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Friday, June 14, 2024

Arsenal and Liverpool’s task will only get harder – they must learn from Man City’s priceless quality

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Johnny Marr was next to Noel Gallagher at the Etihad Stadium but one of the musical throwbacks came to an earlier era. During the pitch invasion at the final whistle, one banner described Manchester City as “the Four Tops”. Motown got its name from the Motor City; if football has become Manchester’s major industry now, City, champions a record four times in a row, are its market leader.

As Manchester United recorded their lowest-ever Premier League finish, City completed an achievement beyond even Sir Alex Ferguson’s finest teams; or, for that matter, anyone else from Preston North End’s 1889 Invincibles to Jurgen Klopp’s barnstorming 21st-century Liverpool side.

City had Paul Dickov present the trophy, a quarter of a century on from his injury-time equaliser in the third-tier play-off final. They know where they came from.

The concern for their rivals is that they aren’t going anywhere unless either Pep Guardiola departs – and a manager with a year left on his deal both hinted he would discuss a new deal and cast doubt on his future – or they receive a weighty punishment when their 115 Premier League charges are eventually heard.

If one depressing realisation for Arsenal may be that they improved without deposing City, another may come in the assessment of the side who rendered them back-to-back runners-up. They demonstrated the extraordinary winning habit Guardiola has instituted and amassed 91 points; “this consistency in terms of points,” he said. “This is the standard.” It underlined the way he has raised the bar; 91 is lower than City’s tallies in 2018, 2019 and 2022 but bettered by only six other Premier League teams ever, one of them in a 42-game season. Yet, in some respects, this was the weakest of his six title-claiming teams.

The first two had the blistering pace of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane as wingers, the differing brilliance of Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva as free eights, the astonishing points tallies of 100 and 98. The next two had the tactical ingenuity of fielding an array of false nines, conjuring goals from everywhere. Last season’s side had the unstoppable element of Erling Haaland racking up 52 goals and De Bruyne 29 assists in all competitions.

This side lost De Bruyne for five months and Haaland for two. John Stones, whose reinvention made him a revelation last season, started just 12 league games. They missed the departed Ilkay Gundogan, too, who was not properly replaced, especially as one of their four major signings, Matheus Nunes, proved a dud.

Yet City prevailed despite absences. Partly that is due to the manager: Klopp argued that, for all City’s resources, only Guardiola could win four consecutive titles. The Catalan singled out Julian Alvarez, his striking understudy, for praise.

Alvarez and Rodri celebrate (Getty Images)

But his squad isn’t as deep as is often lazily asserted, or as it was.

There was little continuity as only goalkeeper Ederson and City’s two outstanding players of the campaign, Phil Foden and Rodri began more than 30 league matches. A core of about 17 players nevertheless delivered: arguably the title was clinched by the least used of them, with Stefan Ortega’s late and superb save from Son Heung-min at Tottenham the biggest moment in the last nine games. A free transfer may have been decisive for a club who have spent well over £1bn on players in the Sheikh Mansour era.

Given the shortcomings of Zack Steffen, Ederson’s previous deputy, City may have particular reasons to be grateful the goalkeeping coach, Xabi Mancisidor, recommended Ortega to Guardiola.

He showed a refusal to be beaten that symbolised a side. One player possessed it in particular: suspended for each of City’s three defeats, Rodri completed his Premier League season undefeated.

Foden and Rodri have been stars (Getty Images)

He was a reason why City found a way, why they had the mentality to triumph. After their autumnal stumbles, with late equalisers conceded to Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Crystal Palace, they returned from the Club World Cup with a steely focus. Few believed Guardiola when he branded City the third favourites after March’s stalemate with Arsenal. “But the weekend Arsenal lose to [Aston] Villa and Liverpool to Palace, I think they give us a chance,” he said. “They will not give us another.” He underlined the equation after the Arsenal game: “City have to win nine games in a row and we do it.”

They again proved their capacity to be flawless when required in a run-in. City had ended with 14 consecutive victories in 2019. They reeled off 12 in a row last season before relaxing when the title was won. With 18 wins and three draws from their last 21 league matches now, they proved the masters of the chase.

Rodri with the Premier League title (Getty Images)

“Like we add on a little bit extra when it really matters,” said Haaland. As City scored 96 league goals, 33 of them in their last nine games, it is unfair to say they ground their way to glory. Not when Foden was extraordinarily, explosively good. Or, indeed, when one of the pivotal victories – 3-2 at Newcastle – was a comeback that stemmed from De Bruyne’s remarkable talents and considerable force of personality.

Yet it was a triumph of a kind of efficiency, forged by beating the rest, rather than the best. City did not defeat Arsenal or Liverpool; when they overcame fourth-placed Villa, it was a depleted team; when they won at fifth-placed Tottenham, Spurs were out of form. They got two wins from 10 games against the eventual top six. Against the bottom 14, they took 79 points from 84. They were almost impeccable.

And yet flawed. Haaland was a case in point, his 27 league goals coming amid misses, with a crucial double at Tottenham but too few other defining goals. He still won the Golden Boot, just as City won the league, for the sixth time in seven seasons and the fourth in a row.

Yet they can be better. And next season – perhaps with their finest individuals fit for longer, probably furnished with new signings in midfield – they probably will be. The four tops could become five.

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