If there were any remaining doubts about Manchester City’s credentials, about their position as the most dominant, most impressive, and surely just the downright best English champions in recent memory, then surely they were vanquished on Sunday.
City’s supremacy over this division has been evident for so long now – they were 14 points clear by New Year’s Eve, they were crowned champions a month ago – that their performances, their results, their numbers, have almost become the norm.
Yet they are anything but normal, and Gabriel Jesus’ goal on Sunday, City’s last kick of a remarkable campaign, delivered a reminder that this truly is a special team. The Brazilian’s delicate lob ensured the Blues finished with 100 points, a record for English football and a tally which will surely not be beaten in many years.
And with it, perhaps, special recognition. Arsenal’s unbeaten season earned them not just the ‘Invincibles’ tag but the right to be remembered as one of English football’s best ever sides – despite the fact Arsene Wenger probably had a better title-winning team at the end of the 90s. The symbolism of not losing a single match, the first team to do so since Preston North End in the 1880s, added an extra gloss to an already excellent side – 14 years on they are not so much Invincible as Immortal.
City’s ‘Centurions’ will surely be afforded similar reverance. As well as the most points, they recorded the best goal difference (79), the most away wins (17), the most away points (50), the most wins (32) and the biggest points gap to second place (19).
Back at the end of 2017 they put together an 18-game winning run- that too is an English football record.
City are surely the best champions English football has ever seen.
Yet the consensus seems to be that they must do more if they are to be remembered as a truly great side. So the question is, can this ever be improved upon? Yes and no.
Pep Guardiola has known for several weeks now that there are three specific areas he needs to work on for next season – individually, collectively and emotionally – and he highlighted them all at St Mary’s as he reflected on a remarkable campaign.
“A team is individual players,” he said. “Always you can improve individual players. When you analyse the numbers, I will say, can we improve the numbers? No. There I agree with you. We cannot be better in terms of numbers. In terms of playing football, yes. Because the players can do better, the manager as well, as a group, as a team, we can do better.”
Guardiola knows most of his charges are young enough to improve naturally but he also believes certain players can do better in specific areas: for Raheem Sterling to brush up on his finishing, for Gabriel Jesus and John Stones to maintain their confidence, and for Kyle Walker to cut out small errors, in possession and out.
Collectively, Guardiola knows his players understand his central concepts very well, but he believes there is room for improvement; for them to learn extra systems – not just the 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 – and for them to realise, without his prompts, when to make in-game changes to combat the opposition’s plans.
And then emotionally. For Guardiola this is the most important area. He knows, or at least believes, that his side will not break all of these records again next season. His target is to retain the Premier League – which has not been done in nearly a decade – to reach the Champions League semi-finals (at least), and to fight for the two domestic cups. This, the Catalan says privately and now publicly, will require a great emotional effort; for his players to avoid complacency, to not allow themselves to believe that winning comes easily.
“Next season we have to be honest in ourselves,” Guardiola outlined. “So if the players believe from this season, because they play all the minutes, they are going to play again… [no], it depends on their qualities. I will try to be a fair manager, be honest. All the guys they are here, they can play. All of them. They have to know, they have to compete with each other. That’s the only way to achieve.
“Always our target is to arrive in April and May, playing for the titles. Next season this will be our main target. So next season, in November and December, people will say ‘City have less points than last season’. That is going to happen. We are going to lose all, all, all ways to compare with this season, all of them. That will not be important. Important is focusing how we can improve, when we play against teams so deep, attack more fluently, better, we are working on that, to continue to be a good team.”
Guardiola’s mission heading into next season is to ensure that none of his players are sidetracked by trying to beat the records they have only just set. He says it would be “ridiculous” to do so. But he still expects them to get even better, and in its own way that would be an even greater achievement than anything they have done so far.