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Exit Survey: Manchester City’s Historic Premier League Title

Is this the best Premier League team of all time? Which Kevin De Bruyne touch melted your mind? And maybe Pep is right: Should we all try to be more like Nathan Redmond?

Pep Guardiola, Kevin de Bruyne, and Raheem Sterling Getty Images/Ringer illustration

That wasn’t supposed to happen. Well, of course it was: We’ve known City would win the league since before Christmas, but with Pep Guardiola and Co. heading to Tottenham and Manchester United hosting bottom-of-the-table West Brom, the title celebrations were supposed to wait at least a week. But after a 3-1 win and then a 1-0 loss, City won the title while Guardiola was golfing. With five games left and 87 points in hand, the Citizens are on pace to break the Premier League points record, but before they do, let’s dig into everything that got them here.


1. What’s your tweet-length review of Manchester City’s season?

Micah Peters: Congratulations, finally, to Manchester City, who are now one title behind Sunderland and two behind Aston Villa. They’ve also been champions for three months now. It was the waiting around that was killing us.

Donnie Kwak: They’re no Invincibles.

Ryan O’Hanlon: Ignore the unfortunate typo …

2. Why is Kevin De Bruyne their Player of the Year?

Peters: Because he’s felt inevitable in each league match he’s played in. However stale City looked, there was every chance that he’d recycle a botched final ball, uncork that shot, or find that bit of space invisible to everyone else. Speaking of space, if you dropped a ball from there, he could probably kill it on a dime.

Kwak: Because he’s the red-headed engine that makes the sky-blue supercar go. And he makes stuff like this, from Saturday’s win over Spurs, look so easy:

O’Hanlon: Oh, I don’t know—maybe because he flawlessly transitioned from an attacker into arguably the greatest central midfielder on the planet? Rather than waiting for someone to work the ball up to the final third, he spent the season going and getting it for himself:

After spending much of his career higher up the field, De Bruyne dropped farther away from goal but remained as dangerous as ever: His 15 assists are three more than anyone else in the Premier League, and the seven goals tie his career-high for City. Transitions—the moment possession changes and the opposing defense scrambles back into place—are more important than ever at the game’s highest level, but with City controlling 66 percent of possession on average each weekend, the ability to unlock a packed-in defense still matters just as much at the Etihad. Luckily for Pep, he’s got himself a guy who can do both.

3. Who is their Player of the Year, Non-Redhead Division?

Peters: David Silva, who is not nearly as sexy a prospect, but just as vital. Here is everything he’s quietly done since City folded at Wigan in the FA Cup Fifth Round in February:

  • Goals in back-to-back games against Arsenal in league and League Cup games
  • Assisting his opposite Silva, Bernardo, on his winning goal against Chelsea
  • A brace against Stoke
  • Two assists against Everton
  • Inspiration for this Barney Ronay graf, which is perfect, and both the best and most concise argument in favor of Silva’s choice to Bic his head clean before the start of his eighth season in England: “There is even something fitting about Silva’s shaven head these days. As the half wore on that gleaming cranium seemed to throb under the Wembley lights with its own creative pulse, radiating good ideas, a lightbulb on legs.”

Kwak: You could make the case for Leroy Sané or Raheem Sterling, but it was David Silva who was the most indispensable City player next to KDB. Eight goals, 11 assists, and the most touches and passes among non-KDB attackers—plus a successful in-season hair transplant. What a campaign.

O’Hanlon: I can’t imagine what it’s like to listen to a Raheem Sterling–played game on the radio—some pasty, mid-50s announcer cycling through his homemade copy of British Football’s Thesaurus of Clichés for variations on “He’s got to do better than that.” Paul Scholes famously bemoaned Sterling’s skill level: “I mean, literally, how he kicks it.” And of course there’s the underlying non-wisdom of the Daily Mail and The Sun, infecting the conversation around any black British athlete with a dose of “Maybe he’d strike the ball a bit better if he didn’t drive such a nice car.”

Well, the lad—if I can borrow a word—spent 2017-18 telling everyone to fuck off. He’s just 23 years old, and he’s one of only four players in the league with 25 goals-plus-assists. After a season of Sterling slipping through defenses like a hot knife dipped in lava, here’s a little secret: If the other team is always looking at the back of his jersey, it really doesn’t matter if you don’t like the way he kicks a ball.

4. When did you know they were gonna win it all?

Peters: In December, when they hung four on Tottenham, one week after opening up an 11-point gap on Manchester United with at 2-1 win at Old Trafford, which they celebrated by throwing milk on José Mourinho. That was some champions-elect shit.

Kwak: The title race was effectively over when City won the first Manchester derby in December, when a United victory would’ve put them only five points off the top. (Remember, Paul Pogba missed this match through suspension.) Instead, City went 11 up and never looked back.

O’Hanlon: Since Day 1.

5. What was the most beautiful goal?

Peters: I don’t know about “most beautiful,” but I’m partial to the putback Leroy Sané scored in September, after City held West Brom hostage for 52 passes in a Carabao Cup tie.

Kwak: I was going to vote for this Silva beauty, from the second of two City 3-0 thrashings of Arsenal during one sad week at the turn of March. But I decided to give it to this Gabriel Jesus goal from their 3-1 victory over Everton on March 31, because it is the City-est of City goals:

Count the touches it takes for the ball to travel the length of the pitch: Ederson to Sané (four brilliant touches) to KDB to Jesus. The seventh touch puts the ball in the back of the net. Devastatingly efficient.

