Getting to the top takes steely determination, incredible hard work and immense sacrifice. Staying there takes a lot more.
After the events of an energy-sapping season, no one is more aware of that than Manchester City.
Pep Guardiola’s side steamrolled the competition in the previous campaign, obliterating records along the way and apparently in fierce contest with themselves. The Spaniard laid down a marker with an emphatic first Premier League title under his belt. There can be no question though that retaining the crown has been a far greater achievement.
The reasoning behind that has as much to do with City’s unreal consistency and single-minded focus as it does with Liverpool‘s rabid hunt for a first league title in 29 years and a first-ever in the Premier League era.
At one stage over the winter, the Reds held a seven-point lead at the summit after the festive period handed City three defeats in four games. The meeting at the Etihad was pivotal and Guardiola’s side dug deep to inflict Liverpool’s only defeat of the season, with his players lauded in the aftermath, not for their technical brilliance or silky passing but a dogged resilience and physicality that seemed to overpower the visitors.
That performance set the tone for City’s phenomenal run as they chased down the pretenders to the throne. There was one more blip to deal with. Newcastle beat them 2-1 but after Liverpool could only take a point at Leicester City, the champions put their heads down and never let up.
A sensational 14-game winning streak is what eventually secured the title, outdoing Liverpool’s run of nine successive wins. To achieve back-to-back titles, City have had to be near-perfect, notching up a remarkable 198 points from a possible 228.
“To win the title we had to win 14 games in a row,” said Guardiola after lifting the trophy at Brighton.
“This was the toughest title in all my career, by far.”
There was a time when Manchester United fans took their recurring success in England’s top flight for granted but in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, the true extent of his achievements have been laid bare by campaigns since.
United successfully defended the title six times during his tenure, and since winning three on the trot between 2006 and 2009, City have now become the first team to retain the crown – a decade later.
This season’s triumph is their fourth in eight years but while that speaks volumes of their sustained strength in the division, an eye-opening fact was quickly doing the rounds as their accomplished group of players celebrated with the away support at Brighton – they’ve now drawn level with Sunderland with six league titles each.
Liverpool 18/19 Premier League season:— The Anfield Buzz (@TheAnfieldBuzz) May 12, 2019
- 1 defeat.
- Least goals conceded
- Most clean sheets.
- Golden Glove winner.
- 2 Golden Boot winners.
- PFA POTY winner.
- PL POTY winner.
- 3 players with 10+ goals.
- 2 players with 10+ assists.
- 97 points.
Truly a special season. pic.twitter.com/tnXGSevphk
That puts things into perspective. Aston Villa (7) and Everton (9) sit above them in that regard while the distance to Arsenal (13), Liverpool (18) and United (20) is daunting. No one is suggesting Guardiola will remain in the blue half of Manchester for the next couple of decades and attempt to knock their neighbours off their perch, so to speak, but his success must be viewed as only the beginning.
The endgame for City is to build an empire and be counted among the greatest teams in England but that is only achieved if their winning streak can stand the test of time. In doing so, they may even usurp Ferguson’s United as standard-bearers given the greater number of teams vying for supremacy in the current era.
Winning the title is in itself a huge undertaking but it pales in comparison to building an empire. Guardiola has taken the first painstaking steps towards doing just that at City.
But with the Citizens’ rule barely in place, it seems destined to face further threat from a Reds rebellion. How they continue to cope with such resistance will define their reign.
Time has been called on another Premier League campaign and the moment has come to celebrate 2018/19’s finest individual performers.
Sport360’s writers were asked to choose their best XIs, in a 4-3-3 formation. The votes were then added together, with the players in each section with the biggest totals making it into the final selection.
Unsurprisingly, champions Manchester City and runners-up Liverpool provided nine of the 11 picks. But with two other footballers fitting in and some stellar names absent, there are still several shocks ahead.
The Brazil No1 has exhibited how a – then – world-record fee can be made to look cheap.
Manager Jurgen Klopp’s decision to send £65 million Roma’s way for Alisson last summer has been rewarded by a new club record of 21 clean sheets. This was enough to win the Golden Glove gong.
One misjudged Cruyff turn aside against Leicester, what an addition he’s been.
Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
A new benchmark has been set in the Premier League by Liverpool’s remarkable 20-year-old right-back.
The deflected cross that fell into the path of Senegal forward Sadio Mane in Sunday’s 2-0 win against Wolves represented Alexander-Arnold’s 12th assist of 2018/19, breaking the record for the most registered by a defender in a single Premier League season.
In a testament to his character, five of them came in his final four top-flight run-outs of the campaign.
Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)
All the effort and expense to recruit the Netherlands colossus was worth it.
A full-season with the world-record, £75m recruit at the heart of the Reds rearguard saw them become the meanest defence, with only 22 goals conceded in 38 matches. This was 16 better than 2017/18, a campaign when Van Dijk, belatedly, came in from January.
The PFA Player of the Year recipient’s jockeying of France midfielder Moussa Sissoko in March’s essential 2-1 victory against Tottenham was a key moment.
Aymeric Laporte (Manchester City)
The best uncapped player on the planet?
France boss Didier Deschamps’ continued ignorance of Laporte is just as astonishing as the Agen-born defender’s abilities. The powerful 24-year-old is the physical manifestation of the modern elite centre-back, dominant in the air and adept on the ball.
A bullish ability to attack the ball was also on show in City’s vital final-day win at Brighton. His header from Algeria winger Riyad Mahrez’s corner completed an 11-minute turnaround from Glenn Murray’s opener, in an eventual 4-1 victory.
Andy Robertson (Liverpool)
The Scotland skipper has driven himself, in typically unrelenting fashion, into a class of his own throughout 2018/19.
