Guardiola’s wizardry, some Premier League history, and Klopp’s nearly men

And breathe. The Premier League title race this season has been a wrestling contest on the mat between Liverpool and Manchester City; the one in red trying its best to get the blue one in a headlock and pin it down while the other squeezes through some marvelously executed moves that makes it seem that the blue one always had some deeper gears to shift into, release, and pull away from the opponent. City have managed to retain the Premier League title for only the third time in England, a feat previously managed only by Sir Alex Ferguson with Manchester United and Jose Mourinho with Chelsea. It’s commendable not just because of the sheer doggedness necessary to do this, but also for how it was done, and the kind of exceptional team they had to keep at arms length to do that. Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp have had their best ever season in the league by accumulating 97 points and playing some exceptional football to go with it, while losing only a single game. That number deserves some pondering over. 97 points would have won the league for Liverpool in any other season in history, but such has been the consistent excellence of Manchester City that this is just not enough for the reds. So near, yet so far. After 37 games in the Premier League this season, City stood at 95 points and Liverpool at 94. There were two possible outcomes which would have won Liverpool their first league title in 29 years, as long as they won their home fixture against Wolverhampton Wanderers (Wolves). First, City had to lose against Brighton, or the second best outcome, Brighton had to hold City to a draw, thereby sending Liverpool through on goal difference. Liverpool won their final game of the season against Wolves at Anfield by a 2-0 margin courtesy a Sadio Mane double, and moved to 97 points. It wasn’t enough. City blew Brighton away in their last fixture of the season 4-1 to edge past Liverpool into 98 points and retain the title. Their run had not always been easy, especially in the context of their elimination from the Champions League at the quarter final stage on away goals, and the need to stay tuned in to their title run. Those are the times when its easiest to lose sight of what you can achieve, by virtue of what you’ve just lost, but City kept at it, industry combined with intelligence while it dealt with each opponent at a time and refused to be overwhelmed. A single point eventually separated the two, but a deeper inquiry would reveal that its more than that. It has taken Guardiola three years to get this City team, his City team, where it finds itself today; having carved for itself a slice of Premier League history that will be remembered for years to come.

The fact that City were even within touching distance of Liverpool come the last game of the season is a testament to their powers of recovery, self belief, and the ability of Pep Guardiola’s teams to keep forcing the initiative come what may. Not that the same could not be said of Liverpool, but there was a time in this continuum of the season when Liverpool could have wrested the initiative when they found themselves leading the race during Christmas, but they hadn’t quite done so. Rewind back to the cold, unforgiving conditions of December in England this season and City had just lost successive games to Crystal Palace at home and Leicester City away, ceding precious ground to Liverpool in the title race. Going into their second Premier League face off at The Etihad in January (the tie at Anfield was a 0-0 draw where Riyad Mahrez missed his penalty), City found themselves 7 points behind Liverpool. Lose the game and they would trail Liverpool by ten points and the title race could have been a procession for Klopp’s men. City dug deep, and beat Liverpool by a 2-1 margin in that game to claw back into the race. A cursory glance at some of City’s results since tells us that this has been anything but easy. They have chosen to not enthrall at full pelt like they are used to, but have systematically eked out victories that have been at times more about the product than the process itself. Even the goals, and sometimes the inspiration, have come from rather unexpected quarters in this time frame. Vincent Kompany, Ikay Gundogan, Aymeric Laporte, Riyad Mahrez, and the youngster Phil Foden have all risen to the task when it was required and this is evidence of how well Guardiola has kept his players mentally and physically invested in such a mammoth task, even the players who are not always guaranteed a berth in the starting line up week in week out turning up with match winning performances thereby keeping the momentum secure.

