Pep Guardiola and Manchester City’s sky blue will define this era | Manchester City
IIt seemed fitting for Manchester City to come back from the brink as they did, with Ilkay Gündogan hovering like a technically adept little vengeful phoenix to hurl his header very carefully into the top corner of the Aston Villa net. That’s how they do it here. Not with more heat, more blood, more chaos; but with sharper lines, greater clarity, an extremely precise red haze.
Within six minutes of that opening act, Pep Guardiola’s champions had completed the most beautifully ordered emergency comeback in English football history. And there’s something really fearless about being able to play football that way, to become more and not less of yourself when the pulse is racing, time is running out, the world is closing in on you.
It was also fitting that Gündogan, Guardiola’s first signing at City, scored the title goal, his second of the game: and that Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne were there to pull the strings, both present for Guardiola. all the time in England.
At the end of which, and for all the nice margins, it’s the most definitive of title wins. City have scored more goals, made more assists and had more ball possession than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues this season.
João Cancelo, Rodri and Aymeric Laporte made more assists than anyone else in the English top flight (Cancelo, a versatile influence, was also top 10 in tackles, dribbles and interceptions and 12th in shoot to the net).
It’s been a kind of total football, the dominance of every metric, a sky blue wash applied to every surface of elite English football. At the end of which, it’s also a good time to take a breather. There’s no suggestion that Guardiola intends to leave when his contract expires next year but some things will change now. The key players in this group are reaching their peak. Some will leave in the summer. The arrival of Erling Haaland suggests another type of reconstruction in perspective.
And, looking back, Guardiola’s first six years at City have their own very distinct tone and texture. Zoom out to understand the tactics, structure and ownership model, to how internet tribalism in its own right became an aspect of football fandom, and there’s reason to believe that Manchester City of the Pep era is the most transformative element. in the modern history of English football.
Two things seem pretty clear. First of all, it was a dizzying success. Four titles in six years: Even removing the Premier League bounty that says what just happened is the only thing that has ever happened is one of the great winning eras in English football history .
On pure numbers, Guardiola is now tied with Kenny Dalglish and Herbert Chapman, one behind Matt Busby, two behind Bob Paisley and, like everyone else, nowhere near Alex Ferguson’s tally of 13.
Factor in the shortness of its duration and the intensity of its influence and Guardiola starts to look like something even more substantial. He is now part of a small group – Chapman, Busby, Bill Shankly and Arsene Wenger come to mind – whose success has also changed the way football is played, coached and understood in this country.
This tactical influence is the most obvious part of Pep’s supremacy. In his time, English football shifted dramatically towards the style of possession, the primacy of technique, the Catalan-Dutch obsession with the ball that is best embodied in Guardiola’s own evolving side.
Simply put, the season before he arrived, City scored 71 goals and passed the ball 20,488 times. In the just-concluded winning season, they scored 99 goals and made 26,132 assists.
It is easy to take for granted the influence exerted during this period. Inverted wingers, false 9s, errant full-backs, ball-loving goalkeepers: Pep has been the biggest driver of integrating these elements into the internal language of English football, as even rookie English managers will talk about their “philosophy” (love of knowledge) and accept the idea of coaching as a course, an intellectual discipline.
Step back and it seems comical that in 2016 there is still a small island hostile to this unproven underdog (two Champions Leagues). The press conference at the King Power Stadium after a 4-2 loss to Leicester City in December 2016, when Guardiola asked ‘what are tackles?’, has now become quiet legend; a football version of the Sex Pistols playing at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976, a gunshot type affair to wake the world up.
At the time, there was a certain mockery. Fast forward five and a half years and it is remarkable to see the influence that constant exposure to the Guardiola style has had. From a national team defined in its 140-year history by straight play and physicality, but now reconfigured to fetishize possession and patience; right down to the rhythms of park football, where local under-11s will play an orderly passing game, where parents will yell to press and not send it long, where short passes will be applauded performatively.
Much of this was already happening before Guardiola, but his presence supercharged him. He was right too. City have made 300 fewer tackles this season than the year before he joined, when he finished fourth behind Arsenal and Spurs.
There are of course other facets to this transformation. Nation-state ownership of the city is now 14 years old. No one was prepared for the changes brought about by this entirely different model, this entirely different set of motivations. In many ways, it’s just the real world creeping in. English culture, commerce, economics, even language has always been a magpie thing, a matter of import/export, borrowed talents, borrowed influences.
This has been greatly accelerated by globalization. Qatar has the tallest building in England. Abu Dhabi owns Manchester City. The project is in its own way a modern economic marvel: new spaces, new terrain, new team, new style, new gravity.
But it also deserves to be judged as something more than a collection of buildings and a payroll. The sports infrastructure is fragile. And while many other teams have tried to carve their way to success over the same period, superpower City has been to step into elite sport with the coherence of an overt political project, backed by bottomless reservations, extreme executive skill and a willingness to litigate.
In many ways, their success may seem mundane from the outside: hiring the best talent, spending the most money, eliminating the standard desperation of conflicting egos, the lust for fame, nepotism, incompetence.
It’s part of Guardiola’s brilliance, cutting edge and sometimes self-destructive obsession that under his hand this project has remained both beautiful and something that still feels like sport.
City are exceptional title winners for many reasons. More obviously because they ended up with one point more than a brilliant Liverpool side. But that was also their era, in the broadest sense.