O’Hanlon: Nothing better sums up City’s season than De Bruyne’s hammer-throw against Leicester:

There was no margin for error against City this year. As Harry Maguire learned after he hit the post and the ball ended up in his own net 20 seconds later, you better not even take a shot unless you know it’s gonna go in.

6. What was the Pep-iest moment?

Peters: Nothing demonstrated Pep’s unbridled passion for soccer—which burns with the blue-hot intensity of a Wolf-Rayet star—better than his bitching at Southampton’s Nathan Redmond for not committing himself to attack after City beat Southampton in November. I love how divorced from reality it was—City had an eight-point lead at the top of the table at the time, while Southampton were 11th and extremely unable to openly trade blows with THE BEST AND MOST COMPLETE ATTACKING TEAM IN ENGLAND. Exactly how else were Southampton going play?

Kwak: The post-game coaching session of Nathan Redmond after City beat Southampton. Pep later claimed, “I said to Nathan: ‘You have to attack because you have the quality to do that.’” Hopefully Nathan will take those words to heart in the Championship next season.

O’Hanlon: Galaxy-brain Pep is my favorite Pep:

Guardiola is the greatest manager of his generation. His devotion to positional play—which essentially requires whoever’s in possession of the ball to have multiple passing options but for the rest of the team to be positioned in various zones across the field so they can create a numerical advantage wherever the next ball goes—has conquered Spain, Germany, and now England. But he’s not some self-sabotaging ideologue, either. His approach has changed slightly over the years, and now that he’s in England, the land of loafing center backs and big bodies strewn throughout the center of the field, City’s attack has ran through the wings more than it ever did with Barcelona or Bayern Munich.

Yet it’s not exactly like he’s maximized his resources. If only because at every club he’s gone to, he’s been able to hold a financial cudgel over almost all of his opponents. Save for the red side of Manchester, the same goes for the Premier League.

There’s a long and complicated conversation to be had about money and soccer. More money in the game isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but City’s money comes from dubious origins—except what person who can afford an elite soccer team has money wholly acquired from the most wholesome circumstances? It’s not something Guardiola needs to answer to. If you’re gonna have more money than everybody else, you might as well be that much better, too.

7. Why didn’t they win the quadruple?

Peters: I’m sure the smart answer here has something to do with their defense, which was shaky when actually tested, despite the obscene amount of money that was spent on it. The simple answer is that winning a quadruple in the modern era is probably impossible.

Kwak: Because Pep’s teams often falter toward the latter part of the season, when both the schedule and legs get heavy. Everyone chuckled in January when Alexis Sánchez and Riyad Mahrez were rumored to be headed to City—“Like they need them!”—but it turns out, maybe they did.

O’Hanlon: Because Mohamed Salah is currently Lionel Messi and Mitre balls are trash. (Serious answer: Soccer is random, and, at their best, Liverpool are as good as anyone. That, my Scouse friends, is why the domestic season requires 38 games before they hand out the trophy.)

8. What will you remember about this season 10 months from now?

Peters: The comeback win at the Etihad to deny City the trophy for one more week. Specifically Paul Pogba punting the ball into the rafters and cupping his ear after scoring twice in 10 minutes, and City fans crying in the stands at full-time. I’ll try my best to forget the game against West Brom ever happened.

Kwak: That Arsenal finished below Burnley (should it happen).

O’Hanlon: “The game is and always has been ‘a man’s game,’” writes David Winner in Those Feet, a cultural history of British soccer. “English footballers are expected to display Lionheart qualities: strength, power, energy, fortitude, loyalty, courage. As for delicacy, cleverness, sleight-of-foot, imagination … Well, that’s the sort of thing we prefer to leave to foreigners.”

Despite his previous successes, Guardiola came to England amid a cloud of skepticism: Could the man who pioneered the modern dominance of tiki-taka, the possession-based game perfected by mini-mites like Xavi, Messi, and Andrés Iniesta, succeed in the unforgiving environment Winner described? As Jack Pitt-Brooke writes in The Independent, the answer was a resounding “yes”: “It is a triumph for Guardiola and his players but also for his principles and his sticking to them, for the idea of having an idea.”

The British game, it turns out, isn’t so special.

9. Is this the best Premier League team of all time?

Peters: No. But they’re the best Premier League team in recent memory, which is functionally the same thing.

Kwak: Ummm … nah.

O’Hanlon: Provided Pep doesn’t sit his stars for the remaining five games, then absolutely it is. FiveThirtyEight projects them to end with 100 points—five more than Chelsea’s 2004-05 record of 95 points. Sure, City won’t go undefeated like Arsenal’s 2003-04 Invincibles, but their goal differential is already 21 goals better than that group’s full-season mark. The point of a soccer season is to score more goals than your opponents and accrue as many points as possible. City are better at both of those things than anyone this league has ever seen.

10. How many points will they win the league by next year?

Kwak: They won’t. I hate to admit it, but I’m drinking the Klopp juice. Add Naby Keita and possibly a new keeper for next season, and Liverpool could be next year’s City. Klopp owns Pep, anyway.

Peters:

Uh, 20?

O’Hanlon: I love Liverpool as much—if not more than—the next guy, but winning leagues is what Guardiola does. Of course, claiming the season-long domestic trophy still requires way more luck than I think the wider soccer-watching and -writing public is comfortable with admitting, but this City team were so much better than everyone else that good or bad fortune basically didn’t matter. In a single game in the Premier League, the FA Cup, or the Champions League, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester United are all more than capable of beating City, but with all that money to upgrade and one of the younger rosters in the league, I still don’t think anyone can hang from August to May. Oh, and a number? Let’s say five.