When Pep Guardiola was brought to Manchester City last season and armed with a blank cheque to shape the squad exactly to his liking, many expected instant success, considering the amount of new players brought in and Guardiola’s reputation as arguably the world’s greatest tactician.
Others, like Stan Collymore, expected Guardiola’s reign at City to be nothing more than outright failure, as they thought it was “Beyond deluded” that the Catalan coach would pass his way through and around the opposition, playing an aesthetically pleasing style of football while simultaneously collecting silverware.
Last season was not, by any means, a success. However, it would be deeply wrong to call it a failure. It was the football equivalent of the training phase one undergoes before one is allowed to skydive independently. It was a season of grinding, of transition. But just like one is allowed to shoot out into the sky at the end of one’s training, we expected to see City soar among the elite next season, playing a highly attractive brand of football, and delivering results on a weekly basis and trophies on a regular. In a sentence, it was a season they needed to have.
This season, much better equipped with the information and the experience as to what it takes to tackle the Premier League, Guardiola identified the weak links in the squad, and took drastic measures to shape them into the strongest. It’s not often that a club releases 3 of the 4 full backs in the senior team without having signed a single replacement, and sanctions the sale of the 4th soon thereafter. It was an unprecedented circumstance, and the club was forced to pay the big bucks to plug the gaping holes in the squad. But with the right transfer targets being identified and measures taken to get them in early, City’s squad started looking much more rounded. Here’s a look at how the men brought in impacted:
Ederson was brought in from Benfica for a world record fee for a goalkeeper, one season after Claudio Bravo failed miserably at replacing club legend Joe Hart. Guardiola simply could not afford to get this one wrong, and boy, he delivered. Ederson played a huge part in City’s build up this season, with his ability to pass both long and short being utilised to the extreme by City’s attackers this season. When Spurs visited the Etihad this season, they looked to press high to stop City building out from the back. Ederson simply pinged a 50 yard goal kick straight to the foot of Sterling out wide, who turned inside and had a 2v3 situation to exploit. You could see the vacant expressions on the Spurs midfielders, who were left stupefied as to what position to take up for the next kick. Backed with excellent reading and a brilliant shot stopping ability, Ederson was the signing of the season for Man City. Grade A+
- Kyle Walker
Walker was brought in from Spurs for a hefty amount of nearly £50m. But he was exactly the type of full back Guardiola was looking for, only lacking the crossing ability. He had pace to burn, unparalleled stamina, and perfectly provided the width in the 3-5-2 Pep was looking to play at the start of the season. City were exposed countless times last season on the counter because the full backs didn’t have the legs to track back in time. Walker saw that didn’t vulnerability was taken care of, and his overlapping runs in attack provided plenty of options going forward. Grade A-
- Benjamin Mendy
Benjamin Mendy impressed Guardiola so much last season in the 2 legs in which his Monaco side displayed the best attacking football City had faced the whole season that Pep instantly saw the ideal left back for his own team. It was quite the ordeal to actually get him to sign, but once he did sign, he replicated exactly what Walker did down the right, except he was much better going forward. An ACL injury cut his campaign prematurely short, but he still showed his presence through social media, and his little celebratory run on crutches when Raheem Sterling scored a 96’ winner v/s Southampton. Grade N/A
- Ayermic Laporte
The signing of Laporte in January to further solidify the back line was accorded a higher priority than procuring Alexis Sanchez to add more dynamism to the attack. Laporte looked solid whenever he played, calm when in possession and alert when not. Having arrived only in January, his numbers have been impressive so far, but he’s been in and out of the team quite often, so it’s hard to judge how integral a component is in this side. Grade B
I personally thought Danilo was a steal at only £26.6, with his versatility to play at left back, right back and defensive midfield. He was a regular scapegoat at Real Madrid for a bad string of unfortunate own goals, but he proved to be a reliable deputy for either full back this season. He also showed he’s got a mean shot on him, with the curler against Burnley fresh in my mind. It’s hard to see Danilo breaking into the City first XI anytime soon, but it’s nice to know he’s a reliable back up option and can put in a shift when called upon. Grade B
- Bernardo Silva
Bernardo Silva was my favourite signing to watch in this City side, particularly because he was hailed as the heir to David Silva’s throne. His ball control, first touch and dribbling ability are second to none, but since he’s been resigned to the bench for so much of the campaign by Sterling and Sane’s exploits, he hasn’t been able to showcase his arsenal of skills on a weekly basis. If he’s able to break into the team next season, I can comfortable see him around the top of the assists chart. This season though, he’s been a huge asset off the bench and in cup ties, but because of the aforementioned reason, he hasn’t had as much of an impact as one would have perceived he might’ve had initially. Grade B+
With his jigsaw pieces arriving for high fees, the jury was out on Guardiola to prove himself worthy of the blank cheque handed to him and to vindicate his backers that he truly was the greatest manager in world football. And he devised a plan to do just that.
