This is the story of a Manchester City title triumph that is about trust, faith, mutual respect, working in concert and, most of all, excellence. It is a tale of how Pep Guardiola oversaw what those close to the manager view as his team’s finest season, better even than the record-breaking 100-point first title triumph of 2017-18 or last season’s, when he had to reset the side after an insipid 1-1 draw at home to West Brom.
It could not have had Sunday’s happiest of endings without Guardiola’s close relationship with Khaldoon al-Mubarak, the chairman, with whom he speaks before and after every match. Nor without the daily breakfasts at the training campus in an area of the cafeteria across from the players where in attendance are Guardiola, his No 2 Juanma Lillo, the director of football Txiki Begiristain, the CEO Ferran Soriano and Manuel Estiarte, the manager’s closest adviser.
Constant contact with Mubarak et al makes Guardiola more content than he was when in charge of his boyhood club, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich. He was understandably weary as this season reached its climax but the 51-year-old recognises that City is the ideal workplace. Seeing an inner group each morning who are also friends allows for chit-chat and relaxation as well as ongoing conversation regarding the team.
Guardiola is a man of high intelligence and sensitivity. The Guardian has been told the latter characteristic, in particular, is a great strength because it allows a sixth sense regarding his players, his side, the opponent and the sport. But it can also be an achilles heel because Guardiola can spend valuable energy on immaterial issues, with exasperated friends sometimes advising him this is counter-productive.
If this season is rated City’s finest for the excellence almost from first whistle to last, there is a recognition that for Guardiola and his staff the closing month or so was perhaps the toughest. City faced Liverpool (a 2-2 home draw) on 10 April, then Atlético Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final away leg. The Spanish city is hostile to Guardiola – not because of his Barcelona loyalties but his opinion regarding his native Catalonia’s wish to be independent. This made the trip more attritional (City secured a semi-final berth) and three days later the side were at Wembley to play Liverpool again, for a place in the FA Cup final (they lost 3-2). Then, after three victorious league games (Brighton, Watford and Leeds) and the home semi-final leg against Real Madrid, it was back to the Spanish capital.
There City were knocked out after the concession of two late Rodrygo strikes and Karim Benzema’s extra-time winner, yet still Guardiola’s team rallied from bitter disappointment to beat Newcastle 5-0 and Wolves 5-1 before last weekend’s 2-2 draw at West Ham, keeping Liverpool at arm’s length and setting up the Villa Sunday’s win over Aston Villa.
All of this is a function of how City are primed to succeed, with Guardiola the focal point. When sitting down for an interview with a Premier League broadcaster this season he offered an off-camera aside that was a telling insight. “They do not blame me at the club when I lose a game,” the Guardian is told he said. “The people here come and ask what can be done to help me more.”
Publicly Guardiola’s mantra is that he has to win or the bell will toll for his tenure. But, although defeats are detested, more important to him is how the side perform because this is a function of the stability he and the club have in place. City are a super-slick entity who try to ensure that arguably the generation’s best manager is given everything to harness his powers. Crucially players are not brought in without his agreement.
Exhibit One. In August Cristiano Ronaldo was available and Guardiola wanted a proven prolific finisher. First Begiristain and his department assessed the Portuguese, then it was over to the manager. Guardiola was not convinced that a 36-year-old was right for the side and so no move was made. Ronaldo was considered only after the failed pursuit of Harry Kane as the ideal replacement for City’s departed record goalscorer, Sergio Agüero. When Tottenham signalled bids had to be north of £150m the club walked away and Guardiola ended the window without the dedicated centre-forward he wanted. His response was not to sulk but to get on with the job. The result was staggering. City have scored 99 league goals, five more than Liverpool and 16 more than they registered as last season’s champions.
Exhibit Two. Erling Haaland is 21, a serial goalscorer, and was available at a bargain price from Borussia Dortmund thanks to his circa €60m buyout clause. Real were the Norwegian’s first choice but the Spanish champions pursued Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappé, only to miss out, and Haaland became an option for City. Again, over to Guardiola. Unsure initially, he came to warm to the player and green-lit the deal that brought Haaland to the club.
Throughout this campaign there has been no crisis point. There have been (very rare) duff displays: Guardiola was unhappy with January’s 1-1 draw at Southampton and the 2-0 home loss to Crystal Palace. But despite having no recognised No 9 and losing the first-choice left-back, Benjamin Mendy, who was suspended indefinitely in August after being charged with rape and sexual assault, the response was supreme. There were only three league defeats – two by Tottenham – with 26 goals conceded against 32 last season. Twenty-three – in 2018-19 – is the only lower total under Guardiola.
He was shrewd in other ways. Aymeric Laporte was reinstated alongside Rúben Dias in central defence after Guardiola spotted a subtle decline in John Stones, who was dropped despite last season’s fine form. Laporte proved near-faultless.
Liverpool pushed hard, coming from 14 points behind at one stage, yet Guardiola remained calm and confident. The serenity of his working environment is mirrored by the satisfaction he draws from a group of players which, it is understood, has pleasantly surprised him because, despite many working under him for five years or more, there is no battle fatigue. They continue to “run and run”, rather than become complacent, and accept personal responsibility for any downturn in performance.
The end result: a fourth championship of a remarkable six years in east Manchester at a club built to ensure Guardiola can realise the most from his genius. This is why Manchester City are England’s champion team once more.