There is something quite delicious about Manchester City winning the league title after a week when Pep Guardiola’s team were called into question in some quarters. If the least worrying ‘crisis’ in history is over, so too is the nonsense talk that Manchester City have somehow disappointed this season because they were eliminated from the Champions League at the quarter-final stage.
While Pep Guardiola will indeed be disappointed not to win a treble in his second season in English football, three successive defeats should not alter the bigger picture. The chances are that this City team will set new Premier League records for points, wins, and goals. They have won the title with five matches to spare. This is an outrageous achievement, given preseason expectation.
Against Tottenham, Guardiola’s team were back to their sumptuous best. They were rampant in the first 30 minutes, suffered a temporary lapse before half-time and then picked Tottenham off in the last third of the game. The only surprise was that City did not score four, five, or six goals. The accusation over the last week is that Manchester City are vulnerable when you take the game to them and therefore can come unstuck against the best teams in the division.
Yet that strategy is a lot easier said than done. In matches between the top six this season, City have taken eight points more than any other team, and scored 11 more goals too. This is total dominance.
It would hardly be a disgrace if Kevin de Bruyne fails to win the PFA Player of the Year award, such has been the magnificence of Mohamed Salah.
But there is nobody within Manchester City’s playing and coaching staff who will underestimate the stupendous form of this quite sumptuous player. De Bruyne is not someone who is best represented by the numbers — if indeed any player is.
He is a touch player, one whose impact lies in creating time and space for others with his impeccable control, vision, along with weight of passes. Any teammate of De Bruyne is guaranteed a precious few extra seconds and yards, and that makes the difference.
Still, the figures aren’t bad either. Manchester City created 441 chances in the Premier League this season, a stunning attacking unit in which players interchange and share responsibility. And yet despite this monument to teamwork, one player has created 23% of all their chances.
De Bruyne has managed 103 in the league; nobody else in a City shirt has passed 60.
Yet the epitome of De Bruyne’s season didn’t come with a magnificent pass played through the lines. During the away game against Chelsea, a match in which De Bruyne would score the winner, the Belgian was pressing a Chelsea defender. For whatever reason, Raheem Sterling was slightly slow to press, and Chelsea were able to pass their way out of trouble.
De Bruyne looked across to Guardiola and held up his hands in anger, like a child snitching to the teacher. ‘Why isn’t everyone sprinting as much as me to win back the ball?’ his expression seemed to say.
Therein lies his brilliance. Skill is matched by work ethic, the effort without the ball every bit as impressive as the majesty with it. De Bruyne is Guardiola’s perfect disciple.
De Bruyne has been Manchester City’s best player, Kyle Walker’s impact cannot be overstated (Jesus Navas played right-back for parts of last season, remember), Leroy Sane’s pace has embarrassed full-backs and David Silva has enjoyed the best season of a wonderful career, but none of those have made the biggest difference. That honour lies with Ederson.
The failure of Claudio Bravo was a large black mark in Guardiola’s book. His response, spending £35m on a 24-year-old uncapped Brazilian, was a huge gamble.
Had Ederson failed as Bravo failed, serious questions would have been asked of Guardiola. Had Ederson failed as Bravo failed, Manchester City may not have won the Premier League.
But Ederson has been incredibly consistent. If David de Gea has been the best goalkeeper in the Premier League this season, the Brazilian’s ability to immediately acclimatise to life in English football and not be swayed by the kick in the face he took from Sadio Mane has been striking.
In no position on the pitch have City improved more from last season to this.
There are still doubts about Sterling; perhaps there always will be. As demonstrated against Tottenham on Saturday, he occasionally frustrates through his lack of composure and occasionally haphazard finishing.
But here’s the thing: Sterling has scored 22 times this season. The reason he occasionally disappoints is because he is so regularly involved in City’s attacking play, viewed by De Bruyne and Silva as the perfect outlet.
And here’s another thing: Sterling has a far better conversion rate of shots to goals in the Premier League this season than Harry Kane. The finishing of one is lauded, the other mocked.
Of course Sterling is not perfect, but no footballer is. He has produced the standout season of his career to date, a multipurpose forward capable of playing as a winger or a false nine, and trusted by Guardiola to stretch teams on the counter-attack. And he’s still only 23.
“The moment Sterling increases his goals, he will be one of the best players in the world because he has everything,” Guardiola said after the Tottenham game. “He is young and he is able to do it.”
The person who focuses most on what Sterling can do more than what he can’t is also the person who matters most.