Amos Murphy – 13/05/18
Six years after Martin Tyler cried out those famous words whilst Sergio Aguero was sensationally clinching Manchester City’s first league title in forty-four years, they ring true once more; never again will the English game experience such suffocating dominance displayed from the brilliant masters of the Premier League – Manchester City have not just blown the competition away this season, they have mercilessly crushed it.
The blueprints for such domination began last summer, Guardiola and his teams’ first at Manchester City. Weaknesses were identified and there was an entire upheaval of the squad – no place was guaranteed, no matter how senior a member of the squad they were. Guardiola instilled a notion into a side which had struggled with relying too much on certain individuals, that if you wanted to play for him, you became a martyr to the style of football he wanted to play.
Some players struggled, some players crumbled, some players adapted, and some players relished the revolutionary type of football presented in front of them by Guardiola. Joe Hart, an eternal legend of Manchester City was shipped out without consideration, much to the dismay of the Manchester City faithful. For all the millions spent and for all the expectation, a cloud of disappointment hung over Pep Guardiola and his men as they went trophyless for the first season in his illustrious career. Massive questions were asked of the Catalan, questions he had never faced before; fast forward twelve months and nobody would have imagined the answer to those questions would be so impressive.
Another big summer beckoned for Guardiola and co. – it was a chance to put right the wrongs of the previous summer, the glaring problem being the lack of an adequate goalkeeper. Guardiola craves a goalkeeper, like Valdes and Neuer, who is able to play the ‘passing out of the back’ style of football Pep adores, but also one with the ability to make important saves when they matter, something the seventeen million-pound Claudio Bravo had evidently struggled with in his first season in England. The answer, a menacing six foot two, twenty-four-year-old Brazilian, one able to command the box, make the necessary saves and act as the first line of attack for the blues. Ederson Moraes may have plugged a gap for City, but there were still other problems yet to be addressed. Further acquisitions, mainly in the fullback area, meant the jigsaw pieces for the blues were falling nicely into place.
A lot of the talk leading up to the new season was about whether there would be room in the squad for both Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus – it was a known fact that Guardiola did not like to play with two strikers on the pitch at the same time, favouring systems which packed the midfield and dominated possession. He was famously quoted as saying “If I could play with eleven midfielders I would” – an insight which goes a long way to explaining his obsession with goalkeepers and defenders who can play football, as well as complete their primary defensive jobs too.
When the new season rolled around, an orange-skied midsummers night on the south coast, it was the boys from the beaches of south America who were smiling; a comfortable 2-0 win over Brighton, a game in which both Aguero and Jesus played effectively together – Aguero getting the winner – signalled the start of Manchester City’s dominance. It wasn’t a vintage performance from the blues, and it most definitely wasn’t one that Pep the perfectionist would have been ecstatic about – the typical rustiness of players shaking off pre-season and settling into their groove evident across the ninety minutes – but City were able to despatch of their opponents with a staggering 78% possession. It signalled City’s intent – they were not here to play games, they were here to redefine it.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing for the blues at the start of the campaign; an equaliser in the last ten-minutes at home to Everton from ex-Liverpool starlet Raheem Sterling rescued a point for City, after fifty-million-pound man Kyle Walker had been questionably sent off. This being the first time in eleven years that City had failed to win their opening home match of a campaign. It was Sterling who was the saviour again for City the following week, this time bundling home a shot in the ninety-sixth minute to spark scenes of jubilation on the City bench and terraces alike, as the blues snatched a last-minute win away to Bournemouth. Scenes which turned bittersweet after police intervention was needed and the City goal scorer, Sterling, being sent off.
It wasn’t until after the September international break that Manchester City burst into life; a succession of eighteen consecutive wins – a record in English football – and a run which lasted from September up until New Year’s Eve, saw City take scalps against all of the top six. Manchester City had beaten all but one of the nineteen other teams in the league at the halfway mark – Manchester City were redefining expectations and setting unparalleled precedents along the way.
Any team can win football matches, but it was the manner of victories which was catching the imagination of all lovers of the beautiful game. City were effortlessly despatching teams four, five and even six nil in a style of football not only the City fans had never experienced, but also a style that the Premier League had never seen. There had been a plethora of outspoken critics who had slandered Pep Guardiola and his style of football after his team had struggled in the previous season; “Pep Guardiola is beyond deluded if he thinks he can win the Premier League” read one Daily Mirror headline. Pep Guardiola wasn’t just winning the Premier League, he was obliterating any competition that dared challenge him and his ‘galacticos’.
