If you haven’t yet read parts one and/or two of this series, you can go back and get the full story by clicking on the links below…
When books are written about Manchester City’s extraordinary 2017/18 campaign there will naturally be certain key games that warrant chapters of their own.
September’s 5-0 deconstruction of Liverpool will be in there for sure, a one-sided contest full of enthralling controversy but much more than that, a declaration of independence from City. This year they were going to do things strictly on their own terms and their terms were bold and innovative and beautiful. Maybe even unstoppable.
The two league fixtures that followed produced 11 goals without reply, and then came champions Chelsea at the Bridge and a 90 minute domination that astounded all who saw it. It was a complete performance full of fluid movement and intricate pinball passing in possession and intensive, suffocating pressing when denied their rightful ball. Nobody bossed Chelsea around in their own back yard. Yet City did.
A fortnight later, post an international break, Stoke arrived at the Etihad armed with the age-old game-plan when a team faces a superior side away from home of defending in numbers then committing men forward on the break. It was to be the last time such conventional means were deployed against this unconventional creation.
With a record number of points being accrued and the title secured at its earliest juncture the talk in the present is where this Manchester City side should be placed in the pantheon of post-war great teams and for me personally I can’t help but think back to the sublime Liverpool side of the late 80s. Because that was the last time an 11 wasn’t simply the best by some margin over its contemporaries but very different from them too. And when I think back to that era I recall two specific games, namely a 5-0 walloping of Nottingham Forest and a 9-0 enactment of sheer cruelty on Crystal Palace.
Through a multitude of elements all coming together at the same time – elements that can be simplified to the right opponents who had the right limitations facing a majestic side at just the right trajectory of their powers – these two games acted as devastating demonstrations of Barnes’ brilliance and Beardsley’s impish scampering. They were exhibition fare. They were peak Liverpool. They were perfect storms.
I believe in years to come City’s 7-2 thrashing of Stoke will be viewed in a similar manner. The football on display that afternoon was little short of gorgeous and better yet everything that was attempted came off best illustrated by two assists from Kevin De Bruyne that demanded ten replays just to make them mortal. In the eye of this particular perfect storm the Ginger Prince performed magic.
But we will get to the bewitching Belgian shortly – how can we not? In the meantime we must return to pivotal games and two that won’t have chapters allocated to them but absolutely should.
Raheem Sterling’s 96th minute winner that broke Southampton’s stubborn resistance in late November was so much more meaningful than a late, late securement of three points. By now opponents had given up trying to solve City’s puzzles and had taken to lying en masse across the 18-yard line in the shape of the foetal position and what Sterling’s curled effort highlighted (his second last-gasp winner within a week, incidentally) was that even this approach was futile. Dare to leave gaps and City would pulverise you. Form a carapace and they would chip, chip, chip away until it eventually cracked.
More significant than even this, though, was the spirit that was evident because ultimately wonderful football will only get you so far: there has to be passion behind the passing. The wild celebrations that followed the strike included injured left-back Benjamin Mendy hobbling 50 yards down the touchline on his crutches to join in and it was notable throughout the campaign that every goal-scorer’s first instinct was to seek out his provider.
Then there was the other kind of spirit: the leap of faith in Pep’s ways that saw his players refuse to lump it long as the minutes dwindled to the referee’s discretion. That such belief and courage in something so commendable was rewarded arguably make’s Sterling’s winner against the Saints the most defining moment of the season right across the board.
For the last key game we go right back almost to the beginning, to the second half against Everton at the Etihad in August. Three minutes before the break, Kyle Walker had been harshly dismissed and with the Blues already a goal down their backs would surely be to the wall for the duration of the contest.
Yet instead City emerged and appeared to have a man advantage, a positional masterclass that perplexed the Everton players who were understandably looking forward to a bit of breathing space during the second period. Instead they were swamped throughout with City always having a player spare despite being a man deprived. An equaliser followed and frankly, by the end, the visitors were extremely fortunate that it remained only a draw.
This commanding appreciation of movement reminded many Blues of a Champions League clash with Bayern Munich in 2014 that saw Moroccan centre-back Medhi Benatia sent off after 20 minutes with Sergio Aguero scoring from the resulting penalty. By half-term the Germans were 2-1 up.
It was utterly perplexing that evening how Bayern’s ten men appeared to be 12. The coach of course presiding over the patterns from the touchline was Pep Guardiola.
How does he do it? Well, as with most aspects of Guardiola’s genius the answer lies on the training pitch with a reverential adherence to a pitch separated into 20 grids and each player drilled to intuition into knowing their duties within those grids. It’s how he has always worked only here in England there was a compromise to the grid laid out for Xavi and co at Barcelona: now wider areas were prioritised; away from the congestion and the blood and thunder of Premier League midfields.
The grid – along with the endless rondos perfected in training and the ethos that every attack should start with at least 15 passes so as to disorganise the opposition – lies at the heart of City’s astonishing transformation from a side that finished 15 points behind Chelsea in 2016/17 to one that has set the bar of domestic football one rung higher than before.
It was in place last season of course. All of it was. Only then the complicated template was alien to the players; it had yet to be absorbed, ingrained. Furthermore with a roster of aging full-backs it could not be implemented to an optimal standard. The blueprint was flawed.
And because of this the defence was exposed and because the defence was exposed the midfield had to compensate. Subsequently positives became negatives because an undermined Guardiola set-up is just a very attacking line-up with all the frailties that possesses.
A year on and what Guardiola envisioned could now be realised. Ederson’s distribution was a first line of attack and adventurous to boot. The powerful and pacy Walker and Mendy (soon after a reimagined Fabian Delph which again shows the immense value in having a system implanted that the squad knows by heart) could bomb down the flanks while the other tucked inside inverted.
As for the defence while each individual has been superb either in chunks or wholesale their consistency has become less of an issue simply due to there being not much one-on-one defending to do.
City’s overall possession in 2017/18 exceeds 71% and as one Premier League chairman bemoaned to a Sunday Times journalist earlier this year – “You only get seven or eight chances to get at them and even then they foul you for four or five of those”. Ah tactical fouling: a cliché but pertinent all the same and one of those books I mentioned at the very start really should be called ‘Beautiful Landscapes and Dark Arts’.
I fibbed further up. There was another key game to City’s season only this time it didn’t feature them at all. Two weeks after the Everton draw Guardiola watched Belgium demolish Gibraltar 9-0 and though he’d always known that Kevin De Bruyne would end up central as a number 8 his performance for his country in that role convinced him that the time was right. A discussion was had with his star pupil, a switch was made from a back three, and from that moment Manchester City went from being extremely good to amazing.
De Bruyne had played there before, last season; that should be noted, but it is no coincidence that his first outing in the heart of midfield, driving, scheming, and organising but now with a souped-up supporting cast around him was against Liverpool, a fixture that could be deemed to be the club’s launchpad to the stratosphere this term.
In a very short period of time De Bruyne became everything; the team’s creator but also eyes, ears and mass of brain-cells. Frankly what he did prior to Christmas was so next level that he almost single-handed ended a title race in its infancy. As for Pep he now had his Messi in the middle.
So has Pep Guardiola reinvented English football this season? If what you have witnessed these past ten months hasn’t persuaded you then 1,500 words here certainly won’t. But I will leave you with this: Kevin De Bruyne, City’s orchestrator-in-chief with – to quote Martin Keown – a foot like a paintbrush, has made more tackles this year than any of his team-mates. Nicolas Otamendi meanwhile, the hardened warrior, has made the most passes.
It’s football, pure and stunning football, just not as we previously knew it to be.