It was dramatic, nostalgic and ultimately inevitable. Manchester City sealed the Premier League title in a similar fashion to the iconic Sergio Aguero moment a decade ago with a 3-2 comeback against Aston Villa at the Etihad Stadium. This match, along with the Liverpool game against Wolves, helped serve up one of the greatest final days that the top-flight has ever seen.
Manager Pep Guardiola put out another one of his more unconventional lineups which had veteran midfielder Fernandinho in the heart of defence and central defender John Stones occupying the right side with Joao Cancelo on the left. No one bar Guardiola will know why he precisely went with that back four and it was proven to be a misjudgement on his part as his side went into the break a goal down while Liverpool were drawing.
With an unusual defence selected, it would have given a lot of people a case of deja vu to the Spaniard’s bizarre selections in Porto for their Champions League final defeat against Chelsea where he had no recognised striker or a balanced midfield starting the game. So when he saw that the plan wasn’t going accordingly this time around, in his biggest game of the season, he showed signs that he has evolved as a coach, learning from arguably the biggest mistake of his career to date.
Left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko came on for Fernandinho at half-time as he assumed his natural position, Cancelo moved over to his more comfortable right side and Stones moved centrally. Immediately, there was a clear structure to the defence and now Guardiola had two extra attacking outlets to assist his attackers in turning around the one-goal deficit. They would have been aware of the Liverpool score but they could not afford any chances in getting composed, they needed to seal their own fate.
Cancelo, who looked displaced on the left for the first-half looked a lot more dangerous on the right in the second and Zinchenko helped add some pace to his side’s movement off the ball. In search of a goal, Guardiola turned to Raheem Sterling, who came on just 10 minutes into the second period before introducing the eventual hero of the hour Ilkay Gundogan with just over 20 minutes to go. When former Liverpool man Philippe Coutinho doubled Villa’s lead, it looked like visiting manager and Liverpool icon Steven Gerrard was playing his part to perfection in assisting his former club in a late title twist.
Guardiola and his players didn’t let up, however. They had been downtrodden in Porto and then crushed in Madrid this season, so they couldn’t let the one thing going for them in 2021-22 slip through their fingers. The manager’s reinforcements were instrumental in turning the game around. Sterling teed up Gundogan for the first and Zinchenko assisted Rodri’s leveller before Kevin De Bruyne played another one of his inch-perfect passes to give Gundogan a simple tap-in for his second and the team’s third. City ripped Villa apart in the space of five minutes around the same time that Liverpool had taken the lead against Wolves.
People are always quick to highlight Guardiola’s decisions that don’t work but no one can deny that he not only took responsibility for his wrong selections to start the game but he corrected it with the substitutions he made. This learning experience will only push him to greater levels moving forward and it is something that the other clubs in the Premier League will be worried about next season in what is currently his final year at the Etihad.
We know he’s had his shortcomings on the European stage but to dominate a domestic league as he has in recent years is truly remarkable and just think this latest triumph came without a natural centre-forward leading the line. The impending arrival of Erling Haaland is only going to help Guardiola take his players to another level. It may seem impossible for them to get even better at this stage, but that word doesn’t appear to be in his vocabulary.
*18+ | BeGambleAware