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The Adjustment That Turned Man City Back Into a Premier League Champion

Manchester City clinched a third Premier League title in the last four seasons, with the club's approach changing as needed to rebound after a poor start.

Not that it was ever much in doubt once Manchester City found its proper formula, but the club is back atop the Premier League perch. At the fourth time of asking, Man City was, at last, confirmed as Premier League champion for the 2020-21 season, as Manchester United, the only possible challenger remaining, lost 2-1 at home to Leicester on Tuesday. Çağlar Söyüncü’s 66th-minute winner, headed in from a Marc Albrighton corner, is unlikely to be much remembered, but it delivered the final act of an oddly elongated denouement to the season.

A slightly anti-climactic end perhaps disguises the significance of what Man City manager Pep Guardiola has achieved this season. A campaign that began badly, with Man City’s worst start in 12 years, had not merely brought a third Premier League title in four years, but it could culminate with Champions League glory at the end of the month—and it is Europe that has been the priority for the club (if not its fans) since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover in 2008.

Manchester City wins the Premier League title

Last season, Liverpool’s league title was confirmed as Man City lost 2-1 away to Chelsea. This season, it was at Stamford Bridge that Man City proved just what a good side it had become, winning 3-1 in January with a consummate performanc—even if it has since lost to Chelsea in both the FA Cup and at home in the league. The defeat last season was characteristic: City in possession looked irresistible, but was horribly vulnerable to balls played in behind its defensive line.

That was a problem Guardiola had come up against time and again in Europe over the previous decade. His sides had repeatedly struggled in the knockout stages of the Champions League against opponents who were good enough to play through the press. What made last season especially worrying for him was how many teams were able to expose the vulnerability. Anxiety about Lyon’s abilities on the counter led him to adopt an unfamiliar back three in last season's quarterfinal, which served only to hamper his own side without fixing the problem.

This season has brought change, although what provoked that is unclear. The appointment of Guardiola’s mentor and a coach he once moved to Mexico to play for, Juanma Lillo, has perhaps encouraged experimentation. Lillo has a level of experience his predecessor as Guardiola's No. 2, Mikel Arteta, did not and is perhaps more willing to challenge Guardiola and present his own ideas. But the nature of the calendar, with a restricted preseason and a compacted schedule has made a consistent, really hard press impossible, as Liverpool has discovered.

City in those early weeks of the season seemed unusually uneasy, timorous even. The decision to field two holding midfielders against Leicester in the second league match backfired badly. The idea was presumably to offer additional cover in front of the back four, but what happened was that the press was diminished, with Kevin De Bruyne left isolated so it was easy for Nampalys Mendy and Youri Tielemans to pass their way around him. Those struggles continued until mid-December and a 1-1 draw at home to West Bromwich Albion (whose manager Slaven Bilic was promptly sacked; the club has since been relegated), which left City seventh in the table.

It seemed reasonable to ask at that point whether this was the worst side Guardiola had ever managed, yet 15 successive league wins later, Guardiola was speaking of his greatest-ever achievement, and the title was as good as City’s. Exactly what this means in terms of the broader evolution of football will only become apparent over the next two to three seasons as a more normal schedule returns.

With the rise of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, football had become more about regaining the ball rather than retaining it. What City–and Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea–have done this season is to find a new balance, a way of maintaining possession and playing with a press eased just sufficiently to offer additional protection. In their European semifinals, both sides were prepared to defend deep in the second leg. For Guardiola, that was a radical step toward orthodoxy. This was a coach who had once scornfully asked “what is tackles?” Now he's a coach whose side was suddenly celebrating an Oleksandr Zinchenko block against Paris Saint-Germain like a goal. The arrival of Rúben Dias, a center back who seems to relish the old-fashioned virtues of a defender, may turn out to be as transformative for City as Virgil van Dijk was for Liverpool.

For now, at least, that synthesis between the high press and more traditional defending seems dominant. It’s what has carried both Chelsea and Man City to the Champions League final. Whether this has been a great season for City or merely a very good one will be determined in Istanbul, Porto or at Wembley, depending where the Champions League final is ultimately played, but the League Cup and the Premier League titles are notable achievements in any circumstances.

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