This may well have been the perfect season for Manchester City. They did not win every trophy, of course, but if they had done, they may have lost the biggest single factor in their unprecedented recent success – Pep Guardiola.
Earlier this year, with the Carabao Cup in the bag and three more trophies on the cards, Guardiola went for dinner with friends, colleagues and business associates, and was asked what he would have done if City were to go on and win the quadruple.
"Quit!" he shot back. He did not seem to be joking and he was not the only senior City employee at the table to say it.
Losing Guardiola would have been catastrophic.
In the past few days, it has been argued that City have dramatically skewed the landscape of European football because of their financial backing.
No doubt, if it were not for their wealthy backers they would not be in a position to challenge for trophies at all, but the chief reason they have been this good, this dominant, is not their money.
It is Guardiola.
When you look back on what has been another historic season for the club and pick apart its inner workings, it is a far cry from the sun-bathed celebrations of Monday afternoon, when the players laughed, joked and drank, and Guardiola not only danced like a mad man in front of hundreds of people, but rapped along to Gangster’s Paradise.
No, City’s season was actually marked by internal rows and set-backs that could so easily have derailed a lesser side, especially given they were chased all the way by an excellent Liverpool side who themselves set new standards for the league.
Every month, in fact, there was something new, some kind of injury or complaint that threw Guardiola’s plans into doubt.
One source says the key to City’s entire season was "to keep believing in ourselves when nobody else did, when we were 10 points behind and it seemed that everything was finished".
It’s like the old swan metaphor: “The swan that gracefully moves on a lake is a picture of elegance in motion, but what is hidden from the eye is the activity going on beneath the water’s surface.”
In pre-season, for example, the seeds of the ongoing Leroy Sane situation were sewn. Essentially the only big-name City player not to go to last summer’s World Cup, Sane was expected to be the main man in the first games of the new campaign, yet Guardiola publicly urged him to work harder, and privately the Catalan eventually confided in a friend that he feared things had become ‘irreconcilable’ with the winger.
It remains to be seen whether that is still the case; Sane could leave this summer after falling down the pecking order during the season, but Guardiola certainly wants him to stay, despite the German's sometimes sulky attitude in training.
Just a few days into the season, on the day of the Amazon series documenting the almost fairytale 100-point title win, Kevin De Bruyne suffered a knee injury that ruled him out for over two months.
If anybody had wondered how City’s ‘Centurions’ could be derailed, they would have suggested an injury to De Bruyne, the player who shone above all others. That knee injury was just the start; another one in November put him out until Christmas, and ensuing muscle problems meant he missed most of City’s campaign.
And then there is Benjamin Mendy.
City had decided not to sign a left-back last summer in the hope that his injury problems were behind him, and that could have proven costly for lesser teams. Given diminutive attacking midfielder Oleksandar Zinchenko blossomed into a more than reliable left-back is proof that it’s not just money that has set City apart, it is high-level coaching and an ability to keep finding the answers.
Mendy’s problems were not costly, but they did cause headaches. As far back as last summer, he was told to move out of the city centre, his coaches already concerned that he could go off the rails, fit or not.
He made a superb start to the season, his tactical flexibility and physical capacity allowing Guardiola to mix up his tactics in a bid to keep things fresh, but the off-field incidents began racking up even before the Frenchman turned up more than three hours late for a recovery session on the foot injury he sustained in September.
That was something of a turning point, with Guardiola banning Mendy from the first-team set-up for a week. Even so, he made his return to the line-up in the big game at Anfield in October, and played every game until sustaining a knee injury against Manchester United a month later that effectively ended his season, and even ruled him out of their trophy celebrations over the past few days.
December proved tough.
Fernandinho had been working over-time in the weeks running up to defeat at Chelsea – stats showed he had been making far more tackles and interceptions than in the second half of last season – and the injury that kept him out of games against Crystal Palace and Leicester over Christmas could have defined their season.
It was then that City fell 10 points behind Liverpool, albeit with a game in hand, and with De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero only just coming back from injuries, the champions did not look themselves.
It was around this time that Guardiola had lost a bit of faith in Gabriel Jesus, too. The Brazilian had been called in to deputise for Aguero, but Guardiola felt he was too often lacking in conviction, and did not pick him for the game at Stamford Bridge.
It was felt that Jesus was missing his friends and family, who were denied Visas to the UK, and despite his hiring of a personal trainer to help him improve, he has found himself as an understudy to Aguero. He could even leave the club this summer should City find a suitable alternative in the transfer market.