The plan was simple, and it illustrated in detail why he emphasises the need for centre backs to be so comfortable on the ball, and why he mandates his keeper have a passing range no less than his creative maestro. And here was the plan:
City looked to invite a very high press by the opposition’s attackers. A front 3 pressing line was invited over and over, and each time, City created a 4v3 situation on the periphery of their own box, using Ederson as the pivot of the 4. In doing so, there was a gaping hole left in between the front line and the midfield, and therein slotted both full backs in a slightly central position, and on occasion, one of either David Silva or Kevin De Bruyne. Now the situation was such: One half decent lofted pass from Ederson would take out the pressing line and leave City’s players 4v3 against the midfield line, something you’d fancy the former to exploit regardless of who was in that midfield.
This had to be stopped in its tracks. So, on average, 2 of the midfielders would be forced to mark the free full backs and / or the one creative players to stop the outball, and the third would be tasked with shadow covering the other creative player and keeping an eye on the one left unmarked.
Hence, the hole that was created between the front line and midfield slipped to just in front of the back line. And here again, City would have 3v4 if things went their way. Herein came taking full advantage of Ederson’s passing ability. He could very easily zip a 45 yard pass in to one of the wide men, who, if allowed to turn, would threaten catastrophic consequences for the opposition.
It took opposition managers a long time to become aware of not to press City up high and instead try and suffocate the space their players were allowed to play in. They opted to forfeit control of the ball, letting City have near exclusive ball possession, and just looked to crowd out the space so that no one could get through. Hudderfield Town away were the first team to employ this tactic to almost a great effect. The only problem was, they tired so much in the first half from being moved around side to side by City, that they were unable to sustain it at full efficiency for the second half. That, and a slice of luck for City saw them come away from the John Smith Stadium with 3 points for which they had to dig really, really deep. From then on, it became common practise to allow City to have possession, and to look to hit them from set pieces instead, for it was recognised that a lone striker up top against the league’s best defence could only offer the rest of the team so much. This became the average formation against City in the latter half of the season:
But it was nothing short of trial and tribulation to keep up such a well drilled, organised unit at peak vigilance for 90 minutes, and it seemed inevitable that a goal would come. Someone, somewhere, would come up with the goods. Although City’s barrage of goals was thwarted to an extent, their points could not be so similarly tamed.
Liverpool very skilfully broke City’s aura of invincibility, but as Guardiola had stressed all along, it was inevitability. Despite ‘Pool showing the world how exactly to beat City, there was no one else who could carry the plan out as they did so well, and so City marched forward, far up and away from the rest of the chasing pack. Every week, debated were held as to how early this City side would lift the title, and how many records they’d break en route. City kept grinding out results here and there, and although they were a lot more inconsistent in the second half of the season than they were in the first, they were by far the most worthy of the Premiership crown.
The topic of debates now shifted to whether or not this City side was the greatest team in the history of the Premier League or not. Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles would beg to differ, but when you consider what this City side has achieved this season, with this style of football, the sheer amount and the variety of records broken is unparalleled and unprecedented, and seemingly irreplicable, it would take a very compelling argument to suggest otherwise. That perhaps, is something that should be left open to each one’s perspective.
But to quote Jack Pitt-Brooke, the aim of football is not to avoid defeat, but to win. And no one has done it in the style or the amount that City have this season.
Written by Ayush Verma.