For the umpteenth time in just under 80 relentless minutes of action, Manchester City had their Stoke City counterparts exactly where they wanted them. With defenders backpedalling and completely overrun, they were helpless as sky blue shirts queued up to smash home a seventh and final goal in a gruelling, merciless afternoon of football.
City’s 7-2 victory over Stoke that day was the culmination of a mesmeric mid-autumn run which effectively sealed off the title race for all intents and purposes. A ludicrous tally of 24 goals had been scored in just five matches, with Liverpool trounced and Chelsea dominated for good measure. Only two goals had been offered up in reply from shell shocked opponents.
And yet this was no mere purple patch from a group of decent footballers in a collective run of spellbinding form. This felt different and altogether ominous for the rest of the Premier League.
There was something new about how Manchester City and Pep Guardiola were winning football matches in 2017/18. It seemed as though, finally, after a near decade of planning and construction, City’s Abu Dhabi owners finally had their Catalan inspired superstructure in place and were now primed to dominate the league in a way that no other side had previously managed.
City’s plan to lure Pep Guardiola to East Manchester was the worst kept secret in the Premier League. The club had courted the classy Catalan coach since he shocked the world in 2012 with his decision to quit the Camp Nou and take a sabbatical in New York.
Later that year, City appointed Ferran Soriano as their new CEO. Soriano was a dab hand in the world of commerce and revenue growth. However, more importantly, he was a direct link to Guardiola. Having sat on Barcelona’s board of directors during the reign of Joan Laporta, his appointment in Manchester was a not-so-subtle nod and wink from City’s new owners that they coveted Pep’s services.
Sometimes though, money doesn’t always get you what you want. At least not right away at least. Pep spent his time in hipster’s paradise brushing up on his German as he fancied a crack at Bavarian powerhouse Bayern Munich.
It would not be until the summer of 2016 when Pep finally turned up in his predictably dapper suit and advised City supporters to fasten their seat belts for the ride ahead. The super-rich club with ambitions to match the best in the game, finally had the man they knew would elevate them to that pantheon of undisputed greatness.
The allure of Pep is obvious. He was comfortably the best coach in world football, with a style that had been sculpted from his days as a player under the mighty Johan Cruyff. His teams played a brand of possession based football that left opposition players confounded, overwhelmed and run ragged as intricate passing triangles opened up pockets of space around them and created havoc all over the pitch.
Guardiola’s Barcelona team could eviscerate any opposition with endless lateral passing, ceaseless movement and infinite patience before springing a deadly killer pass to open up a defensive line and find a way in. Sir Alex Ferguson described it succinctly enough back in 2009, after the Champions League final:
“They get you on that carousel and they make you dizzy with their passing”
Major honours are the currency that all top managers trade in and Pep was coming to Manchester with a CV that screamed success. Two Champions Leagues, three Fifa Club World Cups and six domestic league titles underscored the greatness that he was bringing with him to the Premier League. City fans were in dreamland.
And yet, as so often has been the case, the English top-flight initially left the Catalan floundering and frustrated. A third place finish, just three ahead of fifth place Arsenal and 15 behind champions Chelsea was compounded by a first ever season without silverware for the sought after coach. The defence was leaky, goalkeeper suspect and not everyone seemed to be taking to the new coach’s methods.
Such a stark and underwhelming bow led to some real knee-jerk disrespect from certain quarters who seemed to revel in the former Barcelona man’s struggles to bed in.
Thankfully the moronic tag of “Fraudiola” only took hold in a few pockets of embittered rival factions. Most could see that Pep had quite the task on his hands, as he tried to move on from the tactically rigid days of Manuel Pelegrini to his fluid mantra that worked off grid systems on the field and endless rondos on the training ground.
By that autumn surge of 2017, it was clear that Guardiola’s message was very obviously sinking in with his new charges.
Often pinpointing the vulnerable spaces between full back and centre half, City would unleash hell on every type of opponent as they went through the gears in 2017/18. Armed with raw pace and aggression via Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane as well as the endless flow of intricate passing from David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne; City were set up for total domination on the field. Teams barely laid a glove on them as they were swept aside by a new breed of top class football that had no equal in the history of the Premier League.
They won the title at a canter, although their intensity never once looked like dropping. Records weren’t just broken, they were trampled. 106 goals scored in a 38 game season, 100 points, 32 wins; this was a new level of elite-level football that nobody had ever seen before. A new standard had been set against which, every future champion would be judged.
It wasn’t just that they were winning with a gorgeous brand of free-flowing attacking football. Arsenal had, of course, mastered that art years before under Arsene Wenger. And it also wasn’t anything to do with a ruthless system that took the league by storm, we had also seen that before with Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2004/05.
What made City so different was their polished refinement on the field as well as their adoption of Pep’s fanatical devotion to covet space above all else. Perfection is an impossibility in football, but City’s brand of football under Pep’s guidance from 2017 is surely the closest we have come to it in the Premier League era.
German playmaker Ilkay Gundogan summed up his new managers ideology in 2016. Having recently linked up with City from Borussia Dortmund, he said:
“He is more like a genius who reads the game and covers every situation imaginable. He is always showing us how to create space and find solutions and there is no manager like him, which makes him probably the best in the world.”
Man City found a way to win games with complete and utter domination in a way that no previous Premier League champion had quite mastered. Manchester United had dominated through a sheer will win to win rather than a devotion to total football. As did Chelsea under Jose Mourinho. Arsenal changed English football with their artistry, but it was City in 2017/18 who raised the bar higher than it had ever gone before.
The quality at which they could rapidly deconstruct virtually any side was striking and frankly daunting for the rest of the league. Only Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, with their creed of chaos and pressing have gotten close to City in recent seasons, and even they have had to exponentially raise their game to a level which is perhaps unparalleled even in their own rich history.
Another final haul of 98 points last season proved Pep’s side was here to stay. As they lifted the title again in May 2019, they had won a ridiculous 64 of their previous 76 league matches. A new era of stylish, imposing football had been ushered in that will leave an indelible mark on the long and distinguished history of the Premier League.