Manchester City are champions – From numerous false nines to Foden’s breakthrough campaign, how Pep’s men stormed to the Premier League title

BTSport.com break down how City won back the title to claim a third Premier League success in four seasons.

Published: 12 May 2021 - 10.27am
Pep Guardiola with Phil Foden and Ruben Dias with John Stones

The writing has been on the wall for months but it’s finally official – Manchester City are Premier League champions. Pep Guardiola’s side have wrestled back the title they let slip from their grasp last campaign and have now won three of the last four Premier Leagues on offer.

Given Liverpool’s complete and utter dominance in 2019/20, given that City sat in ninth place at the end of matchday 13 and given the unprecedented circumstances teams have been forced to contend with, this might be the most impressive of all Guardiola’s Premier League titles.

BTSport.com break down the keys to Man City’s title win, from Phil Foden’s emergence to committing to a striker-less formation.

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Gundogan the goalscorer

The transformation of Ilkay Gundogan from tidy holding midfielder to a box-to-box goalscorer has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2020/21 Premier League campaign.

The German had never scored more than six in his 11 previous full league seasons as a professional and from 2016-2020 he’d netted a total of 15 Premier League goals for City. This season he’s on 12 and counting from just 26 appearances and sits atop the club’s goalscoring charts.

During a challenging period where Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero were out of the side for significant spells, Gundogan stepped up.

The midfielder netted 11 goals in 12 league games between mid-December and mid-February as City embarked on the 14-game winning run that would ultimately seal them the title.

And they’ve been crucial goals too. Gundogan scored against Chelsea, twice at Liverpool and twice against Tottenham. When City were struggling to break down sides, the 30-year-old would be the man bursting into the box or running beyond the last man to provide the breakthrough.

According to Guardiola, Gundogan’s brilliance has never been in question. It’s just that he's only now being recognised after adding goals to his game. “I said many times he could play as a striker, like a false nine, and people laughed,” Guardiola said of his midfielder.

“The year we won the second Premier League with 98 points, he was incredible as a holding midfielder,” the City boss added.

“But now, of course, he is our top scorer and that's why he gets the recognition now he deserves.”

Goal-machine Gundogan

After 15 Premier League goals in his previous four seasons at City, Gundogan has scored 12 this season including a run of 11 goals in 12 matches.

Striker-less system

One of the reasons Gundogan has flourished this season is due to Guardiola’s decision to go striker-less with increasing regularity, particularly in the big matches.

Guardiola sides deploying a 'false nine' is nothing new. The Spaniard used Lionel Messi in that role at Barcelona while Thomas Muller, and to a lesser extend Mario Goetze, were used that way while he was at Bayern Munich.

Even in previous seasons at City, Guardiola has toyed with utilising a false nine formation, but never as much as this season and not with as many different players playing in the role.

Foden, Riyad Mahrez, De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Ferran Torres have all played multiple games as a false nine this campaign indicating that Guardiola’s system has become so effective that numerous City players can fulfil the role.

Before, the criticism labelled at Guardiola’s false nine was that it only works when you have the greatest player in the world – Messi. That has been proven wholly untrue this season.

City have won 10 of the 12 games that they’ve started without Aguero or Gabriel Jesus, in comparison to 15 wins in 23 matches where one or both the strikers have started.

It’s been used in almost all City’s biggest games this season from De Bruyne at Stamford Bridge to Foden at Anfield while Jesus, and to a lesser extent Aguero, tend to feature against the league’s weaker sides.

In this season’s false nine formation, we’ve reached perhaps the pinnacle of Guardiola’s tactical evolution and City fans can expect far more of the same as long as the Spaniard remains at the Etihad.

Stones and Dias' partnership

A solid defensive team is not typically how you’d describe Guardiola’s City previously, but this campaign has seen the champions significantly tighten up at the back.

While they initially struggled to score goals in the early weeks of the season, City have kept clean sheets throughout the campaign and boast comfortably the best defensive record in the league.

