Pep Guardiola and Manchester City’s sky blue wash will define this era
The manager has become central to Manchester City’s approach of setting about elite sport like a political project
It seemed fitting that Manchester City should come storming back from the brink the way they did, Ilkay Gündogan soaring like a small, technically adept avenging phoenix to bullet his header very carefully into the top corner of the Aston Villa net. This is how they do this stuff around here. Not with more heat, more blood, more chaos; but with cleaner lines, greater clarity, a red mist of extreme precision.
Within six minutes of that opening act Pep Guardiola’s champions had completed the most beautifully orderly emergency comeback in English footballing history. And there is something genuinely fearless about being able to play football this way, to become more not less yourself when the pulse is pounding, time running short, the world closing in at your back.
It was fitting too that Gündogan, Guardiola’s first signing at City, should score the title-winning goal, his second of the game: and that Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne should be present pulling the strings, both of whom have been present for Guardiola’s entire span in England.
At the end of which, and for all the fine margins, this is the most definitive of title wins. City scored more goals, made more passes and had more possession than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues this season.
João Cancelo, Rodri and Aymeric Laporte made more passes than anyone else in the English top tier (Cancelo, an all-purpose influence, was also top 10 for tackles, dribbles and interceptions and 12th on shots at goal).
It has been a kind of total football, the domination of every metric, a sky blue wash applied across every surface of elite English football. At the end of which, this is also a good moment to take a breath. There is no suggestion Guardiola intends to leave when his contract expires next year, but some things will change now. Key players in this group are reaching their peak. Some will leave in the summer. Erling Haaland’s arrival suggests a different kind of rebuild in the offing.
And, looking back, the first six years of Guardiola at City have their own very distinct tone and texture. Zoom out a little to take in tactics, structure and ownership model, right down to the way full-blown internet tribalism has become an aspect of football fandom, and there is a fair case that Pep-era Manchester City is the single most transformative element in the modern history of English football.
Two things seem clear enough. First, this has been a dizzying success. Four titles in six years: even taking out the Premier League premium that says the thing that has just happened is the only thing that has ever happened, this is one of the great title-winning eras in English football history.
On the pure numbers Guardiola is now level with Kenny Dalglish and Herbert Chapman, one behind Matt Busby, two behind Bob Paisley, and, like everyone else, way back on Alex Ferguson’s 27-year total of 13.
Factor in the shortness of his span and the sheer intensity of his influence and Guardiola starts to look like something even more substantial. He is now part of a tiny group – Chapman, Busby, Bill Shankly and Arsène Wenger spring to mind – whose success has also changed the way football is played, coached and understood in this country.
That tactical influence is the most obvious part of the Pep supremacy. In his time English football has tilted dramatically towards the possession style, the primacy of technique, the Catalan-Dutch obsession with the ball that is embodied best by Guardiola’s own evolving team.
In the simplest terms, the season before he arrived City scored 71 goals and passed the ball 20,488 times. In the title-winning season just gone they scored 99 goals and made 26,132 passes.
It is easy to take for granted the influence exerted over that time. Inverted wingers, false 9s, full-backs that wander, goalkeepers who love the ball: Pep has been the single biggest driver in these elements becoming part of English football’s internal language, to the extent even entry-level English managers will talk about their “philosophy” (love of knowledge) and accept the idea of coaching as a course of study, an intellectual discipline.
Scroll back and it seems comical that as recently as 2016 there was still a small island hostility to this unproven (two Champions Leagues) outsider. The press conference at the King Power Stadium after a 4-2 defeat by Leicester City in December 2016, when Guardiola asked “what is tackles?”, has by now passed into low-key legend; a footballing version of the Sex Pistols playing Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976, a pistol-shot-to-wake-the-world kind of affair.
At the time there was a degree of mockery. Fast forward five and a half years and it is remarkable to see the influence constant exposure to the Guardiola style has had. From a national team defined through its 140-year history by direct play and physicality, but now reconfigured to fetishise possession and patience; right down to the rhythms of park football, where the local under-11s will play an orderly passing game, where parents shout about pressing and not sending it long, where short passes are performatively applauded.
Much of this was already in train pre-Guardiola, but his presence has supercharged it. He was right too. City made 300 fewer tackles this season than the year before he arrived, when they finished fourth behind Arsenal and Spurs.
There are of course other sides to this transformation. City’s nation-state ownership is 14 years old now. Nobody was prepared for the changes wrought by this entirely different model, this entirely different set of motivations. In many ways it is simply the real world intruding. English culture, trade, economics, even the language has always been a magpie-ish thing, a business of export/import, borrowed talent, borrowed influences.
This has been dramatically accelerated by globalisation. Qatar owns the tallest building in England. Abu Dhabi owns Manchester City. The project is in its own way a modern economic marvel: new spaces, new ground, new team, new style, new gravity.
But it does also deserve to be judged as something more than a set of buildings and a payroll. The sporting infrastructure is delicate. And while plenty of other teams have tried to spend their way to success over the same period, City’s superpower has been to set about elite level sport with the coherence of an overt political project, backed by bottomless reserves, extreme executive competence and a willingness to litigate.
In many ways their success can look mundane from the outside: hire the best talent, spend the most money, remove the standard desperation of feuding egos, lust for glory, nepotism, incompetence.
It is a part of Guardiola’s brilliance, his edge and his occasionally self-destructive obsession that under his hand this project has remained both beautiful and something that still feels like sport.
City are exceptional title winners for so many reasons. Most obviously because they ended up with one more point than a brilliant Liverpool team. But this has also been their era, in the most far-reaching sense.