Manchester City won the Premier League with one hand tied behind their back. Their third victory in four seasons was hardly a surprise, but few titles have been won in a more surprising manner. Almost everything we thought we knew about City was wrong.
Before the season began there was general agreement on what needed to happen if City were to wrest back their crown from Liverpool.
They would, for example, need a good start to put the Reds under pressure. Instead, Pep Guardiola’s side began their campaign as unimpressively as they’d finished the last one.
With almost a third of the season gone they were ninth in the table with just five wins from 12 games. The last of those games, a 1-1 home draw with West Brom on December 15, seemed to sum up the decline of a side eight points behind the table topping champions and four behind Southampton.
We expected big seasons from City’s two outstanding players. Instead, Raheem Sterling suffered a bizarre regression. Having scored 31 goals last season and a total of 48 in the two before that, the England star has found the target just 14 times as the imprecise finishing which dogged his early City days returned with a vengeance.
Kevin de Bruyne has been good but not, by his own exalted standards, great. The 11 assists contributed by the Belgian is a long way behind last season’s record-breaking 20 and considerably less than 2017-18’s 16 and 2016-17’s 18.
A title-challenging City surely needed a big contribution from the two strikers, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, who’d scored 30 league goals between them last season. But an injury-restricted season limited Aguero to two goals while his Brazilian colleague could only manage eight. Guardiola seemed to lose his faith in Jesus, preferring to operate without a specialist striker.
A return to form by Bernardo Silva also seemed vital to a City renaissance. But though the Portuguese midfielder was better than last term, he didn’t attain the heights of two seasons ago.
With so many big guns misfiring, the key contributions came from three players hardly mentioned in the pre-season previews. We can call them The New Boy, The Old Hand and The Kid.
When Ruben Dias made his debut for City against Leeds United on October 3, they had just conceded six goals in their first two games. After Dias’s introduction it would take another 20 games before they conceded their next six.
Dias changed City as profoundly as his fellow countryman Bruno Fernandes changed their neighbours. It may seem counter-intuitive to ascribe a team’s revival to the influence of one player, yet the Portuguese pair prove it can happen.
Last season City conceded 35 goals from 38 games, an unacceptably high total considering the limited amount of possession enjoyed by their opponents. Post Dias, the total is 20 from 33. That’s the kind of defensive number which wins titles.
Dias has been as impressive for City as Virgil van Dijk was for Liverpool. Among other things he’s made his centre-back partner John Stones look world class, an achievement which will seem even more extraordinary by the end of the European Championships. He is the Premier League’s Player of the Year.
Yet it looked as though the defensive improvement wrought by Dias might be cancelled out by the lack of punch up front, which saw City score more than once only four times in their first 13 league games. Enter the Old Hand, a most unlikely solution to their goalscoring problem.
Solid but not spectacular had summed up Ilkay Gundogan’s career at the Etihad. Last season he scored five goals, in the two prior to that he scored six apiece. In five Bundesliga seasons with Borussia Dortmund he’d never topped four.
But this season the German midfielder discovered the joys of goalscoring. His 16 in all competitions makes him City’s top scorer, with many of those goals coming during the crucial spell when 15 victories in a row propelled them from the middle to the top of the table.
There were the openers against Newcastle and Chelsea during the Christmas holidays, followed by a couple against West Brom which presaged the braces against Liverpool and Spurs in February when comprehensive victories served notice that City were back in command. That’s quite a contribution from a player whose €23m transfer fee was modest by City standards.
The Kid, though, cost them nothing at all.
When Guardiola suggested at the end of last season that Phil Foden could replace the departing David Silva it seemed a long-term aspiration rather than a forecast of the immediate future. City’s fondness for the chequebook makes them the unlikeliest side in Europe to produce a home grown hero.
Yet that’s exactly what’s happened. Foden’s burgeoning confidence as the season wore on was revelatory. Just as important as his 14 goals in all competitions was the lift his verve and flair gave a side which appeared to have grown stale.
The economical acquisition of Gundogan and Foden hardly lessens the role played by big money in City’s success. Dias cost €68m while Rodri (€70m), Riyad Mahrez (€68m) and Joao Cancelo (€65m) all had big seasons.
Nevertheless, this season’s title didn’t seem as inevitable as previous triumphs. Guardiola may be the world’s finest manager, but he has usually operated from a position of huge superiority in terms of talent and resources. His recent Champions League failures raised the possibility that the Spaniard could be vulnerable in the absence of such an advantage. Perhaps he lacked the improvisational skills which managers more used to adversity have had to develop.
This season answered that criticism. With so many things not going according to plan, City’s success and the ability of unexpected players to step up is a massive vindication of both manager and system. This has been Guardiola’s equivalent of Jose Mourinho’s great 2009-’10 Inter Milan season. Removal from the comfort zone revealed the true extent of his greatness.
Things should be easier for him next season. The probable arrivals of Erling Haaland and Jack Grealish will add extra firepower, guaranteed to propel City further clear of the domestic pack. Liverpool’s collapse and Manchester United’s inconsistency mean Chelsea may be City’s closest challengers next term. But a period of Bayern Munich-style domestic dominance for Guardiola’s side could be on the cards.
From now on they’ll be using both hands.