For long stretches of the 2022/23 season Arsenal looked destined to win their first title in 19 years. Yet by the time Manchester City sealed their fifth crown in six seasons it was clear Pep Guardiola’s team were far ahead of their nearest rivals, and even candidates to be considered the greatest ever Premier League side.
The road to this point has not been smooth. Alex Keble looks at how Guardiola assembled his boldest and most unusual team yet and how, faced with the challenge of moulding his new striker to the Man City style, Erling Haaland ultimately changed how Guardiola sees the game.
Cast your mind back to August and recall that not everyone was convinced Guardiola had acted wisely in the summer.
It was extremely bold to allow Oleksandr Zinchenko, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling to depart while tearing down his "false nine" system to accommodate the most un-Guardiola-like striker imaginable, Haaland. And at half-time against Crystal Palace scepticism was justified.
Man City were trailing 2-0 for the fourth time in six league matches, including their final two matches of the previous season against West Ham United and Aston Villa. They had, once again, looked ponderous on the ball and stumped by an opposition low block. Haaland was stifled in a crowded penalty area and City had no point of difference – no incisive runner like Sterling, no weaving No 9 like Jesus – to shuffle the deck.
Maybe this would not be their season. Maybe Haaland would need a year to settle in and Man City a year to learn how to adapt to a radically-altered tactical set-up.
Nope. A second-half hat-trick from Haaland and a goal for Bernardo Silva reminded us of City’s remarkable strength in depth as second-half changes from Guardiola unlocked the Palace defence. Deploying Kyle Walker and Silva in central midfield hadn’t worked, but with both players now roaming out to the right flank Man City found a way of working around Palace’s narrow defensive shell.
It was a vital turnaround without which Man City might – with seven points from four matches – have struggled to recover.
Still, even at the final whistle there was some concern about how Guardiola could keep City in control of matches with Haaland up front. There was plenty of hard work ahead.
Haaland is very good at the things he supposedly isn’t very good at. That was the conclusion from a nine-goal Manchester derby that, despite the wild scoreline, was an emphatic victory for the hosts and proof beyond doubt Haaland did not need a period of adaptation.
Hat-trick aside, Haaland was everywhere, dropping between the lines to link the play, confounding Christian Eriksen and Scott McTominay as he took 32 touches (his highest in a City shirt at the time) and completed six progressive passes (still his season best).
But it wasn’t all about Haaland. In the story of Man City’s season this was the first example of a more rounded side capable of scoring in a variety of ways: from corners, from quick counters, or – and this was new – from Jack Grealish stealing the show like he did in his Aston Villa days.
In the derby, Grealish finally arrived. He produced a season-high 10 shot-creating actions, gave Diogo Dalot a torrid afternoon, and frequently roamed into central areas, finally unshackled from the more rigid positions he was taking up in 2021/22.
It felt as if Grealish had learnt, internalised and integrated the complex demands of his manager to the point where he was now free to improvise within that structure. Haaland was settling well and Grealish was dancing into space. Suddenly Guardiola’s left turn towards florid superstars made perfect sense.
And yet, another three goals conceded meant 13 from 11 in all competitions since the beginning of the season. The defensive side of things – the full-backs conundrum – still needed solving.
When things weren’t clicking, when vulnerabilities at the back still left us a little unsure, Man City needed to show they could win ugly. It took a 95th-minute penalty from Haaland, on as a substitute, to beat Fulham after Joao Cancelo’s red card and penalty concession in the first half left Man City scrambling to avoid more dropped points.
The late winner had been coming, Antonee Robinson’s clumsy challenge on Kevin De Bruyne the result of increasingly desperate defending from the visitors as 10-man Man City pinned Fulham back and took the direct route to goal.
Haaland's late penalty winner v Fulham
De Bruyne attempted 13 crosses in total, reflecting another of the ways Haaland’s arrival had triggered a slight change for the better. Now, City had the weapon required to hurl the ball into the box and provide late, late drama.
“We know [Haaland’s] quality," Guardiola said. "We cannot play a 'false nine' with him and we have to adapt some movements. He has to get the balls delivered as much as possible.”
One month after the FIFA World Cup final, Man City still didn’t look quite right. Seven points from their last five matches was a wobble they could ill afford and, 2-0 down to Tottenham Hotspur at half-time, they were about to give Arsenal an 11-point lead at the season’s halfway mark.