Forget Bayern Munich’s David Alaba or Barcelona’s Jordi Alba, Robertson can now legitimately lay claim to being the planet’s premier left-back. Not bad for a performer who was released by Celtic as a teenager and almost joined Burnley in July 2017 ahead of the Reds.
Among defenders, Robertson’s tally of 11 assists was beaten only by opposite number Alexander-Arnold.
Bernardo Silva (Manchester City)
It is fair to say Pep Guardiola’s judgement holds greater sway than anyone else in the division.
The percipient City manager described diminutive Portugal playmaker Silva as “the best” performer this term in the Premier League. When you have become the creative heartbeat of the most-devastating attack English football has ever seen, such a lofty commendation appears apt.
Silva weighed in with seven goals and seven assists, relishing the responsibility afforded by Belgium wizard Kevin De Bruyne’s continued problems with injury.
Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur)
If this was goodbye from Eriksen, what a way to go out.
The Denmark midfielder’s precise 75th-minute strike rescued a 2-2 draw against Everton, plus showcased the technical refinement that a glittering reputation has been founded upon. A personal tally of 12 assists and eight goals matched the 27-year-old’s exploits from 2017/18 (10 goals, 10 assists), plus was only three behind 2016/17’s leading mark (eight goals, 15 assists).
If suitors Real Madrid and Bayern Munich manage to take advantage of an expiring contract, the Premier League will lose a rarefied talent.
Ryan Fraser (Bournemouth)
There is little shock that Chelsea superstar Eden Hazard led the way for assists in 2018/19, but the name behind him is less familiar.
Scotland winger Fraser teed up 14 goals in 38 run-outs. Seemingly Madrid-bound Hazard only beat this figure by one, while joint-third best Eriksen and Alexander-Arnold came home with 12.
Central to Fraser’s success was his partnership with striker Callum Wilson. They made Premier League history in April 27’s 3-3 draw with Southampton, setting a fresh high for goal combinations between a duo with their 12th assist and goal of the season.
Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)
A coming of age for Sterling has elevated him into a special class of Premier League performer.
Sterling soared after a mixed World Cup 2018, coming up with 17 goals and 10 assists for Guardiola’s rampant side. This was only two less than 2017/18 in a show of consistency expected from an emergent global superstar.
His sublime performances on the pitch were celebrated with the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year gong. But his emergence as an eloquent spokesman against racism, after suffering vile abuse at Chelsea, made his campaign truly consequential.
Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
Few footballers can score 10 less goals than the previous campaign, but still keep out the prolific Sergio Aguero from this XI with few complaints.
Salah did not, quite, hit the unprecedented heights of his debut 2017/18. Yet, 22 goals were still enough for a share of the Golden Boot as Liverpool went so close to ending a 29-year wait for top-flight glory.
It is attestation to Salah’s exemplary character and enduring quality that he ended a six-match Premier League scoring drought from February 9-April 5 with an epic solo goal against Southampton, then a long-range drive of staggering quality against Chelsea.
Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
A growing maturity and consistency defined Mane’s superb 2018/19.
The Senegal forward put up career-best figures of 22 goals in 36 run-outs, enough to join Liverpool team-mate Salah and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at the top step of the scoring podium. He also opened the scoring on nine separate occasions for the Reds.
Manager Jurgen Klopp’s decision to utilise a solid midfield relied on triggering another – relatively – untapped source of strikes. Mane’s 12-goal improvement from 2017/18 was essential to the Reds’ sharp rise from fourth into a close second.
Juan Mata revealed “the feeling in the end is very bitter” after Manchester United brought the curtain down on a disheartening season with a 2-0 defeat to relegated Cardiff.
United have tailed off alarmingly in recent weeks though, in truth, their Premier League campaign featured few high moments as they limped to a sixth-place finish.
Their hopes of Champions League qualification were dashed by a draw at rock-bottom Huddersfield last week, while Bluebirds winger Nathaniel Mendez-Laing’s brace on Sunday stretched United’s winless run to six matches in all competitions.
Mata made no attempt to sugar the pill as he assessed the last nine months, during which time United faltered under both Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, either side of a brief resurgence under the Norwegian.
“A defeat on the Premier League’s final weekend was the worst way to finish off what hasn’t been a good campaign for anyone who is part of the Manchester United family,” the Spaniard wrote in a weekly blog on his website.
“There have been some good moments and matches along the way, which have to be remembered, but the feeling in the end is very bitter.
“None of us are satisfied with the general performance levels that we have offered, for one reason or another. When we win, we do so together, and when we lose we also share the responsibility.
“Now is the moment to analyse, reflect and improve, because this club should be in a different situation to the one we find ourselves in, there can be no doubt about that.
“Although it isn’t healthy to just focus on the negatives, it also isn’t possible to deny the obvious, we have to be realistic and the season has been very disappointing.
“It’s very painful and that feeling will last through the whole summer.”
Addressing the club’s fans directly, Mata added: “You all deserve a lot more than what you’re getting. That is the reality.”
Mata’s contract expires in the summer and he has been linked with a move away from the club – with Barcelona and Juventus rumoured to be among those interested in signing the 31-year-old.
However, Mata, who only made 16 league starts this season, made no mention of his future, preferring instead to highlight the contributions of outgoing pair Antonio Valencia and Ander Herrera.
Club captain Valencia made his 339th and final appearance for United on Sunday although Herrera was left out of the matchday squad after announcing on Saturday he intended to leave the club this summer.
Mata added: “(They are) two players and two friends who I have shared a lot of experiences with both on and off the pitch.
“Our fans gave them a heartfelt goodbye as was expected, because the two have given a lot to this club.
“Both of them have left their mark in the changing room and I am sure that they will have many more good moments ahead of them. I wish them the best.”