With the likes of Matty Cash and Coutinho firing Aston Villa in to a 2-0 lead within 69 minutes of the Premier League title decider at the Etihad, it looked all but lost for Manchester City, as Liverpool’s quadruple dreams looked likely to manifest.
However, inspired substitutions from Pep Guardiola did the trick for the hosts, with Ilkay Gundogan in particular stealing the show with a brilliant brace in the space of five minutes, alongside Rodri’s stunning equaliser sandwiched as Manchester City ended up 3-2 victors.
Despite Liverpool triumphing 3-1 against Wolves at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp’s side had to be content with being second best, as Manchester City completed a turnaround that was fitting after the ten-year anniversary of the iconic ‘93:20’ goal against QPR in 2012.
As City were crowned Premier League champions for the fourth time in five seasons, here are the five things we learned from a day where they made the stuff of dreams a reality.
Ilkay Gundogan: The Protagonist
Since swapping yellow for sky blue in 2016, Ilkay Gundogan has often blended into the background as the flashing lights have tended to adorn some of Manchester City’s biggest superstars.
That was until the 2020/21 season, where the unassuming German became the poster boy behind City’s Premier League triumph, carrying the blues on his back with his tremendous eye for finding space, as well as the back of the net.
With niggling injuries, the redemption arcs of Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, and becoming an inconsistent starter coming back to bite him this term, many made the grave error of taking Manchester City’s number eight for granted once again - that was until Gundogan reminded them of exactly why the quietest man in the room is also the deadliest.
In a game that severely lacked runners, the midfielder’s remarkable understanding of space is what ultimately unlocked Aston Villa’s stubborn low block.
Manoeuvring his way to the back post twice, the Manchester City vice-captain warned the Villains once by prodding in a free header from close quarters, and punished them for not learning from their previous mistake by tapping in the cinematic winner.
Instead of chasing the money shot of bagging a hat-trick on the day, his side eventually became domestic champions, and the 31-year old returned to tidying things up and running the clock down like the seasoned veteran he truly is.
Unlikely protagonists are the best kind as it takes falling in love with being a cog to become the machine on days like Sunday, and that sums up the selfless Ilkay Gundogan in a nutshell.
Hot Take: Manchester City do not need an Oleksandr Zinchenko upgrade
Aside from being a stark reminder of Oleksandr Zinchenko’s brilliance, the 25-year old’s masterful display also highlighted that he may well be the blueprint for any full-back that aspires to play for Manchester City one day.
Unlike the callous Joao Cancelo - whose biggest weakness was on show in terms of being an excessive risk-taker in possession - the Ukrainian’s decision-making was dictated by the momentum of the contest, restoring a much-needed sense of control in to Manchester City’s build-up.
Perhaps, it helps when you’re as technically secure as the former Shakhtar Donetsk man, who broke the lines repeatedly without ever playing a Hollywood pass that could’ve put his team on the back-foot.
Oleksandr Zinchenko’s involvement in the equaliser is perhaps the finest example of his understanding of prioritising risk and pragmatism, as he decided to take on Emiliano Buendia and proceeded to keep things uncomplicated by playing the perfectly weighted pass to set up Rodri’s sublime finish.
With Manchester City always being a Kyle Walker injury away from not having the best defensive right-back at their disposal, it may be a more astute plan of action for the club to target a player belonging to a similar profile to act as an understudy to the Englishman in the summer, considering ongoing links to Brighton’s Marc Cucurella.
Ultimately, the Ukrainian international is simply the perfect hybrid of the midfielder and left-back Pep Guardiola has always dreamt of, and after proving once again that he is a thoroughbred winner in the toughest of times, it may unwise to find an answer to a question that needs no solutions.
Rodri: Manchester City’s Player of the Season?
While some may argue that Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva hit the highest highs for Manchester City this term, a reasonable retort also lies within presenting that this also comes with the territory of being attack-minded players.
Assessing things from a consistency standpoint as well, the pair’s campaigns suffered declines at different points, with the former struggling to hit top gear at the start of the season and the latter suffering a slight dip at the turn of the year.
The same cannot be said for the perennially under-appreciated Rodri, whose personal campaign has experienced only peaks and virtually no troughs.
Whilst mopping things up diligently for a majority of the contest, the Spanish international added to his enviable personal highlights package once again by rifling in an impeccably placed finish from outside the box to score the all-important leveller.
A game-changing moment that ranks alongside the 24-year old’s superhuman block of Fabinho’s goal-bound shot at Anfield, his last-gasp winner against Arsenal, as well as his stunning strikes against Everton and Leeds - all in the same season.
For Rodri to not only be an insurmountable defensive presence as a lone number six, as well as being a faultless passing hub, his knack for standing tall in the biggest of moments from day one of the season is what possibly sets him apart from the rest.
Pep Guardiola’s substitutions changed the game
For a manager that is often on the receiving end of groans from a majority of Manchester City supporters for being economical with his substitutions, this was a mini-victory for the anti-narrative.
On the changes, it’s essential to point out that Oleksandr Zinchenko’s half-time substitution instantly solved two problems.
Firstly, Fernandinho getting physically ousted by Ollie Watkins was out of the equation through his replacement. Secondly, Joao Cancelo’s high-risk, low reward performance at left-back was replaced by the most reliable City full-back in all phases, which injected an incredible amount of control to the side’s overall second half.
In Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling, Pep Guardiola understood the importance of introducing two of City's best off-the-ball runners from the bench in order to find as well as create space in behind Aston Villa’s narrow low block.
By taking a gamble in substituting the likes of Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez, the Catalan understood that the only way to breach the Villains’ impenetrable defensive shape was to remove a ball-to-feet presence in both midfield and attack.
Eventually, the pair combined for the opener, Oleksandr Zinchenko assisted Rodri’s impeccable leveller and well, you know how the story ends.
Never question this team’s mentality
After Manchester City’s gut-wrenching defeat to Real Madrid, a major chunk of the post-match discourse was centred around the club’s supposedly brittle mentality.
It wouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that the footballing gods may well have conjured up a game solely for the purpose of debunking a horrifically misguided theory, as Manchester City’s comeback sits on the same table as some of the best fight-backs in the division’s storied history.
It is no coincidence that a side that has blitzed their way onto four league titles in the last five campaigns did the impossible, as champion sides with a steely single-mindedness tend to do, over and over again.
Doubting one of the modern-era’s greatest sides in any department is a decision one takes at their own peril, and the ones that chose to walk down that path after the result at the Bernabéu have humble pie awaiting them.