It is November 21st 2020 and Manchester City have meekly lost 2-0 at Spurs, a defeat that leaves them languishing 13th in the Premier League table. Having only won three of their opening eight fixtures the Blues are surely out of the title reckoning even if an eight-point gap to leaders Liverpool is bridgeable. Performances don’t lie. Circumstances don’t lie. Narratives are very rarely wrong.
It’s a narrative that informs us that Liverpool will romp to a consecutive Premier League crown though some hold out hope that Tottenham can last the distance or maybe Leicester might pull off a second miracle in five years.
As for Man City, watching the players trudge off the pitch in North London it’s hard not to think of the last days of Rome; if not the end of an era but the bleak, drawn-out beginning of the end. For too long now City have been toothless up front, a deficiency not helped by having their prolific figurehead Sergio Aguero out with a long-term injury. Their ten league goals at this stage of the campaign is a decade-long low. Worse yet, infinitely worse yet, City have become something that is anathema to any Pep Guardiola creation: they are, more times than not, predictable.
What needs stating and unconditionally so, is that this is not simply a poor start for the Blues but a continuation of a decline that reduced this recently extraordinary team to a shadow of their former self last term. After two years of scaling rarefied heights and transforming English football for the better – accruing cool nicknames such as the Fourmidables and Centurions along the way – Manchester City lost just shy of a quarter of their league commitments in 2019/20, undone by a defence that was susceptible to mishap and a creative department that was visibly wearied. By the season’s end they trailed to a rampant red machine by 18 points.
Last summer all the talk was of a need to overhaul this burnt-out squad but from their three signings only one – Ruben Dias – was making any form of impact. Frankly, they were done.
There is something else that needs stating and unconditionally so, because how soon we forget and how soon we form a new truth to overlay an old one. But at the tail-end of November, with over a fifth of the season underway, nobody was saying that City were destined to win the league title this year. That their triumph was all so expected because of their ‘big’ squad and lavish spending. That it is an unlevel playing field. City, universally and by every conceivable metric, had been written off.
It is March 2nd 2021 and City have just convincingly won their fifteenth straight league game in a row. During this incredible run, that began all the way back prior to Christmas, Guardiola’s reconstructed and thoroughly revitalized side have been breached on only five occasions, a ratio of a goal every four and a half hours across a three-month period that can be chiefly credited to an immense centre-back partnership of Dias and John Stones that gains an incalculable number of headlines.
Upfront meanwhile is a funky forward-less system that bamboozles opponents; a fluid, unorthodox and innovative means of attack that will no doubt be copied by countless other teams next season just like every other Guardiola conception has been. And in between an impenetrable back-line and a dove-tailing front three City suffocate all before them. They control every aspect of any given game no matter the quality or ambition of the opposition.
Chelsea forlornly chase shadows at Stamford Bridge. Liverpool are humbled at Anfield, appearing one-dimensional and almost obsolete by way of comparison. It is, all told, a quite staggering turn-around in fortunes and arguably we have witnessed such remarkable transformations before but always over a summer or with the arrival of a new manager. With the same man at the helm and with a season of struggle long underway? No, never.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) May 11, 2021
So how was it done, this unparalleled metamorphosis? Naturally, the players deserve some of the plaudits, with the aforementioned Dias and Stones consistently magnificent while first Ilkay Gundogan and later Phil Foden became the creative catalyst for a team reborn. An impromptu meeting of the squad organized by the seasoned Fernandino over the new year has also been attributed as a motivating cause.
But really it’s Guardiola isn’t it? The artful architect who apparently cannot lay claim to being the best coach of his generation until he’s won things on a shoestring in League Two. It is he who masterminded City’s unlikeliest charge to a fifth Premier League title, dominating all-comers into submission, all-comers who only a few months earlier regarded his team to be a soft touch. And what’s more, as bold a claim as this is, it could be reasoned that by doing so, it should go down as the greatest achievement of his managerial career.
Which, of course, is not to diminish the wondrous and shiny edifice he built at Camp Nou but there he was a young man with a lifetime of ideas to impart and the bright, eager minds of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. Here he was jaded. Despondent. Perhaps even a little set in his ways.
Yet he had the humility, this grandiose genius, to reimagine what he knew to be great. He ripped up his beloved blueprint and started again, going back to absolute basics. A solid defence gave his side a solid grounding. Players were instructed to pass in a more straightforward manner. Safer, ensuring possession was retained. They were ordered too to run with less intensity.
In a Covid world he did this, with scant time to drill his new methodology on the training pitch, and perhaps the most striking aspect of City’s astonishing and dramatic evolution is the curveball we were thrown, one that we should all be talking about in relation to Manchester City’s league success instead of bitterly – and so very wrongly – attempting to belittle that success as inevitable.
Because last summer all the talk was of City’s need for an overhaul. In the event, the most magical, fascinating, and undoubtedly greatest coach of this, or any other generation, overhauled himself.