By Rory Smith
It will not be a cause of too much concern at Manchester City, as its players and fans and executives celebrate another Premier League title, another almost perfect season, another step on the road to its ambition of becoming the world’s foremost club, but there is one curious exception to its dominance.
Manchester City’s players, as a rule, tend not to win individual awards. Over the last two years — two years in which Pep Guardiola’s team has won the Premier League, two years in which it has recorded the highest point totals in English soccer history, the latest secured with a 4-1 win at Brighton on Sunday — England’s professionals have chosen a player who won nothing as the player of the year: Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah last year, and his teammate Virgil van Dijk this season.
Raheem Sterling did, at least, win the Football Writers’ Association award this season, the first time a City player had won that prize for half a century. It is an oddity that has been noted by the club’s hierarchy, given that City has now claimed four Premier League titles in seven years and has become English soccer’s pre-eminent force.
There are many reasons for that — not least, of course, the uneasy position of individual awards in a team sport — but it is hard not to think that part of the explanation might be that no player is the dominant figure in City’s story, as van Dijk has been in Liverpool’s challenge this year, or Salah was last year. Manchester City is a club built a different way; its triumphs are attributed not to someone on the field, but to the person who put them there. No matter how much City’s players excel, no matter what they achieve, they will always be overshadowed by Guardiola.
It is not enough to say that Manchester City is a club designed in Guardiola’s image. The connection runs deeper than that: this is a club built for his image. When his friends, and former Barcelona colleagues, Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, first tried to entice him to Manchester — back in 2012, during his sabbatical year in New York — and he demurred, preferring to move to Bayern Munich, City appointed Manuel Pellegrini instead. Pellegrini’s style, the thinking went, was cast in the same mould as Guardiola’s. The Chilean was brought in to minimize culture shock.
As City waited, Soriano, the chief executive, and Begiristain, the director of football, prepared the ground for Guardiola’s arrival. They set out to sign players who they believed would thrive under his tutelage: Begiristain was sure Guardiola would love Kevin De Bruyne; there has long been a suspicion that Guardiola recommended the signing of Raheem Sterling, even before he had joined City.
There is evidence of Guardiola’s influence in every little detail: he approved the decision to place a quote from poet Tony Walsh — “some are born here, some are drawn here, but we all call it home” — on the first team’s revamped changing room at the Etihad Stadium; sportswear manufacturer Puma has consulted him on its design for next season’s jersey and training apparel. He and his coaches are, according to Soriano, “very interested in the technical aspects” of the jersey.
He is so integral, of course, because of the esteem in which he is held. In Soriano’s eyes, Guardiola is the “best coach in the world.” There are plenty with no friendship with Guardiola, or allegiance to City, who would say the same. His achievements are such that it is an easy case to make: three Spanish championships with Barcelona, three German ones with Bayern Munich, and now two English titles at City. He has two Champions Leagues, too, a couple of Club World Cups, and sundry domestic cups.
If anything, though, merely weighing Guardiola’s worth in gold and silverware is reductive. It is the style that he brings, too, that makes him so valuable, that persuaded City not just to wait for him, but to spend the time building a team and a club that could offer him everything he might want.
It is the fact that his teams — whether in Spain, Germany or now England — have set a new bar not just for effectiveness, as demonstrated by the fact that City has now dropped just 30 points over two whole Premier League seasons, but for aesthetics.
Guardiola, 48, may not yet be at the halfway point of his managerial career, only a little more than a decade in, but he has already altered what we, as fans, expect elite soccer to look like.
He has added to its lexicon — without Guardiola, any striker under 6 feet tall would not be automatically referred to as a “false nine” — but, most significant, he has changed its standards: those of the fans, who now hold their own teams up to the barometer of his teams; those of the players, who now expect their own coaches to go into the sort of detail their friends working under Guardiola are given; and those of the teams, who know, now, that to win championships, there is no room for error.
Liverpool now knows it will need 100 points to wrest the championship from City’s grasp next year. Just as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have redefined what it takes to be considered a truly great player — scoring dozens more goals per season than had previously been thought feasible — so Guardiola has had a seismic impact on what it takes to be considered a great team.
Even by those exalted standards, though, perhaps nothing better illustrates the root of Guardiola’s brilliance better than the conclusion to this Premier League title race. Victory at Brighton on Sunday — despite falling behind early; despite knowing, thanks to the crowing of the home fans, that Liverpool had taken an early lead at Anfield — meant Manchester City completed the season with 14 straight wins. Since losing at Newcastle on Jan. 29, City has not dropped a point. It has not flinched.
Indeed, so smooth, so serene has been its progress that it has been widely assumed that Guardiola and his players were immune to pressure, that the quality of the squad at his disposal rendered the challenge of the 14 opponents City has faced negligible. There have been times, even when Liverpool has led the table, even when Liverpool has won against the odds, when City has seemed entirely unfazed.
In reality, though, the pressure of the situation has bitten just as hard at the Etihad Stadium as it has at Anfield. Guardiola was talking about retaining the championship almost as soon as he celebrated winning it last year; when City visited Yankee Stadium last summer, the trophy was placed on display. Guardiola made a point, as he exited, of stopping and kissing it. “I love this one,” he said. He made it clear to his players that he expected them not to bring that affair to a premature end.
Liverpool has had to deal with the burden of history, of hope, of desperation. City’s load has felt just as onerous, at times: the demands of expectation, the strain borne by the favorite, the pressure that the team would be lacerated with criticism if it stumbled.
Occasionally, it has showed: there was a palpable tension during the recent home victory against Tottenham, only three days after City was eliminated from the Champions League; against Leicester City, City had all but run out of ideas until Vincent Kompany decided to shoot from 30 yards. Mostly, though, it has not. The reason for that is Guardiola.
Under the most intense pressure, faced with an opponent who simply would not subside, City was able to perform, to do as Guardiola asked, to execute his plans. That is testament to the skill, and temperament, of the players, of course, but it is also proof of the quality of the coaching.
Guardiola’s message is now instilled so deeply in his squad, his ideas so clear, that no matter the circumstance, City can fulfill them. It has become the players’ default. They have been successfully re-engineered, in most cases, as footballers as Guardiola would like them to be. He is the defining figure, the master of their destiny. In the context, missing out on a few individual prizes, a few gala dinners, is a small price to pay. The consecutive Premier League titles, the chance, next week, to record an unprecedented domestic treble, more than make up for it.