Sean Dyche, David Wagner and Roy Hodgson have worked commendably, but it’s hard to look beyond the title winner
While compelling arguments can be made for awarding a number of different bosses the accolade of manager of the season, it would seem churlish to overlook the man who masterminded one team’s canter to the title. The choreographer of some of the most breathtaking football ever witnessed in the English top flight, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City didn’t so much play, as perform what often appeared to be a completely different sport to many of their comparatively clod-hopping rivals.
First, some merit badges. Few could have predicted Sean Dyche’s exceptional effort in helping a Burnley side many predicted might struggle to maintain the dizzy heights of seventh place, while not many predicted that David Wagner would keep Huddersfield above the thick black line. Elsewhere, the work of Roy Hodgson at Crystal Palace, David Moyes at West Ham, Rafael Benítez at Newcastle and – in the short time available to him – Darren Moore at West Brom, often in the face exceptionally trying circumstances, was also highly commendable.
Nevertheless, in a league so desperately low on quality from sixth place down (Burnley failed to win in 11 matches either side of Christmas and still finished seventh); a division boasting so many teams with no ambition more lofty than the mere avoidance of relegation, simply keeping a team up scarcely justifies a ticker-tape parade when City were sweeping most before them. The scorelines and statistics speak for themselves: 5-0, 0-6, 5-0, 7-2, 0-4, 4-1, 4-0, 5-1, 5-0. Thirty-two wins and just two defeats. An astonishing 100 points acquired and 106 goals scored.
Of course there are detractors who suggest that hitting these kind of numbers is easy when you have the ludicrously generous financial backing of City’s owners and perhaps these naysayers have a point. Nevertheless, it is an inescapable truth that those eager to belittle Guardiola’s achievements and dismiss the City boss as little more than a cheque-book manager habitually overlook the comparatively poor purchases made by similarly free-spending sides.With great wealth comes great responsibility and only the most one-eyed fans of the clubs passing for City’s title rivals this season could deny that Guardiola has spent the hundreds of millions put at his disposal exceptionally well. In his two seasons at City, he has spent £20m or more on 10 players. Of that group, John Stones is arguably the nearest thing to a poor investment. The same John Stones who is still only 23 and will almost certainly start for England at the World Cup. We can only speculate, but should City sell any or all of Stones, Aymeric Laporte, Kyle Walker, Ederson, Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sané, Danilo, Benjamin Mendy, Gabriel Jesus or Ilkay Gündoğan , they would almost certainly turn a profit or at least recoup their initial outlay.
Perhaps what City’s romp to the title has demonstrated more than anything is Guardiola’s shrewdness in the transfer market is matched by his ability to take a group of excellent footballers and make them better. He has made a mockery of warnings he would be forced to adapt to the Premier League and two seasons in, City’s nearest rivals find themselves in a desperate, unseemly scramble.
In assorted competitions, Liverpool, Manchester United, Bristol City and even League One side Wigan Athletic have proved City are far from infallible. Assorted “Einsteins”, including Guardiola himself, are already predicting the champions will not have it all their own way next season, basing their assumption on the notion that at least one team among the chasing posse will regroup, invest, improve and mount a serious challenge. On the evidence of this season, it would be extremely naive to presume the champions won’t return from the close season as an even more irresistible force.
Occasionally chippy, sometimes rude and open to accusations of hypocrisy over the manner in which he champions the freedom of one country’s citizens while in the employment of a club whose vast wealth was accumulated on the back of slave labour, it can at times be difficult to warm to Guardiola. He is, however, far from unique among managers in that regard and all of us who have marvelled at some of the extraordinary performances of his Manchester City side on their stately procession to the title can similarly be accused of double standards. As guilty a pleasure as watching City under Guardiola can sometimes be, were we not entertained?