Men's Team

Winter: City's title this season will go down as one of the great achievements

Winter: City's title this season will go down as one of the great achievements
In the wake of City's third Premier League title in four years, Club journalist Neil Leigh spoke to Henry Winter, chief football writer from The Times, to get his thoughts on our squad, the impact of Pep Guardiola and how he ranks the achievement...

Henry, City are champions once again. What’s your assessment of the scale of our achievement in the league this season?

It’s formidable. And it is not simply the fact they have done it with so many points to spare. I just think it’s the quality of the football.

I’ve been weighing up who to vote for as Footballer of the Year. I voted for Kevin De Bruyne last season even though City didn’t win the league as I thought he was sensational.

But looking at City now you could make a case for Ederson, a case for Ruben Dias, John Stones arguably, for De Bruyne, you can make a case for Phil Foden as both Young Player of the Year and Senior Player of the Year he’s been so good, Riyad Mahrez, Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva… why don’t we just print the whole team list!

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Eventually I went for Dias simply because I think he makes everyone in that defence better. You’ve got very good defenders in there, but John Stones has stepped up thanks to Dias.

What is he - 23? It’s like he’s 30 with the way he organises and let’s give a nod to Kyle Walker too who has been sensational and for Joao Cancelo stepping into midfield.

And Oleks Zincencko as well. Whenever I see him play, he is showing so many defensive qualities.

With City, for me it’s also about the style in which they do it.

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A lot of teams, because the Premier League is an assault course, grind out titles and trophies but City have done it in style.

I know whenever I go to watch City, I’m going to see great football. And not just great football but really intelligent football as well.

We haven’t seen football of this intelligence, with such movement, tactical thought and preparation in this country before.

This is the home of football and there have been so many great teams here going back to the Victorian era.

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But the football we are privileged to see now from Manchester City, because of Pep’s genius, is like Oxbridge football.

It’s Harvard and Yale thrown into one, add in the Sorbonne there as well in terms of the intellectual elite of football.

I was at Chelsea when City played there in early January and Fernandinho was warming up and the comments he was shouting towards the players, in particular Phil Foden, they were so constructive but covered detailed tactical movement as well.

It’s a physical version of a very beautiful chess game.

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Of course, it’s our third title in four years under Pep. Where does this one rank and compare to the two previous titles?

To do it three times in four years is phenomenal as it is so difficult.

OK, Liverpool have had their injuries, but they still have fabulous players. Manchester United have come strong, Chelsea have revived, it’s been a stronger, more competitive league – just look at chase for the Champions League places with Leicester and West Ham.

There are threats from all over but for City to see that off and to have had that amazing winning run between December and March is a sign of not just their technical strength but also their togetherness and camaraderie and the winning mindset that Pep demands.

You look at Pep on matchdays. He has won everything, but he is like a coach going for his first win. He has got that extraordinary hunger, so he chooses and develops players who reflect that.

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But if they are on the pitch and look over to see that multiple Champions League winner with the hunger to win the next corner that must rub off.

I think its throughout. The one sadness is that the fans have not been allowed in to see it.

There was also a moment against Paris Saint-Germain that resonated with me about City and Colin Bell. For any kid who fell in love with football in the 1960s and 70s, Colin Bell was there.

I was watching City in the hail and sleet against PSG and the whole ballet on ice from that famous 1967 game against Spurs came back to me.

There is the Colin Bell stand, the huge, amazing banner inside the stadium celebrating Colin and I thought there was something fitting in the way that Foden, Gundogan, Mahrez, De Bruyne and Bernardo floated across the snowy surface that night.

I love echoes from the past. That was such a special team that City had then and this team with all their qualities are fitting wearers of the shirt.

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Given the challenge of COVID-19, the restrictions and sacrifices made by the squad and staff, the absence of fans and relentless schedule could this rank as one of Pep’s greatest achievements?

I think it is. You look at how good Liverpool were last term. OK, they have had three serious injuries at centre half, but City have responded.

That’s what Pep does… he responds to adversity.

I rang Kyle Walker to do a piece with him at home and I’m sure he won’t mind me saying I did a Zoom call with him and Kyle was home schooling and he said Google is my new best friend as I have to home school the kids. It gave a glimpse into the human side of the players.

They are not robots. They are flesh and blood. They may have concerns about the pandemic and staying in the bubble while also respecting the work done by the key workers.,

And I think City have been really good in the community like that.

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You can see physically and structurally what the Club have done to that part of Manchester, but I think it’s the more human things; whether its ringing isolating fans, delivering food parcels, stocking up food banks, the work Raheem does in in tackling racism…

City have got really good people as well as really good players.

I have been to 140/150 games in lockdown and the intensity of the players without fans and the professionalism of the players to keep going throughout this season with everything going on… I have more admiration now than I had 14 months ago and I had massive admiration then.

You look at Fernandinho bossing the game at 36 against PSG – these are good, strong people.

I really admire their professionalism during such a strange period.

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It’s very much been a squad achievement. How much have you enjoyed watching City as a collective?

I think it shows the camaraderie and team spirit that Pep Guardiola has engendered.

When Pep suggested to Sergio Aguero that he could develop his game a bit a few years ago, I loved the way that Aguero responded. He almost developed and kicked on again.

You look when players go off on international duty. They are more relaxed amongst journalists from home country and often open up and say things aren’t right.

You don’t hear that from City.

In terms of the squad, take Zack Steffen - I like the way he steps in. He’s got Ederson there but whenever I see Steffen there’s a certain authority and talent.

Where we sit in the press benches, we are often very close to the substitutes and I often look at the subs and their body language and how they interact.

City have a really noisy bench – and they are always encouraging each other - they are very supportive and engaged.

It's genuine too. It’s been very impressive as a collective, as a club and as a team.

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You’ve spoken before about your huge admiration for Pep Guardiola. Can you quantify his impact and influence on the English game?

It has been remarkable and Pep’s influence hasn’t simply been on Manchester City and on individual players.

You can see how John Stones had developed, and Raheem how he prospered from Pep’s coaching.

To compare him with Johan Cruyff is too early but there are echoes of that when I talk to younger coaches. If I ask who has influenced them, they invariably name-check Guardiola.

There also bit of Cruyff, Bielsa and Ferguson but certainly Pep and that’s for two reasons.

For the tactical elements like when you see full backs stepping into midfield; but also the emotional engagement with his players. You can see that drive he has.

When he arrived, I said to the FA we are privileged to have Pep in this country. Get him in at St George’s Park to talk to coaches taking their Pro Licence as he can be so good for English football,

I think he has been an amazing force for good in English football. Obviously he has had resources but it’s how you use them.

I have seen plenty of managers been given large funds and not use it well. City have used it incredibly well.

You have kids and young coaches at grassroots level watching Pep and how he is so involved and his tactical influence is so special that will inspire them at grass-roots level – down to Under 6s and that might set a kid on a journey that ultimately leads to international football.

I think the influence of Pep will be felt for years to come.

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Where would say this City side rank in the pantheon of great English teams?

It’s right up there. You would put them up there with the Invincibles of Arsenal, with the United treble winners, almost on a par with the Liverpool side of 77-84 when they were doing so well in Europe and domestically, go back to the Wolves teams, the great teams of the 30s.

It is difficult to compare generation to generation as it so different. It’s also difficult to compare season to season at the moment as this is a season like no other.

But to deliver this season in a pandemic will go down as one of the greatest achievements.

To retain that focus throughout the season with everything that is going on without fans I think this is one of the greatest achievements in English football history and they have done it in style.

It’s one of the greatest in terms of success but also one of the greatest in terms of watchability.

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