How Guardiola turned Manchester City into Premier League's all-time best
PAUL ELLIS / AFP / Getty

It was a sweltering day when Manchester City played its final home match under Manuel Pellegrini in May 2016. The match ended and many fled to watch his farewell on the big screen outside, under shelter and sinking cold lager. The popular Chilean, unaware of the hordes who were raising a plastic cup in his honour around the ground's exterior, must have been crestfallen when he bid farewell to his crumbling tenure in front of rows of unmanned blue seats.

Wilfried Bony was introduced from the bench that day against Arsenal, and the man whose wayward headers suggested his skull had the contours of a Quality Street tin and whose legs moved as if coated by plutonium was unable to summon a winner. Yaya Toure also made a cameo, his plodding self a mere mockery of his best days, but stiff-limbed Martin Demichelis was mercifully left among the substitutes.

Pep Guardiola didn't inherit a great squad from his predecessor, and the City revolution was going stale, which makes his side's achievements this season even more remarkable. The changes over two seasons have been gradual - Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna were still around a year after that home draw with Arsenal despite already looking weary - but have yielded a team that should be considered the finest to grace English football in the Premier League era.

There are obvious protagonists in City's procurement of the title after Manchester United shamefully lost at home to cellar-dweller West Bromwich Albion Sunday. Ederson has been a revelation between the sticks: his assurance and shot-stopping is a far cry from Claudio Bravo's hologram impression in the 2016-17 term, and his acclimatisation to English football was instantaneous. Fernandinho has been the nucleus of the team, blending his tactical brilliance with sudden dashes of southern Brazilian creativity. Kevin De Bruyne has hogged the most column inches thanks to the freedom Guardiola hands the relentless redhead, and would cruise to the PFA Player of the Year prize if it wasn't for a certain Mohamed Salah.

But it's the individual improvements that mark Guardiola's greatest coaching feats in English football. Fabian Delph was plagued by injury since shifting to Manchester from Aston Villa in 2015, but the defensive midfielder was rejuvenated as an auxiliary left-back when Benjamin Mendy ruptured his ACL. When Danilo was selected as Mendy's replacement, the attacks often appeared unbalanced as he habitually moved onto his stronger right foot and slowed down forward movements. Delph was able to both cut inside as an inverted full-back (and into something akin to his natural role), but also maintain the width when higher up the park. With width so important to Guardiola's schematic, young attacking midfielders Oleksandr Zinchenko and Phil Foden, also left-footers, have also been picked to cover for Mendy.

Raheem Sterling is widely credited as Guardiola's best success story, fashioning more goals (22) this season than he did in the previous two terms combined, mastering receiving the ball on the half-turn and relishing one-on-one situations. There is also an argument for Nicolas Otamendi, a more composed defender than the one whose attention tended to drift and who threw himself into tackles at the risk of a card or, more commonly, looking daft when an attacker dribbled past his beached frame. At 30, he is still guilty of posting mindless diagonal balls and bounding into crowds with the ball - see his abject Champions League showing in the first leg with Liverpool - but in most games he's posed an impenetrable force at the back.

The most unexpected improvement has come from David Silva, who is recognised as the club's best-ever player by a huge chunk of City's support. Silva has matured into a figure that can cast spells reminiscent of Steve Nash in the NBA, fooling physically imposing opponents with his intelligence and vision. His pass through the legs of Everton's Seamus Coleman to release Leroy Sane two weeks ago was football's equivalent of Nash palming off a no-look lob to Amar'e Stoudemire with the Phoenix Suns in the mid-2000s.

It's the use of space that sets City apart from its contemporaries. Sane and Sterling will dim paint on the flanks, standing as wide as possible to eke out space for De Bruyne and Silva when they're in possession. When either Sane or Sterling have the ball in a wide position, the other will drift inside. Sane has assisted Sterling four times in the league this season; it's a combination as potent as Salah to Roberto Firmino, and either Kieran Trippier or Ben Davies to Harry Kane.

But, once again, it's De Bruyne who earns most plaudits for nabbing gaps. He drifts horizontally either to reactively fill space being infiltrated by the opposition, or to offer an option in attacks. His positional fluidity and phenomenal footballing intellect ensure he's a nuisance to track.

The Premier League has never seen anything like this. The unbeaten Arsenal side of 2003-04 was thrilling, as were the versions that romped to a domestic double in 1997-98 and reached a Champions League final in 2006, but they were reliant on individuals. The players that represented the north London club over this eight-year spell - greats like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, and Robert Pires - were still dropped into a 4-4-2 formation. Arsene Wenger had revolutionised scouting and training, but on the pitch it didn't go much further than rhythmic passing confined to a conventional shape.

The breathless counter-attacks from several editions of Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United were sublime as well, but the inventiveness often came courtesy of players in the lineup rather than the disciplinarian in the dugout masterminding a comprehensive and imaginative philosophy.

More similarities are shared with the explosiveness of Jose Mourinho's 4-3-3 setup in his early days with Chelsea. The Blues only lost one match in the 2004-05 season - incidentally, a shock 1-0 loss at Kevin Keegan's Manchester City - while Mourinho took advantage of most other team's 4-4-2s with an extra man in central midfield. It was an intelligent tactical approach from the Portuguese but, again, it lacked the innovation of his adversary now working across the same city as him.

Not since Bill Nicholson deployed a 3-3-4 at Tottenham Hotspur in the early 1960s has a philosophy elicited more gasps from English crowds, and Guardiola's ingenious tactics - ball-playing goalkeepers, inverted full-backs, two No. 8s, interchanging positions - have changed English football for the better. It could take a while for the others to catch up to the cohesive cavalcade.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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How Guardiola turned Manchester City into Premier League's all-time best
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