Ageing full-backs, an under-fire striker, inexperienced wingers, scattered formations and a fallible goalkeeper, Pep Guardiola’s first season at Manchester City was calamitous. One year in and fans were already questioning Pep’s footballing credibility, stating him to be a luxury manager whose “beautiful football philosophy” would never work in the England game. But was Barcelona built in a day? No.
In the summer of 2017, club legend Pablo Zabaleta led the huge exodus out of City. Gaël Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Alexander Kolarov, Jesús Navas, Nolito, Samir Nasri, Willy Caballero, Fernando and Wilfried Bony were all shown the exit. It was clear what Pep was trying to do. All these players were well past their primes, and after two underwhelming years at the Etihad, the squad needed a complete overhaul.
Given the club’s enormous budget, high-profile players were quickly bundled in. Monaco’s heroics last season made Portuguese midfielder Bernardo Silva hot property on the continent. City fans will always be haunted by his otherworldly performances in the Champions League Round of 16 legs last season.
At that moment, Pep already knew who would be numero uno on his transfer list. The four 30+ aged full-backs were replaced with three young and blistering wing-backs in Mendy, Walker and Danilo. But the signing of the season was Benfica goalkeeper Ederson.
Though Pep had bought Claudio Bravo for his “playing-from-the-back” qualities, he largely frustrated the City faithful by consistently committing horrendous errors.
In Ederson, however, Pep acquired a goalkeeping bonanza: a shot-stopper, an immaculate passer of the ball and most importantly, a cool head. Even with a summer of no football, the blue side of Manchester was absolutely buzzing.
Fast forward to Gabriel Jesus’ last-ditch winner at St. Mary’s, Manchester City have finished the Premier League season with the most number of points ever in a single season (100), the highest-ever point margin (19), the highest goal count (106), the most number of wins (32), the highest goal difference (+79), the longest consecutive winning streak (18) and the most number of away wins (16) among many more.
Suddenly, Pep’s first season at City looks like it never happened. But people are still downplaying his exemplary achievements by saying that he ‘bought the league’. If you ask Pep and his players, they are unfazed about it.
What City have done this season does not come down to the amount of expenditure, it comes down to the consistency, grit and belief that the players have shown week-in-week-out. Fresh, young blood was brought in to this old City team and one cannot expect them to gel together so quickly.
The camaraderie inside the dressing room was something City fans have never witnessed among their players. On top of that, brilliant performances every week whilst scoring at almost 3 goals in each game and conceding the fewest number of goals at the same time shows how dominant City have been this season.
As for the players, each one of them has come to their own this season. The scorecard of the Carabao Cup final against Arsenal looked like it’s from 2011. City’s old guard of Kompany, Silva and Agüero, all on the scoresheet at Wembley that day, have been absolutely quintessential this season.
Sané and Sterling have injected the flanks with pace, power and prowess. The freshly inducted full-backs gave the team another dimension going forward. And a certain Kevin De Bruyne was playing a different ballgame altogether.
Though Mendy’s horrific injury was a huge blow at the start of the reason, it is at times like these when Pep’s ability and adaptability as a manager takes the limelight. Delph, who has always been in the shadow of City’s superstar midfielders, was given a run at left-back. And boy did he deliver.
Even a highly attacking player in Oleksandr Zinchenko was tried & tested at LB and he impressed too. Fernandinho was the unsung hero in yet another tireless season. City’s retransformation into a 4-3-3 after Mendy’s injury meant that Fernandinho had to do a near-impossible role as a lone, impenetrable CDM in a highly-attacking formation.
You’ll wonder what Pep would do in such a situation? He transformed the league’s two best-attacking midfielders into two world-class CMs.
Throughout the season, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne were always on the charge: viciously pressing the defence, finding pockets behind the midfield, starting counterattacks, delivering pinpoint passes from free-kicks, spreading long diagonals to the wingers, tracking back, tackling, covering for each other, charging inside the box, assisting, scoring pile-drivers, bundling in 30-pass moves, finding little positions behind the defence and killing off teams.
Nicolas Otamendi was a different player this season: a mix of robustness and poise. İlkay Gündoğan, Aymeric Laporte and Gabriel Jesus too played important roles in pivotal phases. They are surely players for the future.
City have hammered teams 6-0 and 7-2, put in defensively sound performances like the one at Stamford Bridge, scored late late goals in evenly-balanced games, and banished the top six from off their pedestals.
In what was a fitting tribute to legendary club-veteran Yaya Touré, Manchester City’s remarkable season saw Pep Guardiola finally arrive at his managerial-best. But can he change the course of this English Premier League by retaining back-to-back titles? Only time will tell.
For now, City fans are singing, “We’re not really here.”