Mastery. Control. Virtuosity. These are qualities that all football teams aim for. Very few actually achieve them. In the past decade, all three virtues have been the calling cards of three teams coached by Pep Guardiola—Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City.
Consider City, the team that won a second consecutive Premier League title on 12 May. In a 38-game season, City roared to a lead within the first 15 minutes in a staggering 16 games. The following 75 minutes were spent with the team largely playing within themselves, drawing intricate passing patterns, probing opposing defences from a variety of angles. Opposing teams, tired of defending and running without the ball, were always a fraction too late to prevent a player in a sky-blue shirt making a killer pass. Of those 16 games, City won 15. Mastery, control and virtuosity, this season Manchester City had it in droves.
But the season was not been easy for the defending champions. On 29 January, after a shock defeat to Newcastle (their fourth all season) handed the initiative to Liverpool, a visibly downcast Guardiola said: “We have to win a lot of games now. But if we want to keep going up as a club, we have to accept the challenge.” Liverpool’s lead at the time was seven points. City responded by going on a 14-game winning run, while Liverpool stumbled to a couple of draws, and City ended up lifting the trophy.
Yet it wasn’t as easy as all that. Liverpool didn’t exactly fall away after City regained the initiative in early March. The Merseyside club responded by going on a nine-match winning run of their own. Through March, April and May, the league’s pole position changed hands more than 30 times. It was a relentless game of cat and mouse, right to the final day of the season.
The Citizens of Manchester
Guardiola deserves all the praise he can get, of course, but this was the season when City’s players stepped up another level, if such a thing were possible after their stellar performances in the previous season. Two players, in fact, epitomized not just the one-touch mastery of the ball that Guardiola so admires, but also the grit and determination to win that marks a title-winning team. Portuguese attacking midfielder Bernardo Silva was bought from Monaco in the 2017 summer transfer window, but he spent most of the following season as backup to established midfield mainstays David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne.
This season, with David Silva’s influence waning slightly, and de Bruyne out for most of the year with injury, Bernardo Silva came into his own. Playing either on the left or through the centre of an attacking midfield three, his speed of thought, acceleration, passing nous and the willingness to shoot on sight have been breathtaking. As the season wore on, he became an indispensible cog in the City machine. “Right now with the way he plays I cannot do anything else but put him on the pitch and let him play,” said Guardiola recently, adding, “I love him.”
If Silva took a season to get going, Raheem Sterling, on the other hand, simply raised his game. If the 2017-18 season was his breakthrough one for City, 2018-19 cemented his place as one of the most important players in the team. His return of 17 goals and 10 assists may have been a tad fewer than last season, but the importance of his goals, just when City needed a win, is undisputable. Off the field, too, he took charge, articulately leading an ongoing campaign against racism with great maturity.
If the point of lasting sporting success is epitomized by repetition and relentlessness, as our columnist Rohit Brijnath argues above, then striker Sergio Agüero is a legend. This season, the Argentine’s eighth for City, he banged in 21 goals, making him only the second player after Thierry Henry to register 20 goals or more for five consecutive seasons. Ever reliable, and seemingly getting even better with age, Agüero was unstoppable.
And what of the other warhorse, captain Vincent Kompany? He lifted the trophy for the fourth time this season, along with Agüero, and despite his recurring injury problems, he was a rock in the City defence during the crucial run-in to the end of the season. Liverpool would have been holding up the trophy without Kompany’s wonder-strike winning an edgy game against Leicester in City’s penultimate match of the season. Having now successfully defended their title, City’s next goal is league domination, and who could challenge them?
The Reds of Merseyside
Liverpool might have something to say about that. If City’s league win was expected, Liverpool’s performance this season was phenomenal. In the 2017-18 season, when City had won the league with 100 points, Jürgen Klopp’s thrilling but inconsistent team had come fourth, with 75 points. This season, they just fell short by one point, amassing 97 to City’s 98. In any season other than last year, 97 points would have won Liverpool the league. This season, they lost just one game and conceded the fewest goals (22).
When the end-of-the-year gongs were being handed out, goalkeeper Alisson Becker won the Golden Glove, while strikers Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah shared the Golden Boot (along with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, for 22 goals apiece). The team boasts of arguably the world’s best centre-back, Virgil van Dijk, who won the Men’s Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Player of the Year, and the best left-back, Andy Robertson. At right-back, the 20-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold provided a record-breaking 12 assists (one more than Robertson).
But each one of those players would exchange their personal award for the league trophy in a heartbeat. If any team is poised to run City close again next season, it is Liverpool. Klopp has fashioned a relentless team of “mentality giants”, as he called them after their emphatic dismantling of Barcelona in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final. This Liverpool side never know when they are beaten—21% of their 89 goals in the league have been scored in the final 10 minutes.
The Reds have a young team, with most of the star players on long-term contracts. In 2008-09 and 2013-14, the last two times that they have come second, Liverpool have lost key players in the following transfer window—Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid and Luis Suárez to Barcelona, respectively—but that’s unlikely to happen this term. If anything, the squad will be strengthened further. Nor should enthusiasm be a worry, led as they are by one of the most motivational managers around. And all this without factoring in the boost in morale should Liverpool become champions of Europe for a sixth time on 1 June. As the champions and challengers seek to lay down enduring legacies, the 2019-20 season can’t come soon enough.