And key to that has been the central defensive partnership formed between Stones and summer signing Dias in front of goalkeeper Ederson. When those two have played together City concede an average of just 0.4 goals per game, twice as good as the next best partnership – Tottenham’s Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld.

Dias, a summer signing from Benfica, has been outstanding since arriving for £62m. The Portuguese defender is physical, strong in the tackle and, typical of a Guardiola centre-back, brilliant at playing it out from the back, with the most passes of any player in the league at the time of writing. So good have Dias’ performances been that the 23-year-old is being tipped for individual honours.

Alongside him, the big surprise has been the renaissance of Stones. The 26-year-old had increasingly fallen out of favour under Guardiola after a string of costly mistakes in defence.

Yet Stones was thrust into the Premier League side in late November and hasn’t looked back with a string of assured displays next to Dias in the meanest defence in the division, forcing his way into the England XI in the process.

Stones has contributed on the other end of the pitch too, with his first four league goals for City all coming in 2020/21. Remarkably in early March, Stones and Dias had actually scored more goals (five) than they’d conceded (four) in their 17 matches together.

The Englishman was unequivocal when he assessed who has brought the best out of him this year. “I absolutely love playing with Dias,” Stones said of his Portuguese defensive partner earlier this season.

The duo have been so impressive that Aymeric Laporte, perhaps the second-best centre-back in the league since he’s arrived in England after Virgil van Dijk, has been kept out of the team. In an era where centre-back partnerships are on the wane, Stones and Dias’ relationship at the back has provided City with solidity and a stable base from which to build this campaign.

“His influence is massive... he's becoming a serious player”
- Guardiola on Foden

The emergence of Phil Foden

Perhaps the best young player in the league, Phil Foden’s brilliant form has been a key factor in City clinching the title this season.

Guardiola drew ridicule in the summer of 2019 after describing the City academy product as the “most talented player I have ever seen” as a player or a manager. He then drew frustration when Foden was regularly left out of the City XI in 2019/20.

Yet this season has seen the 20-year-old unleashed. Guardiola has deployed Foden in many of City’s toughest games this season and the midfielder has demonstrated time and time again that he’s a player who relishes the biggest matches. 

A man-of-the-match display in the 4-1 win at Anfield, in which he terrorised the defending champions with a goal and assist, felt like a seminal moment in his development.

When De Bruyne spent a spell on the sidelines through injury, Foden stepped up to fill the creative void left by the Belgian. “His influence is massive right now,” Guardiola said of Foden last month. “He’s becoming a serious player.”

Far from a youngster who Guardiola is choosing to blood, Foden is fast becoming City’s key man on the big occasion.

Drawing with the Baggies

Cast your mind back to December 15 when City hosted Slaven Bilic’s second-bottom West Brom at the Etihad. Guardiola’s men took the lead through Gundogan on the half-hour mark, but were pegged back before the interval when Semi Ajayi’s shot was deflected in off Dias.

City managed 26 shots but in truth failed to create many clear-cut opportunities until the final minute, when Sam Johnstone made two point-black saves to deny the hosts a leveller. “You have to win this kind of game if you want to be up there,” Guardiola said after the match.

The result sparked a reaction. “After the game I had a feeling that this isn’t a team I can recognise,” Guardiola said in February. “I didn’t like the way we played. We talked [with coaches and executives] and I said we have to come back to our first principle. 

“We started to rebuild and reconstruct the team from that point. We had success in the past and we had to come back on our positional play, move the ball quicker, do more passes, stay more in position and run less with the ball.”

Club captain Fernandinho had his say too. The Brazilian held talks with his team-mates and demanded an improvement, with the club sitting in mid-table having dropped points in seven matches before Christmas.

The change in approach worked brilliantly. City would beat Southampton four days later, Newcastle on Boxing Day and Chelsea in the New Year as they embarked on a 14-match league winning run.