Feature

The matches that defined Man City’s title success

By Ben Bloom 20 May 2024
Haaland, De Bruyne

Ben Bloom relives the key moments as City recorded an unprecedented fourth consecutive league title

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It went down to the wire, uncertain until the final day of the Premier League season.

But eventually Manchester City did what they have done so often in recent years: they won the title.

It was the sixth time Pep Guardiola’s side have been crowned champions in the past seven seasons - and their fourth successive triumph, a record - but it was not without a few hiccups.

Here, Ben Bloom charts the six matches that defined Man City’s journey to yet more Premier League glory.

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As both teams headed off for half-time on the opening day of the Premier League season, Man City manager Guardiola strode purposefully across the pitch towards his star striker Erling Haaland.

Before even reaching the scorer of two first-half goals, Guardiola began berating him.

For what? An ultimately meaningless phase of play at the end of the half.

It was the action of a perfectionist whose impeccable standards know no limits.

In the aftermath of their treble-winning 2022/23 campaign, the usual questions were asked whether City could possibly maintain the remarkable dominance that had seen them crowned Premier League champions three years running.

Club captain Ilkay Gundogan had departed for Barcelona and new signings Mateo Kovacic and Josko Gvardiol had joined, with further incomings to follow.

It took just four minutes at Turf Moor for Guardiola’s side - in particular the previous season’s Castrol Golden Boot winner Haaland - to hit their stride with the first goal of their campaign.

By the time of that Guardiola verbal volley, the Norwegian had already scored another, with Rodri completing the win late on.

The day was not entirely positive, though.

Kevin De Bruyne departed after just 23 minutes with a recurrence of a previous hamstring injury that would keep him out for more than four months.

There was also a 10-minute cameo off the bench for a certain Cole Palmer, in his sole league appearance for City this season before his move to Chelsea.

One that got away? For all that he has since flourished in London, Palmer’s absence has not hindered his old side too much.

The signs were ominous for the other 19 Premier League clubs even back in early August.

By the international break in mid-October, City’s Premier League title charge had hit a bump in the road. A couple of them, actually.

After an unexpected 2-1 defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers in late September, they travelled to Arsenal the following week and lost 1-0.

It was the first time since December 2018 that Guardiola’s side had been beaten in successive Premier League encounters and the back-to-back defeats dropped them to third in the table.

Victories over Brighton & Hove Albion and a 3-0 romp over city rivals Manchester United then preceded a 6-1 thrashing of AFC Bournemouth, which would remain their widest-margin league win of the season and enable them to return to the Premier League summit.

It was eye-catching for a number of reasons.

Haaland, who had scored 11 times in the opening 10 league matches, was notably absent from the scoresheet at the Etihad Stadium as he hobbled off with an ankle issue at half-time.

Five different players stepped up with goals which showcased City's ability to flourish in his absence.

One of them was Jeremy Doku, who, aged 21, became the youngest player in Premier League history to be involved in five goals in a single match, scoring one and assisting a further four.

Doku, a summer signing from Rennes, would not start every encounter of the campaign, often used to inject some impetus off the bench.

But this was the match that both highlighted City’s continued mastery of the transfer market and alerted English football to the talents of the young Belgian.

His combination of pace, trickery and unpredictability showed how useful he would be in City’s successful title defence.

However the joy of the Bournemouth win was short-lived.

Three consecutive draws against Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur followed, before a 1-0 defeat against Aston Villa sent Guardiola’s team tumbling to the relative depths of fourth place by early December.

But no sooner had the slump begun than it was halted.

City did not lose again in the league all season, although that unbeaten run came under serious jeopardy against Newcastle United until the reintroduction of De Bruyne.

The Belgian had returned to action for the first time since picking up an injury on the opening day of the season with an FA Cup cameo at Huddersfield Town a week earlier, but his game-changing capabilities were on full display when he came off the bench after 69 minutes of this Premier League encounter.

At that point, City were 2-1 down and staring at defeat without their absent injured talisman Haaland.

Step forward De Bruyne, who scored a wonderful sweeping goal within five minutes of entering the fray and then produced a beautiful, lofted pass for Oscar Bobb’s stoppage-time winner.

It was a heroic return to top-flight action with a remarkable absence of any rustiness, and it could not have come at a more crucial time.

“Kevin is a legend,” said Guardiola. “We need players like Kevin. That is not tactical ability but talent, individual talent.”

Without it, City’s unbeaten run in 2024 would have ended in their very first outing of the year.

At a club with such riches as Man City, it is difficult enough to gain star billing within your own changing room.

Yet after this comprehensive victory over Man Utd, Guardiola proclaimed Phil Foden not only the best player at his disposal, but “the best player in the Premier League right now”.

The England midfielder scored two second-half goals to secure his team's victory after going behind to an early Marcus Rashford strike, subjecting United to their first league defeat after earning a half-time lead in 144 matches.

Both of Foden’s goals were excellently taken, but it was his all-round game, providing energy and incision at both ends of the pitch, that stood out.

Defying a rallying call from new United co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe in the build-up to the contest, City enjoyed 73 per cent possession and had 27 shots to the visitors’ three.

The victory kept the pressure on then league leaders Liverpool, but it also provided a record-breaking moment for defensive midfielder Rodri, whose run of City matches in all competitions without defeat reached 59 - more than any other player in the Premier League era.

City lost only three top-flight matches all season. Rodri was absent for all of them.

Exactly one month after his victory-inspiring performance against Man Utd, Foden arguably bettered it at home to Villa.

An element of frustration in draws against fellow title-chasers Liverpool and Arsenal in the intervening matches had made little impact on the battle at the top of the table beyond ensuring that Guardiola’s side kept tabs on their rivals.

Now was the time of the season when City have traditionally developed a reputation for putting their foot down and leaving all else in their wake.

This victory over Villa was the first of nine successive league wins to end yet another triumphant campaign.

This fixture between third and fourth in the table showed the gulf between the two sides, with Guardiola able to leave Haaland and De Bruyne on the bench for its entirety with a two-legged UEFA Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid on the horizon.

Without them, Foden produced a masterful hat-trick to take his season’s goal tally to 21 in all competitions.

All facets of his game were on display here, with a smart free-kick for the opener, a superb first-time strike after some Rodri magic for the second, and then a thunderous drive from range after regaining possession moments earlier to seal the hat-trick.

It was the performance of a player who has come of age this season, casting off any thoughts of a talent for the future and cementing his status as one of the world’s best in the current.

The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium background hum was more reminiscent of a cricket test match than a top-flight football match, and it told a story of its own when City visited north London for their penultimate fixture of the Premier League season.

Rarely have a set of supporters found themselves in a more awkward position than the home faithful, who knew that victory for their side would provide arch-rivals Arsenal with a crucial points lead to take into the final day.

That dilemma led to an absence of atmosphere as some Spurs fans seemed to grapple with wanting their team to fail.

For City, the task was much simpler: win the match and earn a two-point advantage at the top of the table to take into their last fixture against West Ham United.

They rarely came close to doing so until Haaland tapped in De Bruyne’s cross six minutes after half-time.

A stoppage-time penalty doubled the Norwegian’s tally but only after substitute goalkeeper Stefan Ortega had provided heroics in keeping out Dejan Kulusevski and Son Heung-min, the latter when through one-on-one.

The sense that victory had allowed City to put one hand on the Premier League Trophy was unavoidable, with captain Kyle Walker celebrating while the match was still ongoing.

The last major hurdle had been overcome and West Ham were incapable of ruining the party on the final day as City cemented their place in history as one of the greatest teams the Premier League has ever seen.

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