So Manchester City is the 2017-18 Premier League champion. It clinched the title, rather anticlimactically, via West Brom’s shocking 1-0 victory over Manchester United. Now comes the fun part.
Now come the records. The chase for history. And the debates over whether the Citizens are the greatest team English football has ever seen. (Hint: they are.)
It is time, and will be time, to celebrate greatness. But first, it’s time to understand it. Here’s how City put together what will soon be considered the most dominant Premier League season ever.
1. City spent more money than anyone, ever
It’s both difficult and irrational to ignore the spending that has enabled the on-field beauty. Since Pep Guardiola arrived in Manchester in 2016, City has spent more money – around $640 million – than any other club has ever spent in any two-year window. And it’s not all that close. “I’m a lucky guy,” Guardiola joked last week.
But there’s a misconception about that spending. There’s a thought that it in some way delegitimizes City’s success. It absolutely does not. It’s simply a necessary element of top-level success in the modern game.
“It’s impossible to do [this], the way we play, the results we achieve, without top players,” Guardiola said. “And today, the top players cost a lot of money.” Dollar figures are just one way to describe the quality of the squad. And yes, that squad has more talent than any other in England. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s the biggest reason of any for City’s dominance.
Guardiola on the amount of money he has spent and the assertion that he is only good because he has quality players at his disposal pic.twitter.com/2veXcT4Fqb
— Sam Lee (@Sammy_Goal) April 6, 2018
2. Guardiola maximized the benefits of his team’s superior talent
City’s squad isn’t 16 points better than the rest of the league. But its season has been because nobody is better at getting the most out of top players than Guardiola. Nobody is better at taking talent gaps and stretching them wider.
There are systemic examples, which we’re about to discuss, but there are individual examples as well. There’s Raheem Sterling, who under Guardiola’s tutelage developed from exciting but inconsistent winger to goalscoring savant over the first half of the season. He found the back of the net 18 times between Aug. 21 and Jan. 2, including three late winners in a nine-day span in November.
The 23-year-old improved slightly as a finisher, but most of his leap can be attributed to his ability to get on the end of chances. He hovered around 0.3 Expected Goals (xG) per 90 minutes over the previous three seasons; per Understat, he’s more than doubled that rate this year, a testament to his movement and understanding of the art of goalscoring. And there’s a direct line from that understanding to Guardiola’s teachings.
Guardiola’s players almost invariably gush about him. About how he makes them see things on the field that they never even thought about seeing before. The evidence of that has been plentiful this year.
Also plentiful has been evidence of how Guardiola’s system puts his players in positions where their talent advantages will be telling.
3. City imposed its will on opponents with the ball …
Possession with a purpose, as a concept, is designed to maximize the attacking actions of skilled attacking players in a given match. And no team executes it better or more relentlessly than City. Guardiola’s side leads the league in possession, passes completed, passes completed in the attacking third, passes completed within 20 yards of goal, and pass completion percentage. The list could go on.
After piloting a 3-1-4-2 formation in August and September, Guardiola settled on a 4-3-3. City’s fluid but systematized movement within that framework has allowed it to control the game by controlling the ball, a Guardiola staple, but also impose itself on opponents high up the field.
Its wingers can stay high and wide to space the field when necessary, but can also come inside to overwhelm bunkered defenses while fullbacks provide width. Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva drift wide situationally, and command attention at all times. Fernandinho, and occasionally an inverted fullback, allow City to recycle possession. Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones – when he was a regular pre-injury – provide(d) penetrating passes better than any center back pairing in the league. No team in Premier League history has been better at maintaining possession and making it count.
4. … And without the ball
Likewise, few teams have been as good at winning back possession after an attacking move has gone awry. Pundits rave about the pressing of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and even Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham. But City’s 6.44 passes allowed per defensive action in the opposition half – a statistic that measures the intensity and efficacy of a high press – led the league by a wide margin. (Tottenham is at 7.87; Liverpool is at 9.68.)
