One of the questions Pep Guardiola has been asked a lot recently is where this Premier League title would rank in his achievements at Manchester City. He has three others to compare to, and all have their merits.
First, take a moment to comprehend how ridiculous this is: trying to decide which is the least impressive way of winning the toughest competition in England. For those Blues that remember York and Wrexham and Blackburn and Gillingham, things could not get any more surreal.
Then, remember it is a wholly personal view. Guardiola will have his reasons for his preferences just like anyone else could. On top of the quality of the league, the football played, the records broken, there are life circumstances to imagine; the pandemic made the job job harder but also made it more difficult for fans to love it from afar, while – as one person on Twitter wrote – the 2017/18 season was their favorite because his girlfriend left him and City destroying their competition made him feel better.
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There is also a recency bias to consider, with Sunday’s barnstorming finale against Aston Villa still fresh in the heads of many (and why not) to make this latest victory seem more special. Another question: is it harder to win something for the first time or to win it again?
Everyone will have their own opinion, but for now sit back, enjoy a hurtle through four magnificent campaigns and then get ready to hurl abuse in the comments section.
4) The 2020/21 season
In favor: Start as we mean to go on. It’s a measure of the standard that this – a season where City broke an historic English record for the most consecutive wins in all competitions – is deemed the least impressive and yet here we are. Guardiola’s side won 21 matches in a row between December and March, and also set a Premier League record with 13 wins at the start of the calendar year.
This was made even more remarkable by the circumstances in which they achieved it. The football and the results were so bad up to December that, with the side mired in mid-table, the manager called an emergency meeting where they scrapped their plan for the season and put the team back to basics.
Then, just as they appeared to be on the mend they suffered a major Covid outbreak at a time when Christmas had just been cancelled and other teams had suffered lasting effects of infections widespread in their squads. Instead, City barely skipped a beat and in truth they would have finished with more than 86 points but were so far ahead by March that they effectively put their B team out for the league and focused on the Champions League.
Another Carabao Cup was scooped up and the Blues also made a Champions League final, and there was also a perfect ending to his City career for Sergio Aguero in Manchester as he came off the bench in the final league game – and the first in front of fans – to score two goals and write his name further into City and Premier League history.
Against: The damp squib of an ending probably does not help to remember the season warmly, and the fact that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United finished second indicates that this was comfortably the worst standard among the top teams while Guardiola has been at the Etihad. A better league would have made City pay for their drab early-season form.
As well as football becoming less attractive as City prioritized shoring up the defense, the main thing going against the 2020/21 season is that it was played behind closed doors. There were no emotional moments with fans or great away days, so there are fewer positives to remember.
3) The 2021/22 season
In favor: City scored 99 goals and gained 93 points to hold off an excellent Liverpool team after early favorites Chelsea fell in December and could not pick themselves back up. The Blues were excellent enough to be top of the table for 168 of the final 170 days of the season, yet vulnerable enough to create the dramatic final day where they were one Liverpool goal away from blowing the title before their miraculous comeback.
That comeback against Villa is one of the greatest days the Etihad has seen and echoes the Aguero moment. Even if it won’t be the same for some, for others it will be even better.
And while this was the only trophy won, it has stopped Liverpool winning a potential Quadruple to surpass some of the achievements achieved by City under Guardiola. With fans back in the stadiums, Bernardo Silva, Rodri and others have provided some breath-taking memories and the bond between the manager and fans has never been stronger.
Against: Despite City finishing as top scorers, the failure to sign a No.9 in the summer was dragged up as a concern whenever the Blues were not clinical enough and cost them dearly in the Champions League semi-final. It ultimately worked in the Premier League, but starting a midfielder at center-back and a center-back at right-back on the final day showed that City were far from their strongest.
As thrilling as the ending was, it was also unlike the machine City have become under Guardiola to nearly lose in all three competitions that they stood an excellent chance of winning at the beginning of April. The Premier League will satisfy nearly everyone, but disappointment will linger as Blues sit down to watch the Champions League final knowing what might have been.
2) The 2017/18 season
For: The season that potentially changed the Premier League forever as City smashed a slew of records to break the 100-point barrier with the final kick of the season. This kickstarted the brilliant rivalry with Liverpool that have seen both sides become the two best in Europe over the last four years.
100 points: 50 home, 50 away, is about as perfect as it gets. A demolition of United at Old Trafford in December continued what would be a record of 18 straight league wins, and indicated that nobody would catch Guardiola’s side.
Still they kept going though, and those at St Mary’s on that gloriously sunny day will forever cherish Gabriel Jesus scoring from the last play; that was one of many fantastic late winners that also included Raheem Sterling goals away at Bournemouth and at home to Southampton.
The football played that year was also among the best ever seen. The goalkeeper and full-back signings transformed the team, that midfield trident of Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva were immaculate and the forward play with Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and Aguero was exhilaratingly good.
Against: It felt perfect at the time, and it will still be to many. If you’re nitpicking, City were so far ahead of everyone else that there was no real competition because they were in a league of their own. They also wasted an opportunity to win the title at home against United.
Also, and this may be controversial, but one of the main reasons this football is remembered is the best is arguably because teams underestimated them. A number of opponents attacked looking to expose the weaknesses present in 2016/17 and were cut to shreds instead (Stoke, anyone?) Whereas ever since the number of sides digging their trenches in the Etihad penalty boxes has shot up.
1) The 2018/19 season
For: The first side in a decade to retain the league, gaining the second-highest points total ever seen (after their 17/18 effort) and producing a remarkable comeback to pip an incredible Liverpool side on the final day. This league title simply has more about it than the rest.
City were still able to slice open opposition, and improved with the help of a settled Bernardo Silva to win the unprecedented achievement of all four domestic trophies. They could not find a way to win in the Champions League, but that home quarter-final with Tottenham will go down as one of the best games in the competition’s history.
This had the race that the previous year did not too. When City lost three games in December it looked like that would be enough to condemn them to second place against a Liverpool side that did not look like stopping. The inflicted Liverpool’s only defeat in 38 games in one of the all-time best games at the Etihad and then, after stumbling unexpectedly at Newcastle, won their last 14 games in a row to win the title by a point.
That standard has never been reached since, and may not be again.
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