May 12, 2021 12:29:51 pm
Manchester United’s 1-2 home loss to Leicester City on Tuesday ensured that while there was disappointment in one half of the city, there was euphoria in the other as the result handed the English Premier League title to Manchester City, who have now won the crown in three of the last four seasons. City, on 80 points, are 10 ahead of their nearest rivals and have won the league with three games to spare.
In yet another COVID-19-hit season that saw City suffer their worst start to a Premier League campaign since 2008 and a striker conundrum that was solved with some Pep Guardiola ingenuity – the club were the best at dealing with adversity in their run to glory.
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Improved fitness levels
Premier League teams are built on routine — marrying rest, recovery and training at intense levels. Yet that continuity was difficult to ensure due to the unpredictable nature of the season.
As the season wore on, the fight for the title seemed restricted to the two neighbours. While City relied on a superior squad with great quality in depth, United’s bunch showed fitness levels higher than most teams in the league.
Guardiola himself couldn’t explain how City managed to keep so many of their players fit during this campaign — considering they had been embroiled in a tight tussle with Liverpool for the Premier League title in the past two seasons. Having to play at top intensity constantly for the past three years should have taken its toll but that simply didn’t happen.
“In previous seasons, we’ve had many injuries but what was the reason when doing exactly the same things (as this one) — the same guys, the same physios, the same preparation, the same cookers, I think the same wives. I don’t know why in one season it’t perfect and the other one we struggle a lot,” Guardiola was quoted as saying by The Guardian.
The arrival of Rueben Diaz
Signing central defender Rueben Diaz from Benfica for 62 million euros and then pairing him up with John Stones — another high-profile central defender who was earlier struggling at City — seemed to have completely changed the defensive structure of the team. Diaz and Stones, with Rodri in front of them, have conceded 0.74 goals on an average per game after 35 games. They allowed a mere 78 shots on target, 18 fewer than the next best in this regard (Chelsea).
They have conceded only 26 goals in 35 games. Since Diaz’s signing, City have conceded 19 goals in the 30 games he has played. He was signed after they suffered their worst EPL starts since 2008, which included a 2-5 loss at Leicester that saw Jamie Vardy scoring a hat-trick. Since then, the centre-back has been crucial in making the Citizens the best defensive team in the league.
Goals from midfield
With both his established strikers suffering from Covid-19 and injuries through the season, Guardiola’s system had to change from the one that boasted Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, to one that allowed the most prolific attacking midfielders of his team to shine.
None did this as well as Ilkay Gundogan. Brought to City as a deep-lying playmaker and one of the first names on the injury list, the German’s resurgence has seen him storm up the pitch more often, often gliding into space late in a move, and slotting home 12 goals in the league this season to become the club’s unexpected top scorer.
The striker-less football experiment that Guardiola began with Lionel Messi at Barcelona has taken shape at City now. The ‘False 9’ position is one that has routinely been activated by the Spaniard and used to devastating effect — be it Kevin de Bruyne against Chelsea (at Stamford Bridge) where City had less possession but more clear chances on goal, or Phil Foden at Anfield, as the youngster’s movement off the ball was just not picked up enough by Liverpool. The common theme in both those landmark games of this season for City was Gundogan and his goals.
Home-grown talent comes through
For long, the future of 20-year-old Foden and City’s heavy spending in transfer windows has been on a collision course. But in a midfield that is one of the most stacked across Europe — with names like De Bruyne, Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva and Ferran Torres — giving time and space for a young home-grown player to come into his own has never seemed to be a concern for City. Until now.
This season, Foden has played 26 Premier League and 12 Champions League matches. He has scored 10 goals and provided eight assists. On an average over 90 minutes, he has had 7.70 touches and carried out 2.07 successful dribbles of the ball in the opposition box.
Foden’s success this season has not just been a result of the system implemented by Guardiola, but also his own ability to step up to the challenge of playing in a position that he could lose at any point due to the sheer quality that City possess in terms of players.
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