Welcome to Premier League DARTS, FC Yahoo‘s weekly EPL column that will run every Monday or Tuesday morning. Why “DARTS”? Because Henry Bushnell will recap the weekend’s biggest games with Discussion, Analysis, Reactions, Takeaways and Superlatives. All of that is below. But first, a brief intro …
It took 34 weeks. Thirty-three games. No more, no less. Thirty-three games to crown Manchester City the 2017-18 Premier League champion. Thirty-three games for the denouements to be written.
Sunday, in a dynastic sense, could end up being remembered as a beginning, not an end. It could be the first of many days like it under a regime that could be unlike any other. But it was seen in the present as a culmination. As an answer to questions, and proof of concepts. As a conclusion.
City’s is a story two years in the making that was at times frustrating and tiresome, but in other cases expertly told. It’s now a story of self-belief and vindication. It is also, as many were quick to remind on Sunday, a story of financial might and return on investment. But of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Because Pep Guardiola, undoubtedly the story’s protagonist, is a bit more complicated than that.
1. There isn’t, and never was, an antidote to Guardiola’s Man City
It’s remarkable to think that mere days before the opuses were filling the pages of British newspapers, the chorus of doubters was in full voice. Mere days before the football world celebrated Guardiola’s brilliance, temporarily snuffing out skeptics in the process, the anti-Pep sentiments were rising to the fore once again.
City had lost three in a row, and Guardiola, the narrative went, was getting exposed. Manchester United had shone light on vulnerabilities. Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool had provided the blueprint: Press ravenously, take the game to City, and the soon-to-be champions will crumble.
On Saturday, for the second time this season, Tottenham followed the blueprint. And for the second time this season, it didn’t expose City; it instead exposed something else. It proved the idea that there is a blueprint to be utterly foolish.
As discussed back in January, it takes extraordinary coaching, extraordinary players, extraordinary execution and a touch of fortune to do what Liverpool has done to City. Nobody else can replicate it. Mauricio Pochettino, to some extent, tried. But instead of disrupting the Citizens, he allowed them to show just why they’re champions.
2. Guardiola’s perseverance and vindication
They are champions because Guardiola absorbed criticism, but didn’t let it infect his football mind. The Premier League wanted Guardiola to change. He refused. It responded by pinning its eminence to his failure. His success, though, proved inexorable.
As the New York Times’ Rory Smith wrote four months into Guardiola’s first season in Manchester, during a horrid, mistake-filled run of form that galvanized doubt, the Spaniard became a measuring stick: “If Guardiola struggles, then the myth of English exceptionalism is vindicated. The Premier League can continue to regard itself as a world apart. If he succeeds, though, then all of that falls away.”
Guardiola has indeed succeeded. And he succeded by doubling down on his philosophy – by betting on himself. By upgrading, not altering. By turning 61 percent possession into 71. By taking his core ideas to their extremes rather than compromising.
That is one of many reasons his Citizens are champions; but it’s the fundamental reason behind all of them. Their title is a triumph of perseverance – perseverance of an outsider, and of his ideas. It’s not proof that the Premier League isn’t the pinnacle. But yes, it’s vindication.
3. Guardiola’s stubbornness as a virtue
It’s also a lesson in overly simplistic critiques. Because while Guardiola was struggling, his team shipping four goals apiece to Leicester and Everton, his brilliance wasn’t brilliance at all; it was stubbornness. His adherence to his own ways was a refusal to change with the times; to adapt to his current climate.
The criticisms are levied against all types of managers, all the time. They’re some of the most common explanations for Arsene Wenger’s downfall. And in many cases, they’re valid. But let the contrast between Guardiola and Wenger serve as a reminder that a stubborn adherence to principles isn’t inherently bad; it’s often the principles, or the implementation of them, or the players acting on them, that are the problem.
4. Guardiola’s adjustments
The criticisms, if there still are any – and there surely will be when City hits its first rut next season – aren’t entirely fair anyway. Because Guardiola does change. He does experiment. He does adapt. Ironically, an adaptation was precisely what got him in trouble two weeks ago at Anfield.
