If anyone has seen Manchester City’s rise to prominence, they’ll know the club can be described best as “obsessed.” Obsessed with winning. Obsessed with signing the right players. Obsessed with being the best. And that obsession was personified in the defining moment when Liverpool went to the Etihad on January 4.
The Reds winger Sadio Mane’s shot struck the bar as Man City’s John Stones gained on him. Stones quickly tried to clear the ball by smashing it to his goalkeeper Ederson, who deflected the ball towards the net. The centre-back turned again and executed a remarkable slide to stop the ball from crossing the goal line. Sports writers love saying a team was ‘inches away’ from something. In this case, because of goal-line technology, we know that Liverpool was millimetres away from scoring. 11.7 mm to be precise. That’s how close Liverpool was to writing a different ending to one of the most consuming Premier League title races in a while.
City won that day, 2-1. Liverpool’s unbeaten run was ruthlessly snapped. The seven-point cushion turned to four. Winning the Premier League would not be easy. Not even when you’re good enough to reach the Champions League final two years in a row. And that’s what makes City’s achievement so special. Because winning the Premier League is a ridiculously difficult task — and its back-to-back titles couldn’t be farther apart in the quality of the quests.
Last season, City won with five games to spare. They reached 100 points, scored 106 goals, and won 18 games in a row. The pressure this year was different. Liverpool had a sizeable head-start, and once behind, were breathing down City’s neck in a relentless pursuit. But City kept grinding. City kept scoring. City kept winning. 14 games in a row. Tetchy 1-0s like the ones against Burnley and dreamy 6-0s like against Chelsea. By the time it was all over, the top position had switched 32 times between two insanely good teams who scored a record 195 combined points and lost just five matches each.
A lot of Manchester United fans were rooting for City to win the title so that Liverpool wouldn’t. While they hate the Merseysiders, they must have known that two titles in a row is dominance. City is the first team since United (a decade ago) to retain the title and that does, in the cut-throat world of the Premier League, signify an era, however exaggerated that may seem.
While United’s dominance was partly due to an ethos and desire resurrected by Alex Ferguson, City’s is made out of the insatiable desire to keep winning and getting better. They have spent cleverly, and installed Pep Guardiola as the head of a project that has yielded great dividends.
“Winning is so addictive and, of course, in a few days we have the FA Cup. After (that) we’ll prepare well, take the right decisions for next season to come back stronger because Liverpool will maintain it and the other ones will be better. We know it, but we accept the challenge and I promise you we will come back and I have the feeling we will be stronger next season,” Guardiola said after beating Brighton 4-1 on the final day of the league. Ominous words for the rest of the teams because while they’re competitive, they’re still far from City’s quality and depth. In fact, City is the first side since Preston in 1889-90 to win at least once against every side they have faced in two league seasons.
The first task on its agenda for next season will be to find Fernandinho’s protégé. As good as City’s team is, with two quality players in every position, the Brazilian’s ability to break play and trigger attacks is vital to how the team operates. The next task is to help ease the burden on Sergio Aguero, even though the Argentine hardly seems bothered with the weight of expectation.
City will spend wisely with its books under the scanners for financial fair play (FFP) rules, but its academy is producing starlets like Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund). The supply line is impressive and the world’s top stars would want to play under Guardiola. The Champions League remains elusive, but one can see City winning it in the future.
Once upon a time the only star in the city of Manchester, United was on top of the Premier League for just one day this season, when they beat Leicester City on the opening weekend. City, meanwhile, has won 32 out of 38 games for two league seasons in a row — an astonishing 84 per cent winning record. Chelsea is in a fix with a transfer ban and facing the exit of its best player, Eden Hazard. Arsenal is in transition under Unai Emery and Tottenham Hotspur is not sure it will be able to keep its miracle-working manager Mauricio Pochettino. Liverpool showed it can get agonisingly close — but not close enough.
City has shown that last year was no fluke — that it can do it again. With nearly the same consistency and the same fortitude — cold-blooded winners playing red-hot football in sky blue.
The Manchester City era has not just begun; we have been living in it since last season. And there’s no saying when it will end.
(The author is a football freelancer.)