As the 70th minute approached at the Etihad, two opposite forces extended their sway over the 22 men battling it out on the pitch. The men in red and white, having been arguably the better of the 2 sides grew tired, exhausted, and cracks in their resilience started showing and widening. On the contrary, a certain surge of adrenaline, urgency and defiance took over the men in sky blue. They started running faster, harder, and they just refused to stop. Over the 20 minutes that followed, the blues had breached the French defense thrice, and taken a commendable lead, which at the point seemed near impossible.
So what brought about this sudden change? It’s a relatively straightforward answer. The Premier League is, by a margin, the most physically demanding and taxing league in world football. There are no easy games in the PL, which means teams like City are used to putting in all they have for the entire course of the 90 minutes of football. That, added to the fact that a Guardiola team looks to keep possession of the ball for as much as possible allows players to conserve energy as they don’t have to go chasing it back and forth over and over again.
The teams abroad, possessing arguably greater technical prowess, do not have such physicality in their domestic leagues so as to demand such exorbitant rates of work ethic from their players. When Bayern Munich visited here in a 3-2 win, they were much the better side for the first 80 minutes, despite being down a man for majority of the game. However, it was around 10 minutes from time that they switched off. It wasn’t as if they’d been caught off guard, they simply couldn’t keep up the effort to sustain the 90 minutes. The result? City snatched 2 goals in the final few minutes of the game, and took all 3 points from a hopeless cause. Each time Barcelona visited during Pellegrini’s tenure, they looked much the better team. But they were always pushed to the final whistle, even by the 10 men of City. However, they had the quality to hold on. This time though, they were completely ripped to shreds by De Bruyne and Co, who went about the second half as if they’d been born afresh. The outcome was a 3-1 victory, which should’ve been closer to 5 or 6 in truth.
The question arises – If English clubs had this advantage all these years, why hasn’t success followed? And what’s it going to take to turn this measureable advantage into some quantifiable results?
The answer is – English clubs had the legs to last, but they were unable to match the dexterity that foreign clubs possessed in the department of skill. They were generally edged in that aspect, and that was a fatal blow. Sometimes, lack of a solid game plan also cost the English clubs dear.
As for what it’s going to take, it is Pep Guardiola. Guardiola demands an insanely high amount of work rate from his players, and with the work rate, he treasures technical skill over physical strength. At Manchester City, he already has a brilliant mix of players having both, and nearly every player has one column ticked. To tick the second column, he’s making them work their socks off in training, and it’s showing! Sterling and Navas had the stamina; this season they’ve added mountains of on-the-ball ability to add to that asset. You see David Silva tracking back, winnings tackles, attempting to intercept passes, and putting in an all-around shift week in, week out, and he’s the most deserving of that captain’s armband. Yaya Toure plays with the enthusiasm and charisma of a 20 year old, and Leroy Sane looks like a man reborn. Admittedly, the defending hasn’t been too great this season, but a significant improvement can be seen in Kolarov and Otamendi’s patience in possession. There’s more to Zabaleta’s marauding runs than simply crossing the ball in. Guardiola has built a City side that is electric, technically proficient, and most importantly, one that can go full force and sustain it for the entire 90 minutes. Add to that arguably the best tactician in world football, and you have a side that is guaranteed to get results. He’s building a team for the future, and the article that he is currently working with is a visibly unfinished one. When he gets his hands on the pieces that make the perfect blend, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that City will join the “elites” of Europe, and hopefully they’ll stay there for all eternity.