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Review: Manchester City’s route to an emphatic Premier League title triumph

In an absolutely bonkers season involving a pandemic and effectively two games a week among other things, Manchester City have picked up a third Premier League title in four years to add to their quickly expanding trophy cabine

Although they ended up blitzing the rest of the league in the end, their path to this title had a significantly bumpier start. Let us recap this exceptional title-winning Premier League season from the Cityzens’ perspective.

Rough beginnings

With absolutely no pre-season behind them and a break on the first matchday due to their participation in the knockout rounds of the 2019/20 Champions League, visited Wolverhampton Wanderers in late September to kick their Premier League campaign off.

They returned with a hard-fought 3-1 success, which bred some positivity among the fans given the nature of the victory.

However, all of that quickly evaporated in less than five days as Leicester City came to the Etihad Stadium and put five past a shaken defence which conceded three penalties – two of which helped Jamie Vardy net a hat-trick against one of his favourite ‘Big Six’ sides.

A week later, City travelled to Elland Road to face a fearless Leeds United side, who took a deserved point off the would-be champions of England, who, at the time, were in quite a mess down in 14th place.

An important win against a fairly strong-looking (at least at the time) Arsenal side where Pep Guardiola pulled out a curious 3-1-4-2 formation in a tactical gamble helped steady the ship a bit, but the cracks did not go away with a 1-1 draw away to West Ham United.

After another hard-fought 1-0 against Sheffield United, City prepared for the big one just before an international break.

They hosted defending champions and then-league leaders Liverpool on matchday 8, with just five points but nine positions between them – such was the congested nature of the table as all of the big sides were consistently slipping up.

With a game in hand, a win over Jürgen Klopp’s men would give the Cityzens a mathematical chance of leapfrogging them in the table when they played that match, but that was not to be as a missed Kevin De Bruyne penalty saw the match end 1-1, with City still in 10th place.

The Premier League table after matchday 8 – can you spot Manchester City here?

There was no respite, though, as City’s next clash saw them take on second-placed Tottenham Hotspur. Just a couple of days prior to that, Pep Guardiola’s long-term future was secured as he signed a contract extension that would keep him in England until 2023.

José Mourinho was the one celebrating, though, as he oversaw a counterattacking masterclass of a 2-0 victory that took Spurs to the summit of the Premier League table. They would, naturally, take care of themselves quite quickly thereafter, but dropping back down to 13th was the main cause of concern at the Etihad Stadium.

An emphatic 5-0 win over Burnley (featuring a Riyad Mahrez hat-trick) followed by a 2-0 success against Fulham saw City climb back up to the fringes of the European spots, but two draws against Manchester United, and more disappointingly, a desperately struggling West Bromwich Albion derailed any momentum that was starting to build.

Wins over Southampton and Newcastle United meant that they closed 2020 on a slightly positive note in footballing terms, but sixth in the Premier League was surely not where they would have wanted to be.

There were yet more problems, though, as a COVID-19 breakout within the squad saw several stars sidelined for a couple of weeks and their final match of 2020 postponed. This short break might have ultimately been beneficial.

The comeback

Although he had signed a contract extension, there were many doubters regarding Guardiola’s ability to create a world-beating side, watch its stars fade out of their prime and rebuild.

He had done the first two steps quite well in his previous tenures at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but before the third became a concern, the Spaniard went off on a sabbatical.

This was uncharted territory – even for him – as the likes of Vincent Kompany and David Silva had departed, probably taking Sergio Agüero’s knees with them.

The two-time Champions League-winning tactician responded in emphatic fashion, though, as he devised an ingenious 3-2-2-3 system in possession which unlocked all the defences that were proving to be unbelievably stubborn for a fair few months.

The first victims were Frank Lampard’s Chelsea, who crumbled to a 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge as the false-nine and inverted full-back were in the fluent best through De Bruyne and João Cancelo. This win promoted City to the top-three with a game in hand and just four points off leaders Man United.

Of course, the players must be given a lot of credit for this turnaround too. Club captain Fernandinho stated in his Players’ Tribune feature that he had called for a players’ meeting early in the morning on New Years’ Day, with the objective of it being to make the things needed to change clear. And boy, did they change!

Chelsea, Brighton & Hove Albion, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, West Brom, Sheffield United and Burnley were all brushed aside, with City putting a grand total of 15 goals past these sides without response.

The key behind this new-found defensive solidity lay, of course, at the heart of the defence, where summer signing Rúben Dias had formed a formidable partnership with the resurgent John Stones.

The two were set for a serious test when they faced Liverpool and Tottenham back-to-back, and although their clean sheet-run came to an end with a soft Mohamed Salah penalty, City continued to perform spectacularly as they came away with two wins, both of which had three-goal margins.

This sensational streak was built upon in the midst of a month-long injury to De Bruyne, who was surprisingly not missed due to the rise of Mr. Whippy.

That nickname was bestowed upon İlkay Gündoğan, who was promoted to a more advanced role in the absence of his Belgian compatriot, on that he embraced thoroughly by going on an incredible hot streak of 10 goals in as many league matches.

By mid-February and the end of matchday 24, City were sitting incredibly pretty at the top of the table with a 10-point lead over their local rivals. This graph does a great job of visualising their ascent:

(Image Credits: Premier League)

Cruise control

The start may have been quite tumultuous for City, but as that graph shows, the final stretch was a relative walk in the park.

After Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal, West Ham and Wolves were brushed aside, although dents started to appear defence as one goal each was conceded in three of those four matches.

The biggest chink in the Cityzens’ armour was on show in a derby defeat at home, where United controlled a 2-0 victory following an uncharacteristically sloppy performance on City’s part.

That defeat broke a 13-match long winning run (the longest for any Premier League side in the competition after a turn of the year) and a record of over 1,710 league minutes spent without trailing, but things were soon back on track with wins over Southampton and Fulham, when Guardiola started to get funky with his B-team.

This funkiness did end up proving to be a little too extreme when Leeds scored a shock 2-1 win at the Etihad a few days after City overcame Leicester.

A more routine confidence-boosting (albeit with an early goal and red card to John Stones) win over Aston Villa and a second-team masterclass at Selhurst Park provided City with the chance to seal the Premier League title with a home with over Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea, but another Guardiola experiment coupled with a few poor performances (including a missed Panenka penalty on Agüero’s part) meant that the title party would have to be delayed.

They did not have to wait till their next match though, as a slip-up from United against Leicester in the midst of an impossibly congested schedule due to a protest-related postponement of their clash against Liverpool meant that the Premier League trophy has already been adorned with Sky Blue ribbons, which is set be lifted in front of 10,000 home fans in their last league match when they host Everton.

This has possibly been Guardiola’s best-ever league success due to how he was able to reinvent himself and his style of play in the midst of a pandemic-hit season.

However, plenty of credit should also be given to all of the players who performed exceptionally almost twice every week to help City run away with the league.

Given how young so many of this squad’s key players are – from the likes of Dias and Phil Foden to Oleksandr Zinchenko – this is surely the start of another period of Sky Blue domination in England, which might even spill over to the entirety of Europe this time around.

Stats courtesy Premier League

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