Why Man City can become the greatest champions of all

By Patrick Barclay 21 May 2023
Manchester City v Chelsea FC - Premier League

Patrick Barclay on how Man City can overtake Man Utd and others after securing a fifth title in six seasons

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At an earlier stage of the season, during which it seemed likely Manchester City would surrender their Premier League title to a repeatedly resourceful and resilient Arsenal, it was surmised that Pep Guardiola’s tactical and technical demands were putting too much pressure on his players.

What nonsense! Guardiola was putting just the right amount of pressure on his men - much as Sir Alex Ferguson did for so many years on the other side of Manchester, with similar success.

Stringing titles in the Premier League era is a matter, at least for these most prolific managers (Ferguson won 13 over a twenty-year period, Guardiola has claimed his fifth in six years), of constant questioning and reinvention.

Look back at Ferguson’s first great team. By 1993/94 it was rolling off the tongue: Peter Schmeichel, Paul Parker, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Denis Irwin, Andrei Kanchelskis, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs.

Two years later Kanchelskis, Paul Ince and Mark Hughes had made way for David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the rest of Alan Hansen’s “kids” as Manchester United usurped Blackburn Rovers. And by the end of the decade Ferguson had redefined the traditional team game as a squad game, in the process becoming performers of a then-unique Treble.

Recognise a pattern? It will certainly be apparent if City emulate Ferguson’s 1999 feat by overcoming Man Utd in the FA Cup final and then Inter in Istanbul.

But we can already detect similarities with Ferguson’s understanding of evolution in how Guardiola changed his 2021/22 title squad by trading in three members. It may have seemed bold to sell Gabriel Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Raheem Sterling - especially when the first two were threatening to become champions with his former assistant Mikel Arteta - but City have developed without them was obvious in the second-leg rout of Real Madrid that carried them to the UEFA Champions League final.

Exceptional quality was confirmed that night at the Etihad. City’s positional play was so good their passes seemed incapable of going astray. Every space into which Real sought to venture was pre-booked by a blue shirt.

Was John Stones at the back or in midfield? Both. The mind again strayed back, but now to a time when Guardiola was confounding Ferguson with Barcelona, their right to possession underwritten by the patrols of Sergio Busquets.

We used to think English players could not adapt, but Guardiola has demanded that Stones apply his talent to a special role and the man from Barnsley has complied consummately. Next season, no doubt, it will be something, or someone, else.

Merely adding the delicious skills of Julian Alvarez to an array already featuring my perennial player of the season, Kevin De Bruyne, and Bernardo Silva and the rest, and the terrifying presence of Erling Haaland, will not be enough for Guardiola.

We have already dealt with the theory of him overthinking the job. Another is that this City, with their pass-pass-pass mentality, are in some way boring. Certainly by comparison with Jurgen Klopp’s heavy-metal Liverpool. You hear it a lot.

I think this tells us more about the critics than anything else. Did we not hope, when City recruited Guardiola, that he would build a new Barcelona in England’s green and pleasant land? And has he not - short of cloning Lionel Messi - performed such a miracle?

To have come out top (so far) in a rivalry with Klopp’s Liverpool, who themselves qualified to carry the Premier League banner to the climax of the European season just a year ago, is the mark of City’s greatness under Guardiola.

True, the club won titles in style under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, but only under Guardiola have they proceeded to cast an intimidating shadow as Ferguson once did, or Arsene Wenger, or Jose Mourinho for a shorter spell at Chelsea.

City’s ascendant status in the decade after the Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008 was founded on not just financial power but astute recruitment exemplified by five outstanding players: David Silva, Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Fernandinho.

All except Toure contributed to Guardiola’s first two titles in 2017/18, when De Bruyne helped the club to complete the League’s maiden century of points and to set another record by scoring 106 goals, and 2018/19, when again they outscored all opposition with an exceptional average of four goals to one conceded. But the latter triumph was achieved by just one point over Liverpool, who had lost only one match in the season, and the threat from Klopp’s men was duly carried out in the ensuing campaign.

City have since kept the title while continuing the transition that has culminated in the football that now threatens to spread their supremacy across Europe - not for the first time but, it can be sensed, not for the last either.

Silva, Aguero
Silva (left) and Aguero (right) are two of City's greatest ever players who helped them to so much success under Guardiola

Yet greatness cannot wholly be based on substance; otherwise we could merely do the sums and deem Chelsea in Mourinho’s first season the most emphatic Premier League champions yet with a goal average of nearly five to one based on the 15 conceded by a defence marshalled by John Terry.

Not that there was anything wrong with the balance Mourinho achieved, for it brought another title to Stamford Bridge. Nor was this side unattractive. But there was surely a greater thrill to be had at Highbury in the last years of Arsenal’s former home.

I preferred the 2001/02 champions to the Invincibles two years later, for Dennis Bergkamp was at his peak, dictating a style that brought Thierry Henry so many glorious goals on a pitch so fast and football-friendly that sometimes in the press box I could feel nothing more than sympathy for the near-helpless opposition.

I certainly feel it when De Bruyne and Haaland get into their stride at the Etihad and the poor visitors, whoever they are - whether United, who shed six last October, or Real Madrid - are frightened to look at the scoreboard. When style and substance are fused, you have true greatness - and that is why this Man City can go on to prove themselves the greatest champions of all.

Patrick Barclay spent 40 years covering football for a succession of national newspapers including The Guardian, The Independent, The Sunday Telegraph and The Times. He had already been to two World Cups when the Premier League started and went on to attend seven more, plus countless other football events at home and overseas. 

Also in this series

Part 1: Man City are 2022/23 champions after Arsenal defeat
Part 3: Man City lift Premier League Trophy after beating Chelsea
Part 4: In pictures: Man City's title celebrations
Part 5: Haaland: Thirty-six goals and a PL Trophy, not a bad start
Part 6: Gundogan: Fightback made this title special
Part 7: Guardiola: Team deserve celebration after my demands
Part 8: How Guardiola's tactics have evolved during his reign at City
Part 9: The matches that defined Man City's title triumph

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