While it might be borderline heresy to even suggest this after the history City have just created, things haven’t gone exactly the way Guardiola ideally would have wanted to for City this season. Injuries have not been kind to them and some of their key players have spent more time on the doctors table than carving out the opposition on the pitch. Benjamin Mendy has made only bit part appearances for City in the beginning of the season before succumbing to yet another discomfort in his knee that seems more than what it was last season. He is a hugely influential left back tailor made for a Guardiola team with his relentless thrust and creativity from the flanks, but the manager has hardly been able to call upon him when needed. Instead it is Oleksandr Zinchenko, a midfielder by trade, who has been converted into a makeshift left back. The fact that Guardiola has trusted him with such a crucial position on the pitch seems to have fed into the youngsters confidence, because Zinchenko has hardly put a foot wrong. He has not been the marauding full back that’s a feature of Guardiola’s teams but instead has taken on a more balanced role from the left flank. Frequently found adding numbers in midfield and helping the build up play from the middle because of his ability with the ball at his feet, he connects extremely well with the City wingers who stay wide and hold their position thus taking away the need for him to stray far away from his actual position when called to defend. This has also helped City resist better when hit on the counter attacks. Kevin De Bruyne has been another fundamental miss for City this season, with his ability to run the game from midfield, drive forward with the ball at his feet, and create those vertical flat passes from the flanks that bypass the entire opposition before arcing back to City’s attackers. Issues with his knee ligament and subsequent hamstring problems have meant that he’s been unable to significantly contribute towards City’s run ever since the season began, in any meaningful manner. To lose one of your most influential players, especially the kind who was the cornerstone of City’s Premier League record season in 2017/18, could have debilitated any team. However, this City not only have fortune of having exceptional players to call upon when needed, Guardiola has also over the course of his tenure ensured that they are replaced effectively without any loss of momentum or efficiency in the play. The result of hundreds of hours in training and getting used to patterns and repetitions.

Enter Bernardo Silva, that rare mix of craft and graft, who has stepped in ably to fill the De Bruyne sized hole in the team. When City bought Bernardo Silva from that glorious Monaco team two years back, most of the conversation revolved around him eventually taking up the mantle from the much older David Silva- the central midfield magician who had kept City ticking all these years by virtue of his craft, vision, and quickness of thought. A player who had come to redefine the notion of the archetypal Premier League midfielder as the all action, blood and thunder kind. Not many would have prophesied that Bernardo Silva would be an all action midfielder capable of practically replacing anyone in that City midfield or attack. He can play on the left side of the attack, the right, as a central midfielder, or as a roving number ten. Chances are he would make a decent number nine too, but this hasn’t been tested yet. Simply said, this is one of those purchases which City just have to be lauded for. The kind of purchase that increasingly looks like a basement bargain. Bernardo Silva this season has been, in the view of this author, City’s best player in a season where an equally strong case can be made for Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling for their ruthlessness and efficacy in front of goal. A man for all seasons who never stops working from his position, never stops pressing and harrying the opposition for the ball, and never stops probing the other team with his frequent runs off the ball and his ability to pick out a pass, or use his powerful left foot to find those top corners either side of the opposition goalkeeper. In the Portuguese, Guardiola has found the heartbeat of this City team in the absence of De Bruyne, and Bernardo Silva has responded with aplomb to this show of trust from the manager. Someone who was making brief appearances off the bench last season for City is today their most potent creative player. It’s around the same time De Bruyne’s injury relapsed that Fernandinho, another very important cog in Guardiola’s set up, jarred his knee playing the derby against Manchester United few weeks back. In hindsight, this was the one injury that really threatened to derail City’s title run because of his fundamental importance as the lone defensive midfielder in City’s line up. City had experienced their Christmas time wobble against Crystal Palace and Leicester coincidentally at a time when Fernandinho was absent from the line up and for once, it showed. The Brazilian is tasked with the duty of sweeping out the opposition attacks from the base, building up play from the back, and being the one to break up play by timely interceptions as high up the field as possible so that City don’t end up conceding free kicks to the opposition deep into their own halves. He is part doorman, part builder, and part destroyer. A mandate that is quite hard to just pass onto any other player, but this is where the effervescent İlkay Gundogan has stepped up. Gundogan’s strengths have traditionally been further up the pitch, as a midfielder who can drive forward with the ball at his feet and make runs into the opposition box. This City don’t quite need that from him, and he has been used by Guardiola as a defensive midfielder ever since Fernandinho was sidelined and the German has deputized ably, and how. City have tweaked it up a little to account for Fernandinho’s absence, especially how high their full backs go up the pitch to accommodate for Gundogan’s lack of historical experience with the position. Zinchenko and Kyle Walker are usually found drifting towards the middle to help Gundogan out when out of possession, and Bernardo Silva drops back as and when required, if he is on the wings, to make up extra numbers in midfield. Even accounting for all those modifications, it is Gundogan’s excellent reading of the game and anticipation from that position that has seen him make it look quite easy. Context matters too. He has been called to handle this position in a phase where City just didn’t have the comfort of drawing or losing a single game. The margin of error was at an all time low. High pressure conditions that can make players wilt, or even self destruct, having found themselves playing a new position against opponents eager to press, cause mistakes, and snatch a point off them, while staving off a rampant Liverpool every step of the way. Gundogan might not be at City next season, what with the rumors swirling around of contract extension talks not having been to his liking, but he’d have helped create some important history along the way, that just may have panned out differently if not for him.