The hero this time was Riyad Mahrez. His dribble down the right created Julian Alvarez’s goal, the first of the comeback, before Mahrez assisted Haaland for the equaliser and then scored twice himself. What we had witnessed here, though we didn’t know it at the time, was the beginning of a new approach for Man City in the final third.
Guardiola found out that to counter-balance the speed and directness of Haaland, and to make up for the loss of touches that a "false nine" used to provide in the build-up, he needed wingers on each side who would slow the game right down.
From here on in, Mahrez and Grealish would regularly play together, both taking lots of touches, waiting for their team-mates to get into position (and therefore shield against counter-attacks) while dragging defenders towards them – and away from Haaland.
Did Arsenal lose control of the title race when they drew three times in a row before the 4-1 defeat at the Etihad Stadium in April? In hindsight, the real momentum in shift came two months earlier, when the Gunners were unfortunate to face their title rivals at a similar moment of weakness.
Arsenal had begun to feel the absence of the injured Jesus, losing 1-0 at Everton and drawing 1-1 with Brentford, as Man City moved within three points of the league leaders before this six-pointer in mid-February.
Once again, it was a match that highlighted the journey Haaland and Man City were on.
Throughout the second third of the Premier League season, Guardiola gradually began to incorporate more direct moves, playing to Haaland’s strengths by giving his team unprecedented freedom to sprint straight towards goal after winning the ball, rather than recycling possession as they historically had done.
This was the pinnacle of that process, with all three Man City goals coming from turnovers high up the pitch. The crucial second goal, scored by Grealish, simply would not have happened in 2021/22. Bernardo Silva won possession on the halfway line and, with one through ball, set Haaland running. Two passes later City were 2-1 up.
All of the highlights from our huge win against Arsenal! 😍 pic.twitter.com/0ZtDndq7gj— Manchester City (@ManCity) February 16, 2023
The last time Man City dropped points in the Premier League was in February, in a 1-1 draw with Nottingham Forest. After that, they became a winning machine, surgically dismantling teams, and it was only then that the season really turned in their favour.
Technically that winning run started at AFC Bournemouth, but spiritually it was at Selhurst Park, where the importance of Haaland’s decisive 78th-minute penalty was trumped only by Guardiola’s tactical tweak of putting John Stones in central midfield and doing away with full-backs altogether.
The transition since then has been so complete that most now list City’s starting formation as a back three. That’s because, while Cancelo or Rico Lewis had been slipping into central midfield at various points this season, Stones at Palace was the first time City’s supposed "full-backs" never overlapped in the final third.
Playing four centre-backs, with one shuttling into midfield, might just be Guardiola’s most outlandish tactical innovation to date, but it has worked. The 3-2 shape at the back has freed his midfielders (usually De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan) to get even higher, effectively recreating the "W-M" formation (3-2-2-3) that was common in the 1930s.
In the W-M, the two No 8s could give closer support to Haaland, ensuring he was isolated less often, while also making runs ahead of Grealish and Mahrez. It meant the City wingers no longer had to attempt to beat a full-back every time they got the ball.
The final nail in Arsenal’s coffin was not just a resounding win for Man City but a victory lap of sorts: the coming-together of every element into a complete whole, a Bingo card of Guardiola’s various tactical tweaks.
City scored from a fast and direct attack through De Bruyne and Haaland, which showcased the latter’s newfound ability to link the play; from a De Bruyne cross to the new star Stones; from a high turnover; and finally via Haaland, letting his hair down to add the flourish to a perfect debut campaign in England.
The only thing missing was the use of centre-backs moved into central midfield. Guardiola sprang a surprise with a more traditional formation to unsettle Arsenal, sitting off slightly so his team could evade the Arsenal press and attack directly in behind.
That reversion to "normal" full-backs showed us that, thanks to Haaland’s introduction and the various changes his integration has required, Man City are now capable of playing in too many different styles and formations for anyone to track.
They are the complete team and possibly the greatest the Premier League has ever seen. Looking back from the finish line, it turns out the problem of how to adapt to Haaland wasn’t a problem at all, but rather inspiration for Guardiola to reach even greater heights.
Also in this series
Part 1: Man City are 2022/23 champions after Arsenal defeat
Part 2: Why Man City can become the greatest champions of all
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