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Manchester City champions: How Pep Guardiola's men won the greatest ever Premier League title race

Manchester City celebrate Aymeric Laporte's goal against Brighton
Manchester City celebrate Aymeric Laporte's goal against Brighton

It has been a title race for the ages, one of such quality, skill and determination that we’ve never seen before and may never see again – and one which has been a privilege to watch for all football fans.

It went right down to the final day when even after an incredible season Manchester City still had to go and win at Brighton to seal victory over a gallant Liverpool side who finished up with a remarkable 97 points but amazingly came up empty-handed.

Manchester City had broken record after record and broken the 100-point barrier to claim the title at a stroll in 2018, and not many fancied anyone to make up the hefty gap between them and the chasing pack, but not many also expected Pep Guardiola’s men to repeat such an achievement.

As it happens, both of those came true, as Jurgen Klopp’s men made up a whopping chasm between the two sides to go toe-to-toe with arguably the best side we’ve seen in this country and never blinked down a remarkable finishing stretch.

There’s so much to like about both teams, the managers are charismatic, full of passion, energy and aggression, and their teams reflect them perfectly as City has oodles of class, skill and play the keep-ball Guardiola refuses to move away from even by an inch, while Klopp’s Reds will run through brick walls for their loveable coach.

If ever there was a season when neither side in this two-horse race deserved to lose it was this one, they’ve amazed and entertained in equal measures, but in the end there could only be one winner, and after coming out on top from this epic slug fest it’s probably the most hard-earned Premier League title ever.

In a race so extraordinary, with levels of achievement higher than they’ve ever been before, it’s almost cruel to try and pick holes in the performances of either side – you can look at the odd point lost here and there, but over a gruelling Premier League season they both performed wondrous things for their fans.

That is, however, our job in the media, and with the help of the ever-reliable hindsight we can pinpoint some of the fine margins that went about setting up and settling this battle of two of the most dominant sides we’ve ever seen.

Head-to-head

Leroy Sane (right) celebrates his goal for Manchester City against Liverpool
Leroy Sane (right) celebrates his goal for Manchester City against Liverpool

Games between the two main protagonists are always crucial, but when you end up with a title decided by such fine margins then they become even more vital – and so it proved as Man City took four points from their two games against The Reds.

Guardiola played the ultimate compliment to Klopp’s team in the Anfield meeting by paying in a more reserved, defensive manner, learning the lessons from being blown away in the Champions League last season – and that meant we witnessed a more tactical chess match than a blood-and-thunder clash of the titans we’d hoped for.

It still should have yielded three points though when Riyad Mahrez squandered a golden late chance by ballooning a penalty high into the Anfield Road end, letting Liverpool off the hook and free to maintain their unbeaten record.

That result gave the Reds confidence and they went to the Etihad with a seven-point lead needing a win to effectively put the title race to bed, but they left with a 2-1 defeat and, more than the three points the belief that City took from the win provided a huge boost going forward.

It was one of the defining moments of the season, arguably THE defining moment as you got the feeling that City would have given up the ghost had they gone ten points behind, with that margin far too much of a cushion for this Liverpool team.

It’s a squad game

Phil Foden and the ball end up in the back of the net as he scores against Tottenham
Phil Foden and the ball end up in the back of the net as he scores against Tottenham

We all know of Manchester City’s huge strength in depth, but the way Pep Guardiola managed that strength has been a deciding factor in this title race, and how he’s managed to keep everyone happy, fit and fresh and ready to go regardless of their minutes on the pitch.

Mahrez may be their record signing, but Guardiola was not afraid to leave him out when it was clear he wasn’t quite operating at the level required, while Bernardo Silva has been given extra responsibility and has become arguably their most influential player – he sets the tempo and in the Liverpool game in particular was outstanding.

Injuries have also hit, namely with Kevin De Bruyne but City have hardly missed a step, while Guardiola has mixed his defenders around well, nursing Vincent Kompany through the season, covering for Fernandinho’s absence and keeping Sergio Aguero firing throughout the season – realising he’s still their go-to man up front.

Liverpool are getting closer to that level, but although Sturridge, Origi and Shaqiri have made impacts of the bench, they’re still not able to bring in the quality of Sane, Mahrez and even Foden that City can call upon to change a game.

Draws cost Reds points

Michail Antonio celebrates
Michail Antonio celebrates his goal against Liverpool

Four draws in six games saw Liverpool’s title lead evaporate, and many will point to that as the reason why they ultimately fell short in their pursuit of the title. They were stunned at home to Leicester and away at West Ham within a week, before rivals Man Utd and Everton both took points off them.

The Reds still had an amazing season, and draws are bound to happen in a long, hard season, but in a season like this, against such a rival as Man City, they were points they could not afford to lose.

They should have had a penalty against Leicester, were bit lucky to get a goal at West Ham, while the United game was messed up with injuries and Everton produced a full-blooded performance in what is their cup final and gave Liverpool all they could handle.

These games all came when Liverpool were not quite at their best, with a few players suffering niggles so by themselves, a point away to your fierce rivals is never a bad result – but in the context of a title race they proved crucial.

Klopp was criticised for not going all-out to win those games at Old Trafford and Goodison, and it was a surprise to see the likes of Shaqiri not used more, but he obviously thought a point was a decent result.

The timing of the Leicester and West Ham draws in particular were crucial, coming just after City’s loss at Newcastle where they thought they had blown their chances – it gave them renewed vigour that they could go on and defend their title.

A game of inches

Matthew Lowton fails to keep the ball out
Matthew Lowton fails to keep the ball out

It’s crazy that a nine-month battle of epic proportions could come down to a matter of inches, well, four centimetres in the metric system, but even though you can’t just apply that simple matter of fact to football – those four centimetres have made all the difference.

Firstly, the 11mm of the ball that was not over the Man City line when John Stones cleared the ball against Liverpool cost the Reds the chance to take a point, or even more, from the biggest game of the season.

What’s more, the ball had already hit the post and come back out, while Stones’ clearance somehow went straight through Mo Salah who was closing in on the line for a tap-in rebound. Goals change game and that goal may well have changed that one.

To add insult to injury, Leroy Sane’s winner went in off the other post of the same goal in the second half, after evading Trent Alexander-Arnold’s attempted block.

Fast forward a few months to Turf Moor and this time goal line technology showed Sergio Aguero’s winner against Burnley only crossed the line by 29.15mm in one of City’s more nervy games of the run-in.

It’s a big prize to win by such fine margins…

Captain fantastic Kompany seals it

Vincent Kompany celebrates
Vincent Kompany celebrates

You need that spark, that bit of luck or piece of brilliance to win a title, and Vincent Kompany came up with, arguably, all of those as he strode forward and lashed in a 35-yard thunderbolt to beat Leicester just as a nervous Etihad feared it was all slipping away from them.

City looked leggy and nervous for a few games down the stretch, but just as Aguero got them (just) over the line at Burnley, Kompany almost burst the net when he won the Leicester game with a shot from another world – a world where Kompany can lash the ball into the postage stamp and not high into row z where most of his own team thought the ball would be heading.

It was the mark of champions, the mark of a captain, a talisman, a leader, and a fitting way to effectively seal back-to-back titles.


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