Crucially, the immediate aggressiveness upon the concession of the ball hasn’t led to a flood of chances at the other end. City, per Understat, is conceding just 0.66 Expected Goals per game, compared to 0.79 last year. It’s on pace to allow around 103 opponent passes (non-crosses) within 20 yards of its own goal, compared to 131 last year. And before John Stones went down with injury in mid-November, those numbers were even better.
Otamendi and Stones – and now a remarkably healthy Vincent Kompany – have won the vast majority of their individual battles at the back. Fernandinho has been excellent shielding them. City mastered its pressing patterns early in the season, and has been able to win the ball high up the field without being vulnerable at the other end.
5. Kevin De Bruyne became the best two-way midfielder in the world
Guardiola took one of the best attacking midfielders/wingers in the world and molded him into an indomitable No. 8. De Bruyne is still more playmaker than box-to-box destroyer, and he does considerable damage in positionless transition situations. But he’s been outstanding on the defensive side of the ball, and has done his playmaking from a deeper position.
De Bruyne came to City on the back of a season in which he led the Bundesliga in assists by a margin of eight, and in Expected Assists (xA) by a margin of more than five. This year, despite his new role taking him farther away from goal, he’s on pace to match that xA mark from his final year at Wolfsburg. Incredibly, he leads the Premier League in assists and xA, but also in XGBuildup – a stat that measures a player’s contributions to attacking moves that result in chances when the contribution comes before the pass that actually creates the chance.
De Bruyne was once a runaway player of the season favorite, and still would be if it weren’t for Mohamed Salah’s explosion.
6. Fernandinho stayed healthy
De Bruyne aside, Fernandinho is the one player for whom City has no true replacement. Fortunately for the Citizens, they’ve rarely needed a replacement. The Brazilian, who turns 33 in less than a month, has played 29 of 33 Premier League games. The “what if” scenario where Ilkay Gundogan, Fabian Delph or – *gasp* – Yaya Toure were pressed into service as the holding midfielder in the 4-3-3 has rarely come to fruition.
7. Ederson cured City’s most painful 2016-17 ailment
City’s worst player last season, and the biggest reason it finished 15 points off Chelsea’s pace despite leading the Premier League in Expected Goal differential, was Claudio Bravo. He had an indescribably awful year. So Guardiola, despite skepticism, swooped for a 23-year-old Brazilian whom average English fans had never heard of. That Brazilian, Ederson, has been a revelation.
His shot-stopping hasn’t been otherworldly, but it’s been solid. In other words, it’s been a massive improvement on Bravo’s 2016-17 campaign. And his passing range and distribution have been extraordinary. They’ve allowed City to become a Guardiola team through and through without sacrificing soft goals.
8. The fullback position went from weakness to strength
Another thing hampering Guardiola in his first season were four aging fullbacks. So City shipped off all four of them, and brought in three replacements. The most expensive of the three, Kyle Walker, has been phenomenal on the right. The second, Benjamin Mendy, tore his ACL in September, and the third, Danilo, has been underwhelming. But Delph, a midfielder, stepped in and was somehow the best left back in the league for five months. He and Walker transformed City’s brilliance from thorough to comprehensive.
9. City’s finishing normalized
Sergio Aguero and other City attackers had uncharacteristically poor seasons in front of goal last year. This year, the diminutive Argentine has outperformed his xG numbers, as has City as a whole – a trend you’d expect from a team of world-class players.
As mentioned above, xG pegged City, not Chelsea or Tottenham, as the Premier League’s best team last year. That’s why it was a preseason favorite eight months ago. It just needed its own finishing, its opponents’ finishing and its own shot-stopping to return to normal levels. All of those things have happened, and the xG-based predictions have been vindicated.
10. Luck and competition
In fact, they’ve been more than vindicated. City has, by any reasonable metric, been the best team in England this year, but it hasn’t quite been roughly 16 points better than the rest. It’s been closer to 10 points better. It has outperformed its underlying numbers by more than anybody else in the league.
Meanwhile, Liverpool and Tottenham have dropped more points than expected. City’s only other potential challenger, United, has vacillated between disappointing and shambolic. That, too, is part of how City opened up a 16-point lead. That, too, is part of why the Citizens are champions on April 15.
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