Manchester City have always been artists under Pep Guardiola, painting beautiful pictures on the pitch. But this final victory to clinch back-to-back titles proved they have added more depth and more technical perspective to their brushwork, inspired by Liverpool to push their creative boundaries to the very limit; and the end result, you have to say, is a football masterpiece.
City’s ability to weave patterns has never been in question but even last year, when they broke records for the number of points won and goals scored, there remained one or two doubts about whether their mental strength could match their physical skills.
So, when Liverpool mounted their ferocious late charge for the league title this season there were those who believed City, under the intensity of that attack, could crack and fall apart; that suddenly their muse would desert them.
That possibility was amplified when Tottenham overturned them in the Champions League but the response since then has been remarkable, not necessarily for the attractiveness of their football but instead for the boldness and braveness of their focus.
Every week, Liverpool turned the screw and turned up the noise – late winners against Southampton, Tottenham and Newcastle, battering City metaphorically with the force of a giant paint gun, spraying graffiti on the champion’s wall. But Guardiola’s masters stood firm and never lost belief.
Vincent Kompany’s pile-driver against Leicester, in a game in which City appeared to be struggling, summed up their new mental strength and resolve – and it augurs well for Guardiola if he is hoping to build a dynasty that lasts more than just two years.
Here at the Amex, City showed every single aspect of their character, quality and skill. The beautiful brushwork of Ilkay Gundogan, whose wonderful free-kick made it 4-1, was perfection, as was Riyad Mahrez’s contribution, delivered with his right rather than his left foot. But City’s palette didn’t only consist of light and airy colours.
At 1-0 down to a Glenn Murray header after poor defensive concentration at a corner, and with Liverpool leading by the same score at Anfield, there were serious questions asked of Guardiola’s champions who started the game so nervously that even their own fans were quiet.
But from the moment Sergio Aguero grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, equalising immediately, the mental strength and determination, the bold colours to add to the sky blues, came through.
Aymeric Laporte’s header to put them 2-1 up may have been almost uncontested, so poor was Brighton’s defending, but it came after a major personal battle between the centre-half and Murray that summed up City’s improvement this season.
The Brighton striker is an old-fashioned forward who likes to ‘give it out’ and put opponents under pressure, and the two had already clashed twice after Laporte nipped into steal balls from his rival – taking a cut on the chin for his troubles. So, when Murray scored to put Albion ahead it appeared he had won the battle – only to see Laporte run straight past him to score later in the half.
All over the pitch, City won their personal battles against a combative team which has caused plenty of sides problems this season, not least Arsenal last week at the Emirates where they forced a draw.
But even at 1-0 down the champions backed themselves and waited for their quality to win through.
That, more than anything, is why City deserve to be top of the pile for the second season in a row, despite the all-action challenge of their closest rivals. They have put all their wonderful qualities on the table for us all to see once more – and then, when pushed by Liverpool, added some others to prove themselves an all-round team worthy of the title.
What an incredible season and what incredible champions; and although they say the table never lies, in this case it doesn’t even go half the way to telling the full story of the last 10 months and how they got there.
Pep Guardiola’s side are heading towards becoming one of the greatest teams in English football history. But they couldn’t have taken this latest step to greatness if Liverpool hadn’t pushed them so hard.
Sometimes the most talented artists can only produce their very best work when pushed to their very limits and in this case the end result, after 14 wins in a row, was one of the most complete we have ever seen. It will hang in football’s gallery of history for all time.