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Last season Pep Guardiola finally arrived at Manchester City. The club chased him for almost a decade as they looked to cement themselves as a true world footballing giant. The thought was that Pep would come in and take the team to new heights. City had already won the league and multiple cups. Now City wanted to play with panache and contend with the big boys, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich.
Last season, that did not happen. In fact, they didn’t come close. City were let down by comical defending, a slew of injuries and players who just didn’t seem to understand or were incapable of doing what Pep asked of them. The team finished 3rd, got knocked out in the Champions League second round to Monaco and finished trophy-less. Guardiola himself said, “At a big club, I’m sacked,” and that it would take a decade for City to get to the European elite level. Taken out of context or not, he knew his first season wasn’t what the doctor ordered.
This time, it’s an entirely different story. Man City have won 13 games in a row in the Premier League and are currently unbeaten. They have won 5 out of 5 games in their Champions League group, dispatching Serie A’s high flying Napoli twice in the process. City have scored an outstanding 46 goals in the Premier League. The next best is Manchester United with 35 goals. City play a passing style that is simply mesmeric and they have strength of character to come back from awkward positions to win games late on, as we’ve seen in the last 3 games.
Players who previously looked sub-par are now brilliant. Look at Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Fabian Delph. Three English players who were “overrated” now look the part. Pep for England, maybe? You can’t see a team in the Premier League that can beat them which suggests they might just go the entire season unbeaten and do it more stylishly than Arsenal did in 2004. In Europe with Barcelona and Real not looking their usual selves (despite Barca being unbeaten in La Liga) you feel they could stand up to anyone. This is exactly what Pep was hired for.
There are many who will hope that City slump (mostly United fans). There are also many who look at the last three games as signs that City are beatable. However, that is a myopic view. City have weaknesses but their strengths are too much for others to overcome and for the Premier League, this is a very good thing.
Since the turn of the century, only four teams have looked like they could be elite, unstoppable clubs on the European stage. Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles faltered in Europe but the remnants of that team got to the Champions League final in 2006. Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea side of 2004-2007 had multiple semi-final berths and steam rolled the English Premier League like we’d never seen, and I could have chosen any Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United side but let’s go with the 2005-2009 side that got to two Champions League finals in a row, winning one and losing the other to none other than Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
Yes, Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012, but that side finished 6th in the league that year. Since Ferguson’s United of 2009 (yes they lost to Pep again in 2011 and won the league, but didn’t inspire much), you would never say that any Premier League side has been the best to watch in the world or could even be named the best in the world by results. It’s been a dry spell for the league that allowed Leicester to carry the trophy two seasons ago. Chelsea won it last season, without even being in the Champions League. That tells you a lot.
Finally the league has a team that is clearly the best in it’s own league and capable of slugging it out with the best in Europe. This can only be good for the Premier League, meaning more TV revenue and already talented managers in Mourinho, Klopp, Conte, Wenger and Pochettino will all have to up their game to beat City. They can’t rely on their tried and trusted ways to beat Guardiola. Sitting back and counter attacking (which all except Klopp and Wenger to an extent have tried), won’t cut it as long as Pep is in this league. These teams must attack, they must focus on possession and they must simply go for it. When they realize this, it will make an already entertaining league simply unmissable and that could be Guardiola’s greatest legacy provided this City team do not run out of steam.
Focusing on immediate matters, this makes the Manchester derby all the more fascinating. United were able to pick off Arsenal and hold on for dear life. It’s unlikely they can repeat the trick against City. Every team that has sat off City has been punished eventually.
Arsenal had 33 shots at United’s goal with De Gea, the best goalkeeper in the world right now proving worthy of that description. However, Arsenal did score one. City are a better attacking team and you feel that if need be, they can score one or two more. United will have to dig very deep especially without Paul Pogba who would have troubled City immensely. Mourinho may not “let the horses run free” in this game knowing that his Inter Milan side parked multiple buses and beat Barcelona en route to winning the Champions League in 2010, but this is a different kettle of fish and for the sake of Man United, for the sake of the whole league, United and Mourinho need to evolve.
Another loss to City at home and Mourinho will have no other choice but to change his ways and he will likely bring the other managers along for the ride. So maybe, City dominating may not be a bad thing for English football in the long run.