It was perfectly epitomised in the mid-October slaughtering of Stoke – City surged to a three-nil lead and were playing some of the ‘ole, ole’ football displayed in the early parts of the season. City were cruising in the Autumn sun. It wasn’t until Stoke pulled two back either side of halftime that it seemed like the infamous ‘typical city’ tag would run true once more. (Man) City won the match seven goals to two. A period of seven minutes saw Jesus, Fernandhinio and Sane all hit the back of the net, and a first goal in a City shirt for Bernado Silva topped off a wonderful afternoon for the blues – where City sides of yesteryear would have crumbled under the pressure and possibly handed Stoke a way back into the game, this side suffocated any chances they may have had, stopping the problem by doing what they did best, tearing teams apart.
At the heart of the demolition that day was Kevin De Bruyne, dictating the play in his usual suave manner all had become accustomed to seeing him do. He was evolving into Manchester City’s metronome. Everybody in the world football was aware of the ex-Chelsea youngster’s abilities, but he was another player susceptible to spells of inconsistency. With the help of the mastermind coaching of Pep Guardiola, who recognised his talents were best fit to a deeper midfield role, he has blossomed for the blues, becoming the most integral part of a team full of superstars, finding angles for passes which the world’s best mathematicians would not have been able to calculate.
All of this domination was, of course without the superstar fullback Benjamin Mendy – the marauding left-back had been injured in a challenge during the five-nil victory over Crystal Palace in September. Mendy would be out of action until April.
As the football season drifted towards the darker skies of Winter, the high-scoring, free flowing football enjoyed in the late summer Mancunian sun also became a thing of the past. The victories kept coming, but they were no longer as convincing. Raheem Sterling, the fifty-million-pound winger had emerged as somewhat of a saviour for the blues after his late flourishes against Everton and Bournemouth earlier in the season, and the Englishman, who had endured an abundance of vitriolic abuse, some of it borderline racist, from fans of opposing clubs and the tabloid press, was once more providing the goods. Over a period of six days, Sterling, who was having the ‘season of his life’, singlehandedly won City three matches, scoring goals in the eighty-eighth, eighty-fourth and ninety-sixth minutes, against Feyenoord, Huddersfield and Southampton respectively.
That period of results, including another late two-one win over West Ham, this time David Silva rescuing the three points for City, meant the blues were displaying ‘champions material’ for the first time this season. For all the glitzy football and the fancy ‘stuff’, they were matching it with performances which required grit and determination. Those victories planted the seeds to success for this Manchester City side to go on and dominate for (the majority of) the rest of the season.
When City arrived at Old Trafford ahead of the early December derby, the significance of this match was palpable. The blues were eight points in front of United, but going into the first derby of the season in turbulent form. A win would see City stretch the gap to an almighty eleven points. A true ‘six-pointer’. Manchester City turned up to their neighbours’ patch with confetti, had a party like celebration in the opposition dressing room, and despite the two-one score line suggesting a tighter affair, Pep Guardiola had delivered another footballing masterclass to his eternal rival Jose Mourinho. Again, just like six years earlier when City had demolished United six-one on derby day, the blues were in “dreamland”. Eleven points clear at the top of the Premier League table after just seventeen games, this was unknown territory for the blues.
Further spankings of Swansea, Tottenham and Bournemouth, qualification to the next round of the Champions League secured, plus a league cup quarter final win over Leicester – a competition in which seventeen million-pound castaway Cluadio Bravo, the man brought in to replace cult hero Joe Hart, was playing well in – and city were heading into the new year in the form of their lives. Every player on the Manchester City roster, who had been coached by Pep, was performing at an astronomical level; a team which was eleven points clear, playing football at a level unbeknown to English football, were striking fear into every team which lined up against them in the tunnel.
When the hectic Christmas period rolled around, it was only natural that this would coincide with Manchester City’s eighteen game winning run coming to an end; a stalemate away to Crystal Palace, a game in which the new fans’ favourite Ederson saved a penalty in the dying seconds, and an uncharacteristic defeat away to Liverpool – who would eventually prove to be a recurring nemesis for the blues come the end of the season – ‘typical city’ would have probably gone onto capitulate at this point. The difference between City teams of previous decades and the current crop was the mentality of determination instilled into the squad from their genius coach, Pep Guardiola.
