Manchester City entered the 2020/21 season looking for a third Premier League title in four years. They also went in looking to regain the league after their timid surrender to Liverpool in the 2019/20 campaign. Pep Guardiola and his side ended the season looking like the best team in Europe, and yet, there was a bitter taste in the conclusion.
Manchester City Season Review
Faltering Start and Enabling Doubts
Despite having had an underwhelming 2019/20 period, Manchester City went into this season as league favourites. They would be keen to wrestle back the title they surrendered so meekly. The notion was that it’s probably a tad easier to fight to win a title than to keep defending it.
Yet, Manchester City made a tepid start to the 2020/21 season. They started with a win at Wolverhampton Wanderers, but a week later were demolished at home by Leicester City. It was a defeat that showed the flaws of the previous season. City had a glass jaw and they could be got at just like that.
They bounced back from that loss, but the displays and results were far from ideal, especially the former. There were stodgy wins against the likes of Sheffield United and Fulham, while there was a shocking display in defeat to Tottenham. Then, it was Spurs who looked like title challengers, and there were even questions over City’s performance.
Such was the increasing doubt over City that the news of Pep Guardiola extending his contract at the club was met with cynicism, and wide-eyed think pieces. When haplessly drawing against West Bromwich Albion in December, they were outside the top six. The question over Pep was; could the Spaniard actually lead a second rebuild of the squad?
Imperious Run Makes League Formality
The answer from Manchester City and Pep Guardiola was an emphatic yes. City had started the season with injury troubles up front, frontmen Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus were moving in and out of the side. But in December, Guardiola went all-in for a false-nine, and it was a system that started to pay off.
The reinvention of Joao Cancelo as a part-inverted wingback and part-false midfielder was also a masterstroke. Between mid-December and early March, City won 21 games on the bounce in all competitions, 15 of those in the league. Along the way were League Cup wins over Manchester United and Arsenal, as well as a league win at Stamford Bridge.
But most eye-catching was the demolition of Liverpool at Anfield. Ahead of the meeting of the last two league champions in February, City hadn’t won at Anfield in 18 years. They had two Alisson errors to thank as well for their win, but City were as dominant as they were ruthless, so much so that Ilkay Gundogan could afford to miss a penalty. Phil Foden was instrumental as City all but fired Liverpool out of the title race.
Domestic Domination Again – but Heartbreak in Portugal
Manchester City saw their impeccable run come to a halt at home to rivals Manchester United in March. But by then the league was pretty much a formality. Four wins out of their next five games guaranteed a third title in four years, as City left the rest of the league trailing in their wake. This was also matched by another League Cup win, as City beat Spurs at Wembley for a fourth successive Carabao Cup title.
But Europe was where the club’s main attentions lay. In Guardiola’s time at the club, Manchester City hadn’t gone past the last eight. But this season, they first saw off Borussia Monchengladbach in the round of 16, before beating another German side in Borussia Dortmund in the quarters.
This set up a meeting with Paris Saint-Germain in the semis. For much of the first half of the first leg, City were on the back-foot against PSG, as well as a goal behind. But two goals after the break gave City the advantage going into the second leg. It was an advantage they didn’t pass up, as two goals from Riyad Mahrez fired Manchester City into their first-ever Champions League final.
Chelsea awaited in Porto, a Thomas Tuchel team that had already beaten Manchester City twice in the season. For much of the Champions League campaign, Guardiola had dispelled the notion of overthinking things. But in the final, he opted against playing a recognised holding midfielder, to the surprise of many.
City saved their poorest performance of the season for last in the final, as a Kai Havertz goal gave Chelsea the lead at half-time. The English champions were poor, hardly tested Edouard Mendy in the Chelsea goal, and a 1-0 defeat flattered them.
Manchester City – Star Men of the Season
There’s no overstating the impact of Ruben Dias in the Manchester City defence. Dias was signed after the 5-2 loss to Leicester in September and has transformed the champions’ defence. In that 21-game winning run, City conceded just nine goals, one of which was a penalty. Dias hasn’t just transformed City at the back, he’s also rejuvenated John Stones, a man who once looked on the way out.
If Dias was the rock at the back, Ilkay Gundogan was the magic man at the other end. Having your top scorer end up with 13 goals doesn’t seem that impressive. But such is City’s rotational and positional play that it has allowed Gundogan to be that leading scorer. The German’s role this season has changed a bit, and he’s become more of a goal threat than before, which makes his role in the Champions League final all the more galling.