If Jose Mourinho had set out to spoil Pep Guardiola’s special day, he really couldn’t have done it with any greater impact. Last week, victory for Manchester City at home to Manchester United would have confirmed the league title, but United came from 2-0 down to win 3-2. But many coaches could have thought of that one; the real Machiavellian genius was to follow it up by then losing at home to the Premier League’s bottom team and so hand City the league not only when it wasn’t playing but when it has no game for a week, a match that will be overshadowed by the FA Cup semi-final.
The ridiculousness of Manchester United losing at home to West Bromwich Albion, of Jay Rodriguez being the player who scored the goal that won City the title, is hard to overstate. This was just United’s second home defeat of the season, only its third since Jose Mourinho took charge – the other two have both been to Guardiola’s City. This was only West Brom’s fourth win of the season, and only its second since August. It hadn’t kept a clean sheet in three months. There will always be a special place in City folklore for West Brom’s interim manager Darren Moore.
The confirmation of the title may have been anti-climactic but that should not disguise just how good City has been this season. In fact, the sense of anti-climax is largely a result of how good City has been. There has been no sense of crescendo, no defining moment, no great drama, precisely because of its consistent excellence, because its success has felt inevitable since November if not before.
City equaled the record for winning the league with the most games still to play. If it wins three of its final five games – and given it plays Swansea, West Ham, Huddersfield, Brighton and Southampton, it really should – City will break the record for the most points won in a season. If City wins four and draws one, it will become the first side ever to reach 100 points for the season. If City scores 11 more goals it will take the record for the most goals scored in a Premier League season from Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea.
Perhaps this hasn’t been the strongest Premier League at its lower end, but when the defending champion is likely to finish fifth and the side that will probably come sixth is in a Europa League semi-final, its quality shouldn’t be dismissed. These are extraordinary numbers.
But statistics are only part of it. There is also an emotional and aesthetic quality. Such matters are inevitably subjective and Guardiola’s precise, possession-driven isn’t for everybody. In fact his intensity, fastidiousness and occasional irritability seem almost calculated to annoy a certain type of old-school football man. But some of the football City has played this season has been spectacular. Perhaps that philosophy does incorporate a fatal flaw at the back that the very best sides can expose, but in the vast majority of league games this season, City has flowed in great attacking waves, overwhelming opponents.
It’s a type of football that hasn’t really been seen in England before, a style based on the assumption of technical quality and prioritizing above all else position. Defending is rooted not in power or strength or even the capacity to time a tackle, but in the capacity to be in the right place at the right time. That is City’s vulnerability but it comes into play only against the very best and very bravest of opponents, as a record of 25 league goals conceded this season attests: no side in the Premier League has a better record.
And what makes it more remarkable is that there was a widespread suspicion that this wasn’t possible in England. Last season seemed to prove the point as City was occasionally bullied in games leaving Guardiola complaining about the number of second balls in English football and expressing bewilderment that anybody should expect him to coach tackling. Yet this season, he has been able to impose his ideas. City’s average possession in the league this season has been 65.9%. It averages 733 passes per game. These figures are absurd, unprecedented.
Watch Grant Wahl and Luis Miguel Echegaray provide expert soccer analysis every week on SI TV’s Planet Fútbol show.
After City’s win over Tottenham on Saturday, Guardiola said he would not watch United today, that he would instead take to the golf course. Whether it was a deliberate reference or not, in that he echoed Sir Alex Ferguson in 1993 who was playing golf when United sealed its first title under him as Oldham beat United’s only remaining challenger Aston Villa.
City has waited for this title for only four years, whereas in 1993 United had been waiting 26. Guardiola does not seem the type to lay down roots and build an empire that will endure for decades. But this nonetheless feels a similarly seismic moment for English football, the beginning of a new era.