City got themselves back on track at Southampton at the end of the year, despite De Bruyne missing out with a muscle injury.
Riyad Mahrez, who had begun to find form at the end of 2018, wasted a couple of good openings at St Mary’s that frustrated Guardiola. The Algerian quickly got frustrated himself; he soon found himself out of the team and began to complain about his lack of league action. He was left out of the squad at Huddersfield as a shot across the bows, just like Sane was against Newcastle in September.
The turning point in the whole season came against Liverpool on January 3, a game that probably sums up City’s whole season; Danilo was in for the out-of-sorts Kyle Walker; Vincent Kompany was the man for the big occasion; Aymeric Laporte, a key man throughout the campaign, moved to left-back; Bernardo Silva, the season’s stand-out performer, set new standards; and Sane, despite his issues, started and scored the winner.
City found answers whenever they needed them. That was Liverpool’s only defeat of the whole league campaign.
But then came Newcastle. An early goal perhaps came too early, and when Rafael Benitez’s newly motivated side fought back, City had no answer.
Guardiola kept his players in the dressing room for half an hour afterwards, and was hoarse when he finally arrived for his post-match press conference, where he claimed City had, yet again, “forgot to play” when they were leading.
The complacency that Guardiola was so worried about during pre-season had been averted, but was another kind creeping in, one that made the players think the game was won before it was over? No.
Liverpool could have gone seven points clear the night after but they suddenly went on a run of draws, while City just kept winning. They kept getting set-backs, too; the Carabao Cup final was marked by injuries to Laporte and Fernandinho, to the joy of many Liverpool fans on Twitter. Would the absence of those two key men finally derail City? Again, no.
Ilkay Gundogan, who had knocked back City’s attempts to renew his contract and had at one point seemed certain to leave, came into his own.
He had filled in for Fernandinho last season but not like this; suddenly, he had added a defensive awareness that allowed him to break up counter-attacks like his Brazilian team-mate, while building moves with astute passes. In the final weeks of the season he was one of City’s key men.
Others did their jobs, too, even those who had been unhappy with their minutes; Phil Foden had shone regularly in the FA Cup but was frustrated at his Premier League opportunities, and Nicolas Otamendi, an essential part of the 100-point season, had become no more than a back-up. He looks likely to leave this summer, too.
They, like others, may not have always been happy with Guardiola’s decisions, or his methods (he rarely explains his team selections), but they have not let him down.
Otamendi played six of the seven league games after the defeat at Newcastle, as City put together the run that would eventually deliver the title, while Foden scored the decisive goal in what Guardiola has called “the toughest game of the season” – Tottenham at home, just a few days after one of the most galling cup eliminations in football history, at the hands of the same team, on the same pitch.
City’s VAR nightmare could have destroyed them. Coaching staff cried out that they would never win the Champions League, that they were somehow cursed. Some players cried real tears, with Sergio Aguero and Ederson particularly devastated. Yet they rallied, again, and bounced back by beating Spurs, thanks to Foden’s early goal.
By this point, City’s season had become a bit of a scrap. They were worthy winners but they were not above keeping the ball in the corners of Selhurst Park, Old Trafford and Turf Moor to waste time. Winning was all that mattered and Guardiola circled the wagons.
After City overcame their nerves to beat Leicester – the players celebrated that Vincent Kompany goal as if it had clinched the title there and then – before their Catalan coach claimed the media wanted Liverpool to win the title.
The idea was planted in his head the day after the Manchester derby, when he stopped to watch Sky Sports News on his way through City’s CFA headquarters.
Presenters pored over several replays of David Silva’s foul on Andreas Pereira, wondering whether the Spaniard should have been sent off. Guardiola waited for the same analysis of a foul on Gundogan at the end of the first half, particularly as he feared the German would miss City’s next game as a result. The incident was never mentioned and the Catalan began to wonder why his club was not treated like United and Liverpool.
It was an idea he came back to once the title was claimed, and may well be one he revisits in pre-season, given the reaction to the FA Cup final, and should the various investigations into City yield punishments over the next few months.
But while City may well have questions to answer in the near future, the scale of their sporting achievements over the past two years – and especially this one – should not be downplayed.
Yes, this is a team assembled at great expense, but what sets them apart from other big-spenders, both now and throughout history, is the attitude and mentality that has redefined what it means to be champions of England, what it means to be the best. The size of their points tallies, the records they have set, mean they simply have to be in that conversation.
Many doubted whether Guardiola could even play his brand of football in the Premier League, let alone achieve this level of success. Do not think for one second that it has been easy.