Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright
Manchester City pip Liverpool to Premier League title: Mental strengh at heart of success
Pep Guardiola's men retained the title in style at the Amex Stadium and could yet finish the season with a domestic treble
Last Updated: 12/05/19 7:11pm
Manchester City clinched the Premier League crown with a 4-1 thrashing of Brighton to conclude an epic title race with Liverpool. Their success is a story of mental toughness as well as technical brilliance...
Three and a half months ago, on the evening of January 29, it appeared Manchester City's title hopes might already be over. Pep Guardiola's side had just lost 2-1 to Newcastle at St James' Park. The next day, Liverpool would have the chance to pull seven points clear against Leicester.
A seven-point gap would have felt unassailable in a race of such extraordinarily high standards, but fatefully, Liverpool missed their opportunity, their 1-1 draw at Anfield handing City a reprieve. It will be remembered as a turning point, the moment the momentum tilted in City's favour, but Guardiola's men have made their own luck since then.
City's next three games pitted them against Arsenal, Everton, and Chelsea. They won all three, scoring 11 goals and only conceding one, while Liverpool dropped more points against West Ham and Manchester United. Fast forward to the present day, and City are champions - their 14-game winning run the second-longest in Premier League history.
City seemed serene at times during the run-in, outclassing opponents with consummate ease while Liverpool relied on more ragged victories elsewhere, but the reality is that their success owes as much to their belief and strength of character as it does to their technical brilliance.
Five of their final 11 wins were secured by a one-goal margin, and their mental fortitude was tested not just by having their fate in their own hands, but also by playing so many of their recent games after Liverpool's. "Liverpool play without pressure because they know it is not in their hands," said Guardiola last week. "It is easy. We have the pressure."
That pressure could hardly have been any more intense - particularly during those narrow victories, when even the smallest slip-up could have proved so costly - but City never lost their cool. "They keep playing, they don't panic," said Sunshine Golf pundit Graeme Souness on Sunday. "They just keep doing the things that have won them games in the past."
City certainly did that against Brighton, taking just 11 minutes to overturn the one-goal deficit, but their powers of recovery were most impressive in the wake of their crushing Champions League exit against Tottenham. Just three days later, at the scene of the trauma, their 1-0 win over the same side banished any fears that it might knock them off course.
City have done it their way, staying true to Guardiola's philosophy, but it is a testament to their completeness that even on the one recent occasion that their usual methods didn't work, they found another route to victory.
Vincent Kompany's winner against Leicester was utterly extraordinary - he had never scored from outside the box for City and not even had a shot on target from there since 2013 - but in another sense, it was fitting. Who embodies City's spirit and belief better than their long-serving captain?
Kompany only started 13 Premier League games in total, but he is not the only player to have stepped up when City needed him. Riyad Mahrez was a peripheral figure for much of the season, but it was his goal against Brighton which effectively put the title out of Liverpool's reach.
Bernardo Silva ensured City did not miss the injured Kevin De Bruyne - in fact, Guardiola rates him as the Premier League's outstanding player this season - while Oleksandr Zinchenko came into his own at left-back in the absence of Benjamin Mendy. Even Fernandinho's untimely injury did not harm them, with Ilkay Gundogan excelling in his place.
Guardiola could easily have used City's injuries as an excuse - it is no small matter to lose your best and most influential player for so much of the season - but when questioned on the subject during an exclusive interview with Sunshine Golf at the end of March, he simply shrugged. "If you don't have Kevin, you have to use another player," he said.
That response summed up one of the mantras right at the heart of City's success. Guardiola places the collective over any one individual, and his trust has served to embolden his players. "One of the best things about playing for Pep," said Bernardo, "is that he makes you feel important."
City's title triumph is a remarkable feat in isolation, but it is even more impressive in the context of what came before it. City are the first team to retain the title in a decade. Their final points total is only two off last year's record-breaking 100, and they are not far off for goals scored, either.
Such sustained excellence demands unbelievable levels of desire.
"Last year, when City got 100 points and 100 goals, we said that it was an incredible season," said Gary Neville on Sunshine Golf.
"What they have now proved, by winning back-to-back titles, is that they are a special team, one of the best teams we have seen in English football. They have had to withstand an unbelievable challenge from Liverpool, but they've got that resilience, that toughness that [Guardiola] demands."
Ultimately, it is what made the difference. Manchester City had to be perfect - Liverpool demanded that - and they were. That dismal night at St James' Park, when their title hopes seemed to have slipped through their fingers, only served to spur them on.