He doesn’t stray from his beliefs, but he acts upon them in different ways, with different personnel, in different alignments, with different detailed instructions.
Saturday, in fact, offered some examples. Fabian Delph played as an inverted fullback, a ploy Guardiola has used at times at City and previous stops, but certainly not always. He has also tried two center backs and three; unbalanced formations and balanced ones; square pegs in square holes and round ones.
He is willing to tinker, sometimes to a fault. And he is willing to adjust on the fly. Sensing that Raheem Sterling, the poster boy for his personal tutelage, was being restrained by defensive responsibility on Saturday, Guardiola pulled off Leroy Sane for Nicolas Otamendi. It was a move that appeared alarmingly conservative. In reality, it liberated Sterling. Previously pinned back by Tottenham’s fullbacks …
… Sterling moved to a central role and immediately changed the course of the game. Around 10 minutes later, after a few near misses, he scored the goal that put it out of sight.
5. Deviations from the Guardiola way
The other misconception about Guardiola’s style is that it is solely idealistic; that his insistence on playing out of the back is simply a purist’s attempt to make the beautiful game beautiful, as it should be. That might be part of it. But form, in the end, is nothing without function. Guardiola’s system is about function. And again, the Spurs game(s) provided timely examples.
Possessing and playing through pressure is always one of the primary principles. The idea is that a high press leaves space and opportunity behind it, and that, on average, the most effective way to take advantage is with short, controlled passes. But if an opponent were to commit all 10 outfield players to an absurdly high press in City’s defensive third, functionality would override principle. Guardiola isn’t averse to long-balls. He’s just averse to aimless long-balls that equate to concession of the ball.
City had just 52 percent of possession on Saturday, a slight improvement on the season-low 51 percent it had in a 4-1 victory over Tottenham in December. It scored via a long-ball, a quick-strike counter and a set piece. It created several other chances by moving the ball over long distances in short amounts of time.
Guardiola understands the importance of stretching the field as much as anybody. And if an opponent like Tottenham is intent on compressing it, clamping down on the possession play but leaving itself susceptible to City’s field-stretchers, so be it. The Citizens will take advantage. That, too, is part of why they’re champions.
6. The real problem with City’s spending
So, too, is the money. It would be ridiculous to ignore the money. Even Guardiola would admit that. It would also, though, be ridiculous to frame it as a blight on City’s brilliance. More on that in a bit.
But there are reasonable gripes here – not with the amount money spent; rather, with the source of it.
PSG’s Qatari-ownership has drawn a lot of attention and ire in recent years, but the French club isn’t the only one controlled and financed by a wealthy Middle Eastern state. Man City is effectively owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family in the United Arab Emirates, a country, like Qatar, with a long history of human rights violations. It has jailed and tortured dissenters, and engineered “forced disappearances.” The transgressions have been chronicled by Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch, among others. There’s even video evidence. (Warning: Graphic)
This is where Manchester City’s money, under the guise of “City Football Group,” is coming from. It’s important to at least be aware of that. Is it fair to associate Guardiola and his players with the UAE government? That’s for you to decide. Unfortunately, these are the decisions modern football forces us to make.
7. The essentiality of City’s spending
But please, don’t hold up the $640 million spent over two years as something that detracts from City’s success. Because money isn’t just a facet of City’s success; it’s a necessary facet of success in the modern game.
In fact, City will be the only of the Big Five league champions this season that didn’t have the highest wage bill in its respective nation. Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and PSG all spend more than their domestic competitors; and all have won more than them this year. City’s average player salary, on the other hand, was slightly behind Manchester United’s at the time of the most recent Global Sports Salaries Survey. And spending among title contenders in England is generally more equitable than in other top European leagues.
The Premier League table, though, was not. The 16-point gap isn’t solely a reflection of City’s spending compared to that of its rivals. It’s a reflection of City’s – Guardiola’s, the players’, the club’s – comprehensive excellence.
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