Manchester City’s collective effort has put them miles ahead of the rest and secured the title with five games to spare. This is one of the great Premier League teams, writes Adam Bate.
Jay Rodriguez would not have been many people’s pick to score the Premier League title-winning goal but the West Brom forward’s header at Old Trafford handed the crown to Manchester City. In truth, it was quite inappropriate that Manchester United should gift the title to their great rivals. City did not need any help. They have been far, far too good.
The title race is officially over, but to call it a race at all seems an insult. Pep Guardiola and his players demonstrated their superiority from the outset. By the time they followed up their 5-0 win over Liverpool with a 6-0 thrashing of Watford that was close to perfection, it felt like a procession. City were only five games into the season. It was still September.
They have been in a battle with the history books since then. Three wins from the final five games will be enough to secure a record points tally of 96. Enough too to break the record for the most matches won in a Premier League season. The goals record will go too if they come even close to maintaining the current rate. It has been some season.
As one might expect given those statistics, there has been more than one key man. Sergio Aguero once again led the way as the team’s top scorer, kicking it all off with the opener at Brighton and netting the breakthrough goal in three of City’s first four victories. There was another hat-trick against Newcastle and four goals in one game against Leicester.
But take away all of Aguero’s goals and City would still be nine points clear. Just as important has been the fact that only two other players – Mohamed Salah and Harry Kane – have outscored Raheem Sterling. Still criticised for his finishing, he nevertheless took on the role of the finisher by scoring late winners away to Bournemouth and Huddersfield as well as coming up with a stunning stoppage-time strike to see off Southampton.
Kevin De Bruyne, surely the outstanding player in the title-winning team, has provided 15 assists and counting. He could yet break that individual record for a season, indicative of his role as the architect of City’s attacks – prompting from deep with telling passes, cutting opponents apart with through-balls and putting goals on a plate with his crosses.
Even that assist tally does not tell the full story. Opta now collects data for the second assist too – those passes before the pass that are deemed so significant to the goal. De Bruyne has made more of those than any other player in the Premier League too. The Belgian has been brilliant for some time but this was the season that he elevated his game to another level.
And yet, once again, City could look elsewhere for creativity too. While De Bruyne leads the way for assists, the next two men on the list are team-mates. Leroy Sane, like Sterling, has grown up under Guardiola, scoring nine goals as well as providing 12 for others. David Silva remains as selfless as ever, finding the clever passing angles that others cannot.
In any normal season, the feats of any of these men might be enough to stand alone. At City, it is a collective effort in which Gabriel Jesus has weighed in with 10 goals of his own. Fernandino has been a rock at the base of midfield. Ilkay Gundogan has found time to break the record for most passes in a Premier League game. And that’s just the midfielders.
City also boast the best defensive record in the Premier League. Ederson has been a big part of that, having had a transformative effect on the defence since his arrival last summer. Perhaps even a transformative effect on goalkeeping in this country. The demand for keepers to pass the ball short is not new but he has coupled it with outrageous long passing.
That he has thrown in saves like the double stop from Romelu Lukaku that helped get the three points at Old Trafford only underlines how important he has been. And yet, such has been the protection he has received that City have faced only 77 shots on target this season. Remarkably, if Ederson hadn’t made a single save, City would still have qualified for Europe.
The addition of Kyle Walker brought pace in the full-back area and Guardiola finally has the options he demands at centre-back. Nicolas Otamendi had a fine season and City were bolstered too by the return to fitness of Vincent Kompany and the signing of Aymeric Laporte. The early season injury to Benjamin Mendy proved to be barely a blip.
Few would have seen Fabian Delph as the solution at left-back but then there are few coaches like Guardiola – the man at the centre of this success story. He had to listen for an entire season as a country told him that English titles could not be won this way. He listened but it is not necessarily true to say that he learned. Instead, Guardiola stuck to his principles.
Some will still point to City’s spending power. Half a dozen signings this season at a cost in excess of £250m make that inevitable. But the claims that Guardiola could not succeed in the Premier League were due to his style of play not the quality of player. For all the funds, what’s striking is how he has improved individuals hardly celebrated as world-beaters.
Others will point to the Champions League defeat to Liverpool as proof that there are still flaws in this team. But even Arsenal’s Invincibles did not conquer Europe and nor did Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. Manchester City have won big games. They have won at Manchester United. They have won at Tottenham. They have won at Chelsea and they have won at Arsenal. The away record of this team is unparalleled in Premier League history.
As a result, it is natural to wonder where they rank. Leicester’s success was more extraordinary. Arsenal’s blemish-free. And it will take multiple title wins before this City can be adequately compared to the United dynasties built by Sir Alex Ferguson. But has any team ever been as good as this in a single Premier League season? The sight of this City side in full flow – and the stats they have to show for it – would suggest not.
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