Football Features

How Pep Guardiola’s ‘Spain phase’ delivered Man City’s ‘hardest’ league title

By Muhammad Butt

How Pep Guardiola's 'Spain phase' delivered Man City's 'hardest' league title

Published: 20:03, 12 May 2021 | Updated: 19:19, 10 September 2021

For the third time in the last four years, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are Premier League champions.

City won consecutive Premier Leagues in 2017/18 and 2018/19 before suffering a lot in 2019/20 as Liverpool romped to the title. It looked like Guardiola’s style might have hit a brick wall and he’d either need to overhaul the squad completely or maybe even adjust his tactical approach.

Then 2020/21 started and, after their humiliating Champions League exit to Lyon at the back end of the previous campaign, City started the season in sluggish form. By matchday 9, a point in the campaign where they’d been top of the league on four of the five previous season (being second the other time), City were languishing in 13th. Yes, 13th. They had already lost 2-5 at home to Leicester and failed to beat Leeds, Liverpool and West Ham (plus they lost to José Mourinho’s Spurs).

With furious pressing and counter-attacking sides Spurs and Liverpool top of the league, and the Reds coming off a dominant title win, it looked like the Guardiola era of English football was over.

“This has been a season and a Premier League title like no other,” said Guardiola after City had been confirmed as champions in mid-May. “This was the hardest one. We will always remember this season for the way that we won.”

And what was that way? Well even back on matchday 9, with City languishing in 13th, the plan was already in motion to change City’s fortunes. Centre-back Ruben Dias had been signed after the Leicester loss, and instantly he made a difference.

Ilkay Gundogan, who didn’t play during both the Leicester and Spurs defeats and had only started twice, became a mainstay of the midfield and John Stones came in from the cold. Having played 90 minutes on the opening day, Stones subsequently missed seven games but returned  alongside Gundogan for the 5-0 thrashing of Burnley. And from there, things took off.

Having Gundogan next to defensive midfielder Rodri gave City an added degree of protection in midfield without being as defensive as your typical double pivot. Gundogan is an all-pitch kind of midfielder in the Xavi mould, which enabled him to dominate from deep in a 4-2-3-1. Back in 2013, he looked destined to become the best midfielder in the world only for injuries to devastate his career. Well, has been fully fit for 2020/21 and in Guardiola’s new system has thrived, scoring a massive 12 goals on the season.

Having a defender like Stones next to Ruben Dias at the back helped, too. The Englishman is a fantastic defender who usually struggles for confidence, but Ruben Dias’ communication and leadership helped settled him down, and he responded with his best season in a City shirt.

Stones’ added mobility, as compared with Aymeric Laporte, is a big part of what helped City prevent the kind of counter-attacks that hurt them last season and, as a result, they lost just two of the games Stones started this season (one of which was against Leeds, where Ruben Dias was rested). As a duo the Stones-Ruben Dias pairing played 17 games, winning 15 while keeping 12 clean sheets and conceding just six goals.

There was also the emergence of Joao Cancelo into the side. Having spent much of the previous campaign on the bench the Portuguese full-back came through this season playing comfortably on either flank, but in a different way to Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy. Cancelo was reminiscent of Fabian Delph’s performances in 2017-18 in that he “underlapped” and helped create an extra body in midfield. This enabled City to not only dominate possession in the middle third more efficiently, but also guard against counters.

This cautious approach resulted in a Manchester City side that has a lower goals-per-game rate than in any of their last four seasons. They’ve scored 2.06 goals this season, well behind their other three totals which are all 2.5 or higher. They’ve taken the fewest shots at 15.86, and the fewest shots on target (5.63). They’ve created fewer chances (12.06 per game) and fewer big chances (2.06) than at any time in the last four seasons, too.

They’ve played the fewest passes (675.43 per game) and have averaged just one through-ball per game this season, miles behind last season’s rate of 2.24, and nowhere near their 2017-18 peak of 3.11. City have no longer been looking for those killer balls as regularly, and as a result turned over possession less and thus have been exposed less often.

The 2020-21 Premier League title win is an ode to Guardiola’s versatility, his ability to retain his identity while still adjusting his style to cope with the realities his team has been facing. City won the EFL Cup, they’ve won the Premier League and they’re in the final of the Champions League; they could end this season with a treble. Not The Treble, but still a treble.

His style of play is so dominant and influential that ever since he came into the game back in 2008-09, he’s been inspiring other managers, even legendary ones. Vicente del Bosque famously aped his passing style of football with a twist, playing 4-2-3-1 instead of 4-3-3, adding Xabi Alonso to that legendary Barcelona midfield of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.

Del Bosque rode this system of play all the way to the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championship. Two incredible victories that weren’t high on thrills but were loaded with defensive domination; Spain owned the ball, so their opponents couldn’t use it to hurt them. Across both tournaments, they didn’t concede a single goal in the knockout rounds. In fact, in the 13 games across both competitions Spain conceded just three goals and kept a massive 10 clean sheets. Sound familiar?

Just as Del Bosque used Guardiola’s style of play, with a twist, to dominate, Guardiola has now thrown it back a decade to reference the greatest tribute act his style ever saw. He has now entered the “Spain phase” of his career, where his side were not as exciting, not as thrilling, but just as dominant. Look at their Champions League run where they’ve conceded just four goals in their 12 games so far, keeping a massive eight clean sheets. City have been truly relentless despite their diminished attacking output.

“I am so proud to be the manager here and of this group of players. They are so special. To come through this season – with all the restrictions and difficulties we’ve faced – and show the consistency we have is remarkable,” said Guardiola. “It is relentless. Every single day, they are there, fighting for success, trying always to be better. They have been so, so resilient.

“[The Premier League] is the one where you have to be there every three days, playing all your rivals home and away. Only by being the very best, week in week out, can you win this competition. It is a huge success.”

The most wins (25), the most goals (72) and the fewest conceded (26). Who could deny that City have been the very best side in the Premier League this season? And as Guardiola enters his “Spain phase,” could City be set for an extended period of dominance both in terms of domestic matters, and European? Let’s wait and see.

The 2021/22 Premier League title favourites (with Sky Bet):

  • Manchester City (8/13)
  • Chelsea (5/1)
  • Liverpool (13/2)
  • Manchester Utd (8/1)

Odds accurate at time of writing (19:54, 12/05/2021). You have to be 18+ to gamble. For more information, go to begambleaware.org.

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