The word amounted to an invitation to mockery. Monday [13th] marks the seventh anniversary of Manchester City’s maiden Premier League title win and six years to the day since Roberto Mancini was sacked. By way of an explanation, City cited the “need to develop a holistic approach to all aspects of football at the club”.
Holistic: there it was. The nouveaux riches sounded rather new age, all scented candles rather than signed cheques. In the subsequent six years, it is safe to say City have not always been a byword for holisticness. Not when they were sanctioned by UEFA once for breaching Financial Fair Play and face multiple investigations into whether they did again, or when they spent £42 million on Eliaquim Mangala, paid out the best part of £500 million in the first two years of Pep Guardiola’s reign and turned the notion of £50 million defender from an alien concept into a regular sight.

Eliaquim Mangala in action for Manchester City

Image credit: Reuters

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The accusation of buying silverware was levelled, and not merely by Jose Mourinho, when Guardiola’s first Premier League title came in a year that contained a £249 million net spend. And yet his second has followed in a campaign with a rather different ratio of pounds to points. City’s expenditure in the last 12 months is not merely lower than Fulham’s, after they spent £100million to get relegated, but Brighton’s, Everton’s, West Ham’s and Wolves’. Perhaps City bought themselves a platform to be holistic.
And yet their fourth Premier League title has distinct differences from the previous three. In each previous case, improvement could be attributed to expensive arrivals’ debut campaigns: Samir Nasri and, particularly, Sergio Aguero in 2011-12, Alvaro Negredo and, especially, Fernandinho in 2013-14, Ederson and Kyle Walker last season.

Manchester City's Riyad Mahrez celebrates scoring their second goal

Image credit: Reuters

Not this time. Riyad Mahrez may have delivered the early winner at Tottenham, but his season was in danger of being defined by his missed penalty at Anfield. City’s record buy has started just four league games in 2019. The Algerian’s ineffectiveness – his goal against Brighton came when the match was already won – has added to the organic element of City’s prowess; the absence of Kevin de Bruyne, their outstanding player last season, for half the campaign has rendered it necessary to find the answer within.
The improvement of others has amounted to a triumph of coaching and strategy. There are four emblematic figures. Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva have been two of the three outstanding players in the division. The Englishman had never topped 11 goals in a campaign; now he has 23 in successive seasons, emerging as a player and a person of stature.
The Portuguese was City’s most-used player in his debut year. He has been the most crucial in his sophomore season. “The best player [this season], and not just in this team,” Guardiola said on Friday. It continued a theme. “A masterclass, a masterpiece every single game,” he had purred. “It was incredible.” An opening-day goal at Arsenal set the tone for Silva’s defining contributions on the major stages: as a disciplined holding midfielder at Anfield and running a divisional-high 13.7km in the rematch, getting two assists in the first Manchester derby and the pivotal opener in the second. He was common denominator and catalyst.
The long-term thinking behind costly recruitment has been symbolised by Aymeric Laporte; a £57 million January arrival who was in effect immaterial as City won the league last season, but indispensable this, as their most-used outfield player.

Aymeric Laporte of Manchester City controls the ball as Christian Eriksen of Tottenham Hotspur looks on during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final second leg match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at at Etihad Stadium on April 17, 2019 in

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Planning has been allied with a pragmatic resourcefulness when it has been necessitated. Mourinho claimed City bought Guardiola four full-backs; in fact they purchased three, plus a £1.75 million winger. Oleksandr Zinchenko has been remodelled and rebranded. His outings in defence last season tended to come in the most winnable games; now they have come against opponents, whether Tottenham, Chelsea or Manchester United, who ought to present a stiffer test of his defensive credentials, and City have won every league game he has played. History has repeated itself as a midfielder who almost joined a Midlands side in the summer transfer window has emerged, with Benjamin Mendy sidelined, as the regular left-back: for the Stoke target Fabian Delph last season, read Zinchenko, wanted at Wolves, this.
That organic feel will be amplified if Phil Foden starts more frequently next season and if the ‘Stockport Iniesta’ in effect becomes the Stockport David Silva over the next couple of seasons; as it is, his winner against Spurs assumed an importance. The aim, voiced six years ago, was for success to be self-perpetuating and self-sustaining, for the revolutionaries to become evolutionaries. The era of big spending may persist, given the prices, but the age of multiple signings and annual overhauls may be ending. A younger alternative to Fernandinho is required, but the noises are that another left-back will not join. Zinchenko, the cut-price De Bruyne lookalike, could remain the bargain at the back.

Manchester City's English midfielder Phil Foden celebrates after scoring their sixth goal during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg football match between Manchester City and Schalke 04 at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, north west England

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City’s glory has been forged by money, but it has not just been about the money. The slickness and quickness of their football has required an understanding that cannot come simply from bolting expensive additions on. They have backed out of some deals – most notably, facilitating Alexis Sanchez’s car-crash move to Old Trafford – and lost out in others; Jorginho and Frenkie de Jong being prime examples.
They have claimed 198 points in two seasons where, barring Mendy’s occasional outings, they have not had a specialist left-back. They have normalised the abnormal: possession of around 65 per cent, pass completion rates approaching 90 per cent, topping 25,000 passes in a division where, a dozen years ago, no team mustered 19,000.

Alexis Sanchez of Manchester United looks dejected after the Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on April 24, 2019 in Manchester, United Kingdom.

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They have altered the structure of games, starving opponents of the ball, and raised the bar in title races. Only Mourinho, at Chelsea between 2004-06, had previously recorded consecutive 90-point seasons in the Premier League. Guardiola’s Barcelona posted 87, then 99, 96 and, in finishing second, 91.
He may have turned England into Spain. “The standards we created, people know that you have to be close to 100; before it was 90,” he said last month. His perfectionism has extended to the points totals; he has argued that City will be better again next season. And yet if it's success breeding success, with a system, a style of play and an understanding making his side superior and signings a comparative scarcity, isn’t it a little holistic?
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