Haaland goals and Man City tactical switch the keys to winning Premier League title
Manchester City has proved unstoppable once again.
A third straight Premier League title, and a seventh in 12 seasons, was clinched on Saturday thanks to Arsenal's loss at Nottingham Forest and represents one of the most dominant spells by a club in the history of English soccer.
Here's a look at how Pep Guardiola's juggernaut hunted down Arsenal and captured the biggest prize in the English game with three games to spare.
It’s surely the most astonishing debut season in Premier League history. Starting with the two-goal performance against West Ham on the opening weekend, Haaland has taken English soccer by storm. A mind-blowing 36 goals, four hat tricks (including three in successive home games), scissor-kick acrobatics and a bunch of scoring records including the most goals in a 38-game or 42-game season. And Haaland could easily have gotten more had Pep Guardiola not chosen to bring the fearsome Norway striker off early at times to manage his fitness. Haaland has added a new dimension to Guardiola’s attack, given he can play as a target man when City has possession and as a counterattacking weapon on the rare occasions the team is not dominating the ball.
Guardiola, the deep thinker and master tactician, has evolved his formation this season from a 4-3-3 to an innovative and fluid 3-2-4-1 lineup, essentially to accommodate the arrival of Haaland and make better use of City's dominance of possession. The change came midway through the season, with Guardiola first using Rico Lewis — an 18-year-old full back from the academy — as an inverted center midfielder in possession and a regular defender out of it. Eventually that hybrid role was passed to John Stones, a ball-playing center back, and he has excelled in it. Indeed, City hasn't lost a match since Stones took up the role in late March. Joao Cancelo appeared to be the defender with the best skill-set to fulfill the hybrid position but, unhappy at dropping out of the team because of poor form and after reportedly clashing with Guardiola in training, the Portugal full back was allowed to join Bayern Munich. It was a brave call by Guardiola, given the importance of Cancelo in City's buildup play in recent seasons, but it has been justified. The tactical switch also saw central midfielder Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne play further forward, ahead of Stones and Rodri, and they have prospered by going on scoring runs.
Jack Grealish was something of a letdown in his first season at City when he was, at the time, the most expensive player in the history of English soccer. His second year has been much, much better, to such an extent that he is now one of Guardiola's key players in adding an element of control to City's attacks and generating space for City's other offensive players to flourish. Grealish acknowledged it has taken time to get used to City's style of play compared to that of boyhood club Aston Villa, where he was the main man rather than one of many star players. “I came into City, having been at Villa my whole life, and I’d never had to change," he said. "I didn’t realize how hard it is to adapt to a different team and manager.” With five goals and seven assists, his numbers have improved as well, and should continue to.
The reliability and consistency of Rodri as the holding midfielder and Guardiola's brains on the field cannot be overstated. In fact, he has proved once again this season that he might be City's most important player because of the way he shields the defense and starts attacks. The dependence on Rodri has increased because the guy City signed to be a backup anchorman in midfield following the departure of former captain Fernandinho appears to be out of his depth, for now anyway. Kalvin Phillips, who joined in the offseason from Leeds, hasn't been trusted to start a league game this season and only comes on when wins are secure and to give Rodri a breather. Guardiola might need to find another backup this summer.
Once again, City has picked its moment to produce an end-of-season burst that blows away a challenger for its title. In recent years, it was Liverpool feeling the force of a long winning streak by City to close out a league season. This time it was Arsenal, which has buckled under the pressure of a fast-finishing City and ahead of the prospect of capturing a first league title since 2004. Arsenal was five points clear with a game in hand after City's 1-0 loss to Tottenham on Feb. 5. Since then, City has won 13 of its 14 games, only drawing the other after conceding a late goal at Nottingham Forest, to slowly and almost inevitably reel in Arsenal, whose young team started to falter. The 4-1 win over Arsenal on April 26 was a reality check for the long-time leaders and a muscle flex by City, highlighting the gulf between the two title rivals. City, as ever, has powered over the line.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
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Steve Douglas, The Associated Press