Beneath all of this is unmissable genius of Pep Guardiola. 198 points over the course of two seasons is what would ordinarily be branded as ‘madness’ but this is the reality we find ourselves in. This is what City have made possible and they have laid down a marker now for what teams need to do, or how much they need to stretch themselves, to get their hands on the title. ‘Almost perfect’ just will not cut it, as Klopp remarked in the aftermath of their game against Wolves. When Guardiola rocked up in England, he wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms and maybe predictably so. England, and English media in general (with notable exceptions), have often been loathe to welcome the kind of football that Guardiola wants his teams to play. His teams are rarely physically imposing by design, and rely on the more silky skill sets of their technical players and intricate play within short spaces to pass, move, and continuously probe for weaknesses in the opponent before landing the killer blow. Possession of the ball is of paramount importance and there is a collective endeavor to retrieve the ball as soon as they lose it. The idea being, the other team can’t score if they don’t have the ball. All of this runs in many ways counter to the notion of English football, which would rather take pride in its physically imposing players having a go at each other in the middle of the park like two male stags locking horns to establish turf supremacy or taking a sort of neanderthal like joy in seeing their central defenders bloodied after a bruising challenge and carrying on with a tape on their head as they put their boots through that ball popping around in their general vicinity into Row Z. To hell with possession. England wants a spectacle, but Guardiola serves up a very different one. In fairness, Guardiola’s City don’t nearly play the same way his Bayern Munich team did, or his Barcelona did. He has learnt, improvised, and added new dimensions to his game ever since he left Barcelona and this version of City are a more vertically attacking unit than any of his former teams. They don’t wait with the patience his Barcelona side did when Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez buzzed around and pulled opponents into uncomfortable shapes before going through them. The directness of Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, and Bernardo Silva enables him to play a somewhat hybrid version of the Guardiola brand of football which means they don’t hold onto the ball in the middle for long periods, and quickly make the transition from defense, to midfield, to attack. His use of long balls, something that he perfected while at Bayern Munich, has enabled City to catch their opponents when they least expect it. Case in point are the instances when Ederson, the City goalkeeper, has pinged passes to Aguero or Sterling with unerring accuracy forcing the opposition to commit fewer personnel when pressing City from the front. Those who were clued into the news and surrounding discussion regarding the purchase of Ederson from Benfica during Guardiola’s second season would remember the questions that English media raised, some worth engaging with, and most worthy of being filed into that folder titled ‘Bollocks’. In Guardiola’s first season with City, he’d brought in Claudio Bravo from Barcelona, as he wanted a goalkeeper who would build play from the back while also being exceptional with the ball at his feet. Bravo, for all of his Barcelona pedigree, didn’t exactly set the season alight and was frequently committing errors that he had no business committing. This prompted the press to question if Guardiola’s style would work in England at all and obituaries were being written for his ‘failure to adapt’ to England. Ederson is living proof that the issue was more with the execution than the plan itself. Ever since, City have seldom looked out of sorts at the back and have a keeper for years. Literally and figuratively. As is often the case, the English media hasn’t raised this point thereafter and have withdrawn into their shells, waiting for when they raise their heads again to say ‘I told you so’. This never gets old. Guardiola could very well turn water into wine and yet certain factions of the media might turn their nose up at it because it isn’t fruity enough. Is there any surprise anymore that the idiocy that is Brexit is a running feature of our times? There is another bite of irony here that the English might want to dip into with their fish and chips. Guardiola has improved and raised the tactical awareness and positional flexibility of English players such as John Stones, Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker, Phil Foden; making them discover deeper gears within themselves over these past three years by virtue of the relentless high grade training and making them a much sharper, stronger, and tactically intelligent version of themselves. In this shape and form, they drastically improve the quality of play of the English national team and are able to read and respond to in game situations in a better way than at any other point in their careers. A ‘foreigner’ directly improving the fortunes of the national team? Brexit says hello, again.

