How Man City dominated English soccer
It’s a fantastic achievement for City manager Guardiola, who ended his first year in England without silverware — his only failure to win a trophy since his managerial career started back in 2007.
Fast-forward 12 months and Guardiola’s City side has achieved a domestic double, adding the Premier League to the League Cup they won in February.
City has looked in a class of its own during the season and has only lost two league games — to Liverpool and Manchester United — and Guardiola’s men have been scoring nearly three goals a game.
They are on course to break a whole host of records including the most points, most wins, most goals scored and biggest winning margin in a season.
“It just seems like all the players, whether they’re fighting for each other, whether they’re fighting for the manager, or they’re fighting for the club, the results are coming,” says Mike Fairclough, a City season ticket holder since 1999.
“Obviously it’s very easy to enjoy football when you’re winning but it just seems like there’s a lot more team spirit and identity about the place and that’s because of the manager in my opinion.”
Guardiola’s football philosophy centers on the idea of “juego de posicion” or positional play.
It’s a philosophy that served Guardiola well during his spells at Bayern Munich and Barcelona — he won a remarkable 21 trophies in eight seasons — and splits the pitch into 20 zones, five vertical spaces and four horizontal spaces.
No more than three players are allowed in any horizontal space and no more than two in any vertical space, meaning players must constantly be aware of where they are on the pitch.
The system is designed to constantly provide space for the man on the ball, or for a player in space to receive a pass.
“When they build up play on the left, [the full-back] comes into central midfield and (Leroy) Sane stays way out wide and pins the full-back there.
“It causes dilemmas, it causes an overload in midfield.”
The numbers City has posted this season haven’t come by accident. Guardiola learned from his first season in English soccer, convinced he didn’t have the players to implement his tactical ideas.
Benfica goalkeeper Ederson Moraes was bought for $50 million. As well as being exceptional with his feet, the Brazilian is equally adept at keeping the ball out of the net. City have kept 15 clean sheets.
“With Ederson in goal … he kind of takes the ball under pressure and move it around the back four and what that’s done is that it’s just enabled City to play a lot more than they were doing last season,” Dave Mooney, host of Blue Moon, a Manchester City fan podcast, told CNN Sport.
Guardiola also shipped out aging defenders, Aleksandar Kolorov, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta.
Another $176 million was invested on defenders Danilo, Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker. All technically gifted, agile and fast, this trio was also a lot younger than their defensive predecessors.
“I think the biggest thing that Guardiola has done is reduce the age of the squad,” says City supporter Fairclough.
“I think that has impacted everything so much. Not even necessarily just on the pitch, absolutely everything. Team spirit I think is the biggest thing that under him that has changed so much.”
Reducing the age of the squad has also breathed new life into City’s veteran players.
Fernandinho, who turns 33 in May, has been the midfield lynchpin, much in the same way as Sergio Busquets was for Guardiola’s Barcelona team.
“I think I’d go as far as saying if you didn’t want to lose on outfield player this season it probably would be him,” says Fairclough, referring to the Brazilian midfielder.
Fernandinho’s positional reading of the game has freed up Silva, 32, who has been nominated for player of the year, to wreak havoc against opposition defenses.
“Silva’s role’s changed, he’s moved deeper which to be honest I’ve been looking forward to for years because he’s that intelligent,” Fairclough says.
Sergio Aguero, City’s all-time leading goal scorer and still only 29, has enjoyed another fruitful year, contributing 21 goals. The Argentine has become a better all-round player under Guardiola this season.
Meanwhile the younger members of the squad have flourished. Wingers Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane have contributed 26 goals between them this season and Kevin De Bruyne has also been nominated for Player of the Year, playing deeper this season alongside Silva in those half-spaces.
“[De Bruyne’s] had the game in front of him a lot more this season and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that his form has improved,” Fairclough says.
However, despite their domination, it’s arguable questions still remain over Pep’s side.
Before their Champions League quarterfinal tie against Liverpool, City were being talked about as potentially the greatest team of the Premier League era. But, three defeats in a week and being knocked out of Europe has changed that thinking.
City lost both quarterfinal legs against Liverpool, and those defeats have once again brought Guardiola’s European record under scrutiny.
Since winning two European Cups in his three seasons with Barcelona, a pattern has seemingly emerged with Guardiola’s Bayern and City sides starting their domestic campaigns incredibly strongly and then tiring by the time they get to the business end of the season.
In his three years in Germany, Pep reached the semifinals of the Champions League each year before falling short, despite running away with the Bundesliga title every season.
City has fared worse in the Champions League. In Guardiola’s first season, they were knocked out in the last 16 by Monaco on away goals before this season’s 5-1 aggregate defeat to Liverpool.
Despite having spent $373 million last year and assembling the most expensive soccer team in the history of the game — valued at over $1 billion — Guardiola still has a lot to ponder going into next season.
The biggest one is the defense. Captain Vincent Kompany is City’s most consistent center-back but has just turned 32 and the Belgian is constantly blighted by fitness concerns.
His fellow center-backs Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones are still prone to errors and January recruit Aymeric Laporte has played the majority of games out of position since he came in.
Guardiola also faces problems at left-back. Benjamin Mendy’s has just returned from a cruciate ligament injury that he sustained early in the season, and while he has been out, City has looked a little exposed in the big games.
Silva, and Fernandinho, two of City’s most important players are also now approaching the twilight of their careers, with Guardiola already admitting that the Spaniard, will not be able to play as much next season.
The worry for the rest of the Premier League is that City has ran away with the championship despite these obvious areas for improvement. And if City gets its transfers right in the summer, this could be the start of another era of Guardiola domination.