MANCHESTER: Manchester City winning the Premier League title hardly comes as a shock. After all, this is a sixth league championship in 11 seasons for one of the world’s richest clubs, placing it among the most dominant periods in the history of the English game.
That City was pushed all the way by a resurgent Liverpool isn’t a surprise, either. Nor was the fact that it was the ending brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne which helped Pep Guardiola’s team eventually get over the line in a dramatic end to the season on Sunday.
This was no ordinary title-winning campaign, though. Has a team ever won English soccer’s biggest prize without a striker? City just has.
And few would have predicted at the start of the season that defensive midfielder Rodri, center back Aymeric Laporte and playmaker Bernardo Silva would be three of Guardiola’s most vital players.
Here’s a look at how City won another Premier League:
NO STRIKER, NO PROBLEM
City has played the whole season without an out-and-out striker, yet won the league and finished it as the top-scoring team with 99 goals. The departure of Sergio Aguero, the failure to sign Harry Kane or Cristiano Ronaldo as a replacement — playmaker Jack Grealish came in instead — and the decision to repurpose Gabriel Jesus as a winger left Guardiola with what was almost a team of midfielders.
At times, City has missed the presence of a dedicated center forward but the upside is the team being able to exert more control than ever through its ball-playing midfielders and to befuddle opposition defenses with an interchangeable forward line. The goals have had to be shared around — De Bruyne leads the way on 15 — but that hasn’t been a problem.
Of course, it will be different next season following the spectacular signing of Erling Haaland but the experiment has been interesting to witness, and likely quite satisfying in a way for Guardiola.
Looking at the season as a whole, what really made the difference was a three-month run from the start of November when City collected 43 points from a possible 45 to pull clear of Chelsea and Liverpool and, at one stage, build a 14- point lead.
City’s renowned squad depth has often shone through over December and January, when the fixtures come thick and fast in different competitions, and it was the case again this season. Also significant was City getting more breathing space in the calendar compared to Liverpool and Chelsea because of a rare early exit from the League Cup at the hands of West Ham on Oct. 27.
Twelve straight wins, from Nov. 3 to Jan. 15, was City’s best streak of the season and there was no real dip by Guardiola’s team in the run-in, with Liverpool only closing the gap in the final months because of its excellence, not City buckling under the pressure.
DE BRUYNE’S FINISH
It’s been a season of two halves for Kevin De Bruyne. After a slow start while he recovered from an ankle ligament injury sustained at last summer’s Euro 2020, the Belgium midfielder has finished like a train — capped by a four-goal burst against Wolverhampton last week that took the breath away.
“Beyond perfect” was Guardiola’s description of De Bruyne’s second half of the season, during which he stepped up as City’s man for the big occasion with key goals and brilliant performances in the league — he scored against Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool since the turn of the year — as well as the Champions League.
And it was De Bruyne who sent in the cross that Ilkay Gundogan converted for the title-clinching goal against Aston Villa. De Bruyne has 15 goals in 30 games and could yet become English soccer’s player of the year for the third straight season. He is building a strong case for being City’s greatest-ever player and should thrive even more next season when he has Haaland as a target for his imperious crosses.
REDEMPTION AFTER REJECTION
It’s strange to think that Rodri, Aymeric Laporte and Joao Cancelo were surplus to requirements in last season’s Champions League final. They didn’t even make it off the bench for City’s biggest game of the season, which the team ended up losing to Chelsea.
Yet this season, they have been three of Guardiola’s most important players, with no other teammate starting more matches in the league. Rodri might lay claim to being the most important, certainly the most improved, thanks to the way he has shielded the defense as the midfield anchorman in his second season at the club as the long-term replacement for Fernandinho.
Laporte has re-established himself as the No. 1 center back after dropping behind John Stones and Ruben Dias last season, while Cancelo has covered both fullback positions, almost reinventing the role with his creativity and technical quality as a hybrid defender-midfielder. Then there’s Bernardo Silva, a playmaker who looked set to leave last offseason — Guardiola said so publicly — only to become his coach’s most trusted attacker.
Some victories always seem bigger than others in a title-winning campaign and City had a few that seemed pivotal, not at least the dominant 1-0 at Chelsea in September that marked Guardiola’s team as the one to beat again this season.
The 2-1 win at Arsenal on New Year’s Day was clinched extremely late — through Rodri in the third minute of stoppage time — after City looked average for parts of the game and perhaps benefitted from some refereeing calls.
Another big away win was the 1-0 at Everton in February, when Phil Foden’s 82nd-minute goal was followed by a controversial decision to not give a penalty to Everton for what appeared a clear handball by Rodri. Then, of course, there was the comeback against Villa from 2-0 down on Sunday when all seemed lost.