Manchester City had already won the title before they even stepped on the field against Tottenham in early February, according to rival managers. Hours before the match, Jurgen Klopp officially declared the end of Liverpool’s title ambitions for the 2021 season. City went on to beat Tottenham 2-0 to put themselves seven points ahead in the title race, with another win against Everton midweek securing a double-digit lead. Pep Guardiola’s side have now won 12 consecutive matches in the league. Similar to La Liga’s title race, there is a sense of inevitability, and in this case, a resigning familiarity. It’s not a matter of whether Guardiola’s side will win the title this season, but by how much.
“The pundits are always good when we win, but not one month ago we were not even in Champions League qualification and now we are the only favorites,” noted a biting Guardiola following his side’s streak.
City were midtable as recently as matchday 13, winning just five out of 12 matches to open the season. The start represented the unpredictable, topsy-turvy nature that draws supporters to the Premier League. But a control and a certainty returned to what we had hoped would be a unique title race considering the quick turnaround. They’ve outscored opponents 28 to three during their win streak. And while other teams may have panicked and worked harder against adversity, Guardiola demanded his side stop running and do less. In a world of pressing, turnovers, and transitions, Guardiola observed his side were struggling because they were “running too much.”
“When you play football you have to walk,” added Guardiola, demanding that the ball do the running for his team.
Slowing the match down also changed how the team defended. City have given up ten less goals than any other team in the league (they’re also up 13 in goal differential). Similar to Liverpool, the centerback position revealed itself as the backbone of the team. Just follow the money: City paid a heavy price in upgrading the squad last summer regardless of the current financial environment. Guardiola bought Ruben Dias from Benfica for $75 million to immediately slot into the starting eleven. He followed it up by purchasing Bournemouth’s Nathan Ake for $49.8 million to not only sit on the bench, but ostensibly be the side’s fourth defender behind Dias, John Stones, and Aymeric Laporte. The four centerbacks of City cost a total of over $257 million.
That is one of the great ironies of Guardiola. For all of our analysis of his positional play and midfield patterns, his sides have most significantly invested in their backline. He’s broken transfer fee records twice during his time at Manchester City, first for Kyle Walker, then for Ederson. And if we take anything from this season, it is in the overarching importance of the centerback pairing. Not just in defending or in possession, but in how they allow the rest of the team to hold their positions further up the field and play.
You can credit the defensive improvements to a single signing. Yet City’s attack has the same names we’re used to outside of the addition of Ferran Torres While we named Bernardo Silva the player of the season two years ago for his fresh energy on and off the ball, Guardiola has moved around his existing pieces on the chessboard and unlocked new skills in his veteran players. We know Ilkay Gundogan since his Dortmund days for his ability to control possession and tempo at the base of midfield. Given the freedom to move further up the field to make up for injuries to Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, Gundogan currently leads City with 11 league goals (his previous league high was six goals).
This season of contradictions presents Guardiola at his most and least expressive. On one hand, he did have the signature upgrades in the transfer window, making the side’s improvements obvious. We also see again how constraints inspire creativity, or in this case, a new source of goals. Granted, Guardiola could experiment in attack due to the stability on the backline. But from the lens of slowing down to build tempo, as opposed to our current era of high pressure and pressing, Gundogan’s timing in his late runs latching onto cutback passes inside the box makes sense.
Guardiola described Gundogan as having the “right tempo to arrive” into the box and score. That tempo and slowing down was exhibited in City’s second goal against Tottenham. It took 12 seconds from when Raheem Sterling first dribbled into the penalty area to Gundogan’s goal. In between, there were wayward dribbles and Phil Foden pausing between three defenders. Gundogan sat alone on top of the penalty area the entire sequence, waiting for an opening.
“Our football has to be played in one rhythm. We cannot play up and down so quick, we have to make a tempo of 1000-million passes in the right moment,” said Guardiola after a recent win over Newcastle.
Returning to the idea of constraints and creativity, Gundogan’s free role was also a replacement for De Bruyne’s dynamism and creativity in midfield following his injury. The two players work opposite half spaces in attack, with De Bruyne’s signature crosses from the right and Gundogan running in from the left. Gundogan’s scoring threat and De Bruyne’s passing should work in theory once the Belgium returns. There are obvious concerns surrounding City’s shape without the ball, and maybe even in terms of rhythm with De Bruyne’s ball dominance back in the lineup. Can Gundogan keep his late-running patterns with De Bruyne attracting the ball?
Maybe that sort of grander problem solving is for another season, as opposed to the top of mind importance of just having a healthy roster of players to choose from. And while we may not see the formational innovations that we expect from Guardiola year after year, his attack is more of an internal progression. He’s said in the past that passing is about moving an opposition around to create space, not the vanity of racking up pass completion numbers. The other side is how passing creates a rhythm for his side to play with, and ultimately, create within.
“Sometimes you have to lose a little bit,” said Guardiola in his newfound public battle with Klopp. This bounceback season comes after City finished 18 points behind Liverpool in last season’s title race.
This feels like the most low-key we’ve seen Guardiola throughout his years as manager. There are no grand declarations of possessional philosophies, no grand pronouncements about the future of the game for us to hang onto. Rather, his side are grinding out a season the way they know how. It’s a quiet consistency and dominance. There was an opening for a surprise at the top of the Premier League table, but we got what we’ve always known as the months pass on. Even through the on-field impact of the pandemic, going in direct contrast to contemporary styles, Guardiola has always played at his own tempo.