guardiola tends to produce.

Guardiola has presided over an unprecedented run of success

At least some of this will stop with him. Guardiola represented an end point in himself, especially in terms of the football. When he leaves, City will no doubt go and get the next best coach, and we may well see many more £100m-plus signings such as Erling Haaland. Guardiola will have given them an even higher platform, so success will inevitably continue. Money dictates that. He may be irreplaceable in terms of aura, though. Many in coaching circles are adamant he and Klopp are just on a different level to everyone else.

Guardiola currently remains intent on taking City to a new level. He wants that Champions League. He knows it will affect his legacy if he doesn’t win it. Some even believe he would have walked if he’d won it in May.

That sense of holy grail, that psychodrama around the Champions League, is probably the most interesting thing around City right now. The club that can buy almost anything haven’t yet been able to attain that. It makes them human.

If the Champions League were actually a league, after all, City would probably have walked it by now. Knockout games don’t quite allow that. They can just slip away from even the most controlling team. Porto proved that.

This weekend, it has flipped. Chelsea have one big game to save the title race.

It says much that, even against a club as financially powerful as the European champions, the Premier League may be relying on City to beat themselves.

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