It was this mentality and character which helped Manchester City reach the levels of success they managed this season; City exited the FA Cup via a shock defeat to league one side Wigan. This being the first game in a potentially season defining week, where they would play Chelsea at home, but not before they faced Arsenal in the League Cup final and the Premier League in back to back matches. Questions were starting to be asked of the Manchester City team, and whether their electric style of play which had captivated the footballing world, could be sustained and executed in the big games, when it mattered. Of course, Manchester City comfortably despatched of Arsenal twice, winning both matches three-nil, and walked all over the reigning champions Chelsea. As if it were a visual metaphor for the coronation of this exceptional City team, who were the fresh, youthful and hungry new king of the jungle, disposing of the old alpha-male without any thought or consideration. If it was not clear beforehand, it was in ultra-high definition now; Manchester City were going to stroll to their third Premier League title and nobody would be able to stop them.
With the Premier League title effectively, but not mathematically, secured in early March and the first piece of silverware of the Guardiola era secured, attention turned to the holy grail for the Abu Dhabi owners, the Champions League. It had been no secret that since Sheikh Mansour had taken over Manchester City in 2008 and poured his vast personal wealth into the football club, the ultimate goal was to be champions of Europe. Heading towards their tenth year of ownership, the greatest prize in club football – or so we are led to believe – had alluded the citizens. After negotiating a group including Napoli, Shaktar Donetsk and Feyenoord without any notable struggle, Manchester City sailed past Swiss champions Basel in the last sixteen, having sealed the tie in the first leg with a four-nil away victory. With Manchester City playing the greatest quality of football ever seen by its fans, the general consensus was that if the blues were ever going to make that illustrious leap to Europe’s elite, it would be this season. And it was for that very reason the draw which paired Manchester City and Liverpool, five times winners of the competition and perpetual European heavyweights, was met with a loud groan, audible across all of Manchester.
Sandwiched in between the two matches against Liverpool was the second Manchester derby of the season, with a win meaning the blues, just like Arsenal in their 2004 ‘invincible’ season, would clinch the league title against their rivals – game which captain, leader, legend and adopted ‘manc’, Vincent Kompany called “a once in a lifetime opportunity”. What followed was a cocktail of cataclysmic failure and tactical naivety from the Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola. Trailing three-nil after just thirty minutes at Anfield in the first leg of the tie (a score line which ended up being the final result), City were effectively out of the contest with over two hours and a half of football still to be played; Guardiola’s selfishness to play four midfielders, leaving out the ‘in-form’ Raheem Sterling in the process, meant City were playing a lopsided system, but more importantly one alien to the system they had been so rampant with for the majority of the season.
Spirits down and in need of a miracle, City started the Manchester derby with a weakened side so that key players could be ‘rested’ ahead of the upcoming second leg. It was in a fifteen-minute spell in the second half that the decision to leave key players out paid dividends; having raced to a two-goal lead, City were set for a famous derby day win. The Etihad was rocking and had this been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped it at half time and the United team would not have been able to have come out for the second period – they were barely standing. Defensive frailties eventually lead to the blues’ capitulation in the second half, meaning that ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity had been squandered. There would be no title winning party for the blues on derby day.
The disappointment was not over for the City fans; whilst mission impossible had turned into mission improbable when Gabriel Jesus’ first minute goal gave City a shimmer of hope, there would be no incredible comeback, and it would be Liverpool who would progress to the semi-final of the Champions League. Melancholy drowned the City faithful, but on reflection those seven days of madness, regardless of how consequential they had been, were nothing but a mere stain on the list of achievements this record-breaking team had managed.
A professional victory at Wembley over Tottenham, a week after the derby day dismay, meant that City would only need three more points to be crowned Premier League champions for a third time in six seasons. In ‘typical city’ fashion it would be the failings of bitter rivals United that would hand the blues the championship; whilst the City fans and players alike were gearing up for a title-winning party against Swansea, Manchester United lost 1-0 at home to bottom of the league West Brom. City were champions, achieving it with a joint record five games to spare.
With the championship secured, attention turned to breaking as many records as possible; still up for grabs were the most goals, wins and points in a premier league season, and also the chance to become the first team in Premier League history to achieve one-hundred points. Five – nil and four-one spankings of Swansea and West Ham respectively set City on their way to becoming the greatest team the Premier League had ever seen. A stalemate against Huddersfield on the day when City would be presented with the Premier League trophy mean that the maximum points the blues could finish on was exactly one-hundred
And that is exactly what they did; two final victories against Brighton and Southampton meant City had broken virtually every record possible. The first team in English football history ever to reach one-hundred points, and in what style it was achieved. Six years to the day (and nearly the exact same time), that Sergio Aguero made Manchester City’s wildest dreams come true, Gabriel Jesus nonchalantly lobbed the ball home in the final seconds of the season. The elation on the faces of the City players, staff and fans alike when Jesus scored was an unfiltered outpour of nine months of hard-work, commitment and drive, but most of all pure passion.
Manchester City: history makers, champions, centurions.