Where does all of this leave Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp? They have had their best top flight season ever and yet come up agonizingly short. In fairness, Klopp probably knew for some time that this was City’s title to lose as the margins became thinner with each passing week. The last couple of months in this title race has followed a set script. No sooner had Liverpool won their game and moved to the top of the table, City would win theirs; rinse and repeat. So it did, on the final day too. A deeper examination of the numbers in Liverpool’s title run would show that they have lost just once in the league. To City. It’s the number of draws (seven) Liverpool have had that has been their undoing. In short, games where they did enough not to lose, but not enough to win. City on the other hand have lost more games, but they have put those borderline games to the sword with some slick attacks closer to the final whistle, sometimes by sheer force of will. Kompany’s screamer of a goal against Leicester last week is a fine example of this. There is, however, a lot to applaud Klopp’s men for this season. Virgil Van Dijk, the Premier League player of the season, who even at that astronomical cost of acquisition looks like a bargain playing with the kind of poise and calm he has provided the Liverpool back line with. His impact has been immediate and has been the foundation on which the Liverpool defense has thrived. Trent Alexander Arnold, the English youngster who has provided exceptional attacking flair from the right flank and is an important source of creativity for the forward line by virtue of his speed of decision making and attacking verve in the final third. Andy Robertson, an indefatigable presence on the left with his searing runs and defensive nous. In the middle, Giorginio Wijnaldum has made his presence felt while bringing in the necessary work rate to enable the forward runs of his full backs. Wijnaldum is also excellent on the ball, and represents in some part a departure from the hard running and static midfield Klopp has generally favored over much technical players. Jordan Henderson, a player forever giving the impression of someone who is dispensable considering his rather blunt presence on the ball, has been having a career revival under Klopp this season. His energy all over the pitch, work rate, and more recently his runs in the final third to link up attacks, have helped Liverpool add more teeth to their press, while pressing higher up the pitch. Fabinho has eased into the line up after a phase where he looked uneasy on the ball and was dispossessed frequently, and is now someone trusted by Klopp as the defensive midfielder in that midfield line up in more important games. Sadio Mane has been the joint top scorer this season alongside his team mate Mohammed Salah and Arsenal’s Pierre Emerick Aubameyang. Mane has been in many ways the focal point of Liverpool’s attack in a season where Salah has often struggled with the extra attention that has come his way since his exploits last season. The fact that Roberto Firmino, who is adept at creating so much space for the Liverpool front three has been absent for some time has something to do with it too and in his absence, the replacements like Daniel Sturridge or Divock Origi haven’t quite had the same impact. Mane has benefited from this extra attention that Salah has had and he has roamed into more central areas than he used to, finishing off moves with a hit-man like accuracy. There is very little to find fault with this Liverpool team, and Klopp has fashioned a formidable outfit that can run the opposition ragged like they did to Barcelona in the Champions League return leg at Anfield, while being uncompromising in front of goal. A thrilling team, fueled by the infectious passion of their manager who seems to extract newer levels of commitment and tenacity from his players with each passing game. He doesn’t merely send his team out to play, he sends them to war, and his players respond.

In the backdrop of all that, the inability to win the title after a 29 year wait and having the best ever season for the club has to grate against Klopp and his men, despite all the outwardly congratulatory messages towards the winners. In many ways he has stretched the boundaries of this Liverpool team in their endeavor to challenge City. How do you really come back from a season like this and convince your players to give even more the next season? Is ‘more’ even humanly possible? He cannot allow those thoughts to fester within his group, because in two weeks time, Liverpool play for the only trophy that could finally render some tangible meaning to their otherwise stellar season. The Champions League final against Tottenham Hotspurs in Madrid. Win that, and almost all would be forgotten, even if some Liverpool supporters might ultimately see a Premier League title as the ultimate prize after such a long wait. Lose that, and they could plunge into serious self doubt. City will not remain static and will be reinforcing in the summer. There is an ageing core there which needs replacing. Guardiola might be set to remain at City for even longer than previously thought, because of his close association with Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, the Director of Football and Chief Executive Officer, respectively, at Manchester City. These are people Guardiola worked with before in Spain, and therefore enjoys the complete support and confidence when it comes to player acquisitions and transfers. For a demanding and hands on manager like Guardiola, this is of much importance and at City he just might have the right conditions to build something of lasting value after his Barcelona stint. In the meanwhile, we just might have to live through the timeline of the ruthlessly brilliant elves in blue masterminded by the Catalan genius that is Pep Guardiola, leaving their lasting imprints on the fabric of English football.

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