Pep Guardiola’s team holds off Liverpool by a point, repeating as English champions and raising the bar for its rivals ever higher.
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 points 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 of 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 mold 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 the 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; the 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.