And Manchester City didn’t just win. They won big and, in some ways, bigger than any other team in the history of English football.
With five games remaining, they are on pace to set a new top-flight mark for points (95 is the record; they have 87) and wins (30; 28). Plus, they’re on track to break the Premier League record of goals (107; 93) and margin over the second-placed side (18; 16).
These are numbers; you can contextualise them if you like, but you can’t dispute them.
Most important, though, you can’t dispute the fact that City won the league — and the League Cup — by finding a different path. And that is what will likely make them live on in history.
There’s a basic continuum in football: You can either do what everybody else does and try to do it better, or you can try to do things differently and hope that your plan — simply by being different — is going to help you win.
This is not to say that every other club plays the same way — there’s a world of difference between, say, Liverpool and Man United or Burnley and Tottenham — but rather that City’s identity is unique. Nobody has successfully replicated it and for several reasons.
First and foremost is the messenger. Talk to anybody who has coached at a high level and they’ll say that getting players to “buy in” and believe in you is half the job. Guardiola’s charisma played a big part in this but — just as important — so did his resume of six league titles, four domestic cups and two Champions League crowns in seven top-flight seasons.
Among his Premier League peers, only Jose Mourinho was in the same ballpark when Guardiola arrived in England two years ago, and the big difference was that the Man United manager was coming off a sacking and a horrendous final campaign at Chelsea.
Another huge factor is the environment and, in that sense, Man City was a true sweet spot. It was a club that had known recent success — two league titles, two League Cups and an FA Cup in the five seasons before Guardiola’s arrival — and therefore had a culture of winning but, at the same time, had been preparing themselves for him to come for several years.
Chief executive Ferran Soriano, a former Barcelona director, and director of football Txiki Begiristain, who held the same role at the Camp Nou and is a former teammate of Guardiola, both arrived in 2012 and set to work, in terms of sporting and corporate culture, for his arrival. The process continued even when Guardiola rebuffed City a year later and the club appointed Manuel Pellegrini instead.
It made the eventual transition easier, and it’s not a coincidence that things went far more smoothly than when Guardiola landed at Bayern Munich. In short, City were so invested that they were able to absorb failed experiments and shortcomings on the pitch to a degree that might not have been tolerated elsewhere.
They finished third in his first season, 15 points behind champions Chelsea and having, at one point, flirted with fifth place. City were well beaten at home by Chelsea (3-1) and away to Everton (4-0). In December 2016, at a Leicester side just above the relegation zone, they went four goals behind en route to a 4-2 loss.
City were also bounced out by Monaco in the Champions League Round of 16 and suffered a heavy defeat at Barcelona, when Guardiola famously didn’t start Sergio Aguero so he “could better control the midfield.”
It didn’t end there. It took Guardiola too long to realize that Joe Hart wasn’t suited to his game and then panic-bought Claudio Bravo, who may have been ideal in some ways, but was less suited to the role as a whole. City went into the 2016-17 campaign with Pablo Zabaleta, Aleskandar Kolarov, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna as full-backs: a veteran quartet who, it soon became apparent, simply weren’t a good fit (not coincidentally, none of them returned the following season).
None of these were unforgivable errors per se but, coupled with the lack of results (for the first time in his top-flight career, he finished the season without a trophy), they fed a narrative about Guardiola. Confidence and ambition become arrogance and delusion when it comes to popular opinion and, when he compounded it with statements like “I’m not going to change” and “we don’t practice tackles,” it was fodder for his critics.
But that Begiristain, Soriano and others had put all their chips on Guardiola meant he was insulated and secure. Within the squad, there was one voice and it spoke straight out of the Sam Hinkie playbook: “Trust the process.”
Of course, the other factor was resources. It’s an easy out: We may never know how Guardiola would perform at a Brescia, a Levante or a Huddersfield, although the quick riposte is that City’s rivals also have wage bills in the same ball park and have spent heavily.
But he had another edge. When Mourinho brought it up following Manchester United’s Champions League elimination vs. Sevilla last month, it was derided as sour grapes. But the Man United manager had a point: Guardiola inherited a hugely-talented group of players.
Of the 12 most-used this season, eight predate him: Nicolas Otamendi, Fabian Delph and Vincent Kompany at the back, Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in midfield, and Aguero and Raheem Sterling up front.
Those who denigrate Guardiola claim he has always won with massive resources but, in this case, it’s a somewhat circular argument.
Delph was transformed into a serviceable left-back having been an emergency replacement for the injured Benjamin Mendy. Sterling and Otamendi had plenty of critics after inconsistent debut seasons at the Etihad Stadium. De Bruyne was an A-list superstar in the Bundesliga, who only showed flashes when he arrived at City. All seem to have improved as individuals under Guardiola’s tutelage and that’s, perhaps, the highest praise you can give a coach: he makes players better.
Still, you need the raw material. Guardiola not only had plenty of it at hand but added to it tremendously even if, again, it’s worth noting that three of his biggest signings — Mendy, Ilkay Gundogan and Leroy Sane — have missed plenty of time through injury.
Tactical nous also matters and, here, it’s about the evolution and growth that managers go through in their careers. Other than high possession numbers, Guardiola’s City team has little in common with his Barcelona sides or even Bayern. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that in Spain some noted that he ended the tradition of great wingers at the Camp Nou, whereas these days Sane and Sterling are thriving. His central midfielders, though gifted, have a different style, rhythm, movement and range of passing to Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.
Most of all with Guardiola, perhaps, is the sense of the “collective.” You hate to even bring it up because it sounds like the sort of self-fulfilling, cheesy, metaphysical tautology that every winning side cites, but it’s been hammered home by everyone at City since he arrived.Everyone is so “on message” and nobody has rocked the boat; not just this year amid success, but last season when they came up short. There have been isolated examples — Aguero has grumbled occasionally after being left out and Yaya Toure has complained at times — but, over two seasons, that’s less than you would expect.
It’s not been perfect and there is unfinished business. Criticizing Guardiola for going 0-for-5 in the Champions League since leaving Barcelona is somewhat puerile given it’s a knockout competition, but the scorelines do him few favours. In 10 games against Liverpool, Monaco, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid when his club has been eliminated, Guardiola’s teams conceded 23 goals.
Neither he, nor City fans, need us to tell him that that’s the next hurdle, but that’s an argument for another time. Right now, it’s about celebrating the man who did things differently and was vindicated.