Culture and identity, two words not ordinarily part of the football discourse in England. The evolving imprint of Pep Guardiola, the way we think about the game, the way we feel about it, and about Manchester City, is acquiring new meaning, and a new lexicon to articulate it.
The measure of success is contained not entirely by silverware but emotion. The beauty of the play, the pulverising geometry, the movement and speed, has transformed City from a footballing tragi-comedy condemned to flail in the shadow of Manchester United, to the club setting the agenda.
Long after Guardiola has moved on, the memory of this period will be framed by the sense of exhilaration associated with the City playing experience. As a long-time observer of football I cannot recall anything approaching the aesthetic quality of the product. We have seen great teams before, great games, great performances, but never delivered with this intensity or dominance. City have utterly outclassed United, Chelsea, Arsenal and latterly Spurs on their opponent’s turf.
There was nothing close about these contests. Spurs are a high-class outfit, good enough to beat Real Madrid in the Champions League. City arrived on the back of three successive defeats, two at home to United and Liverpool. They were supposed to be wounded. Questions were asked about the sustainability of the model. What happened? Spurs were schooled with something to spare.
I’m inclined to side with ex-Kippax hero and City devotee Paul Lake, who said in response to the 3-1 victory at Spurs: “Over the past week pundits and journos have been too quick to claim that teams have sussed out City, but that simply isn’t the case. If we take our chances, we win.”
The numbers are irrefutable. City equalled United’s 2001 mark of winning the title after 33 games. They hold the record of 18 consecutive league wins, 11 consecutive away wins and a club record of 28 matches unbeaten. Chelsea’s 2005 points total of 95 is theirs to surpass as is the 103-goal record also set by Chelsea in 2010. That Guardiola should emulate the Sir Alex Ferguson method of claiming the title while playing golf symbolises the shift in hegemony from one side of Manchester to the other. Interestingly, Guardiola was more interested in a Masters Tournament debrief with playing partner Tommy Fleetwood than talking football. Fleetwood was amazed at how much Guardiola knew about his Masters week and his performance around Augusta National. Even in repose, enjoying a recreational fourball on a Sunday afternoon, Guardiola is hungry for detail. Precision is at the heart of the enterprise. What appears to be a game of instinct and creative expression is in fact a matter of design and organisation. Each player has a role and a responsibility within the collective. Do your bit right and the organism functions as a whole. Any weakness in any part threatens the unity of the machine. Thierry Henry, who was surprised at the systematic nature of Guardiola’s method when he arrived at the Nou Camp from Arsenal, where he had a free forward role, explains it thus. “He values not conceding a lot. People always talk about possession, but when he talks about defending, he will tell you to stay in your position and not lose the ball. You don’t hear that often with other managers. When they talk about defending, they talk about shape, how you set up the line, how high you defend. Pep says: ‘Do not lose the ball and stay in your position.’ And you see that when they play.”
It is is also about making better choices when in possession. Last year’s erratic decision-making of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling in the final third has gone. The improvement in both is one of the reasons for City’s crushing consistency.
The availability of a fit Ilkay Gundogan has given Guardiola rotational options in midfield and post-Christmas the gradual introduction of Bernardo Silva down the right has eased the attacking burden on Sterling. The signing of Ederson in goal has given Guardiola the platform of a playmaking goalkeeper he so desired and in Kyle Walker he has the rapier quick, attacking right-back on which his system so depends. Imagine how much better City might be when Walker is mirrored on the left by Benjamin Mendy, of whom we have seen more on Twitter than the pitch since his knee ligament injury at the start of the season. Mendy is back on his feet and should he recover all his glories will make City even stronger next term.
Only Liverpool have shown any appetite for taking on City at their own game. No surprise, perhaps, that they are led by a coach who shares Guardiola’s attacking philosophy. Jurgen Klopp’s high-pressing, high-energy team, topped by an attacking trident that matches City’s for goal threat, showed that City, like any human organism, fall prey to mistakes under pressure. And with Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane at full pelt, supported by full-backs arriving at pace, Liverpool had the tools to take advantage.
Manchester United have the attacking personnel to take it to City but found the courage to do so only in extremis, when 2-0 down and facing oblivion. To take on Guardiola’s teams, you have to match them not only for talent, but outlook, and that is a coaching issue. The auditors will demand that Guardiola extend his dominance to Europe to elevate City to the highest rank, as if somehow he failed at Bayern Munich when missing out on the Champions League. The irony is City blitzed the European competition this term. Their misfortune was to run adomestic ambush characteristic of local derbies. Had City drawn Madrid, Barca or Bayern they might have had a better chance. All conjecture until next year, of course, when doubtless they will remain the team to beat.