Every Premier League team began this season unlike any other with atypical challenges to navigate.
Only one began this season with Pep Guardiola. And that, as ever, has proven to be the difference.
Manchester City clinched its fifth Premier League title on Tuesday after bitter rival Manchester United lost 2-1 at home to Leicester City.
City's biggest match left this season, of course, is the Champions League final on May 29 against Chelsea, and winning that would ring loudest in the annals.
But this PL title, while it lacks the objective enthusiasm of the 2011-12 campaign and the record-breaking rampage of 2017-18, will perhaps impact the sport most broadly. For Guardiola and City have won it without the goal-hoarding striker (or strike tandem) that's earmarked basically every Premier League champion in the league's nearly three-decade history.
The idea of a "false 9," or a striker who drops deeper into the midfield and helps with possession, is hardly new. That said, with the exception of Spain's knockout stage run at Euro 2012, there has still been a focal point for every such attack that's won anything of consequence. Just last season, Roberto Firmino's nominal center forward play buoyed Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané to a combined 37 league goals and Liverpool to its historic title, while Lionel Messi, deployed as a false 9 for Guardiola's revolutionary Barcelona sides, was still very plainly the goal-monger in the squads.
Who is that man for this Manchester City team? İlkay Gündoğan, a favorite for PFA Player of the Year honors, leads City with 12 league goals. Riyad Mahrez, who's on a heater in recent weeks, and Raheem Sterling each have nine league goals. Gabriel Jesus, the closest thing left to a regular striker in Guardiola's setup, has eight. Four others have scored at least four times.
Reductive to point out? Naturally. Indicative of why Guardiola and City won the league again? Absolutely.
The Premier League decided to cram this entire season into one month's less time as a result of last year's pandemic pause, so everyone knew teams and players would be taxed like never before. It hit City's striker corps, with Jesus and Sergio Agüero each missing time with injuries and COVID-19, and by mid-December the club was languishing in ninth place.
So what City did was somewhat due to necessity. It was more due to Guardiola.
As far back as November, he was bemoaning City's lack of goals and openly hoping Agüero would fix the problem. When it became clear something more was needed, Guardiola began rotating the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Ferran Torres into the top of his formation.
Whether by accident or by masterstroke, it unlocked the key to dominating a crunched campaign. By dropping back in possession, the false 9s of this City squad created overloads in every area of the field they occupied. Without a true focal point, City's incisive, tornadic talent exhausted opponents, and by function limited their ability to sit back and absorb the blows of City's talent advantage. Put differently, how do you bunker when you don't know who specifically you should be bunkering against?
It took awhile for anyone to figure it out. City ripped off 21 consecutive wins across all competitions as winter gave way to spring, including 15 straight in the Premier League. The tactical wrinkle provided Guardiola the option to cycle players in and out of the lineup, keeping them fresh.
And it might reverberate well past this season. Fixture congestion was a problem long before COVID-19. Soccer, like other sports, can be stodgy when it comes to change, but the brass tacks of the implication make sense. Unless you have Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Robert Lewandowski, or the likes of Kylian Mbappé or Erling Haaland for the next generation, why peg so much of your success on the hot-and-cold nature of a singular goal-scorer?
Clearly not every team will attempt to emulate what City has done. In fact, most of them won't. But given how City has ran away with the title amid adverse circumstances, wouldn't it be imprudent for the sport's other monied powers not to consider how successfully Guardiola has navigated this term?
He did it without vital ingredients of titles past, both City's and his own. Consider how different this team is from the side that won the league in 2019. Gone are club legends Vincent Kompany and David Silva, while Agüero, who's set to leave this summer himself, has scored a meager two goals this league campaign. In their stead have risen Rúben Dias, the 23-year-old revelation of a center back; Rodri, the fulcrum of Manchester City's midfield who can escape press and clatter back the ball himself; and Torres and Phil Foden, the former showcasing his versatility and the latter already delivering on his deep well of promise at just 20 years of age.
This City team didn't leave fans holding their breath until the last day of the season to clinch, nor did it lap the league like three years ago.
It simply outsmarted all of England. Or rather, Pep Guardiola did, to win his ninth league title in 12 seasons of management. However the job needs done, he simply gets it done.
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