By Andy Hampson, PA
Manchester City sowed the seeds for their latest title success before they had even completed their 2022 triumph.
In May last year, as the team fought hard on the field to hold off the challenge of Liverpool, off it the top brass agreed a deal with Borussia Dortmund to sign Erling Haaland.
It was a bold statement by a club used to making bold statements.
The prolific Norwegian striker joined them in the summer and, almost instantly, an already formidable team became a seemingly unstoppable force.
Obviously it was not quite so straightforward, but after City’s powerful spring charge – when they reeled in and then flew past Arsenal without even a hint of feeling pressure – few could argue they are now one of the greatest teams to have graced the Premier League.
Haaland has been at the heart of it, scoring a barely believable and record-breaking 36 league goals so far in the process.
He not only surpassed the greats of the past, but left them trailing in his wake.
He overtook the previous record mark of 34 – set by Andy Cole and Alan Shearer in 42-game seasons in the mid-1990s – with five matches to spare.
He helped himself to four hat-tricks and formed a potent combination with the team’s chief playmaker, Kevin De Bruyne.
Rarely has a player made as big an impact as Haaland has and, given how City have adapted and improved around him as the season has gone on, there would seem to be plenty more to come.
Yet while Haaland may have been a hugely significant factor in City’s fifth title in six seasons, it would be unfair to give him all the credit.
De Bruyne has enjoyed another highly influential campaign, laying on 16 assists and scoring seven goals himself. Jack Grealish, now looking far more comfortable with his £100million tag, has also been a driving force while Rodri has developed into one of the strongest midfielders in the game and John Stones has excelled in a hybrid defence-midfield role.
Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden and Nathan Ake have also made big contributions at different times.
The key once again, however, has been the man in charge, Pep Guardiola. The inspirational Catalan has produced another masterclass of management, underlining his pre-eminence in the game and strengthening his position among the greats.
After two successive title wins with false nines or makeshift centre-forwards, Haaland’s arrival signalled a change of approach from the former Barcelona boss.
Initially there were doubts, with fears Haaland’s presence might disrupt City’s natural flow. Indeed, early on, it did seem his goals were masking some disjointed and indifferent performances.
Form either side of the World Cup break was patchy and underwhelming and allowed Arsenal to take early control of the race.
Yet Guardiola worked through the inconsistencies and ironed out the problems, with excellent man-management, tactical nous and his ferocious winning mentality. There were some well-timed criticisms, surprise selection calls and eyebrow-raising departures – Raheem Sterling, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Gabriel Jesus and Joao Cancelo – all of which have been vindicated as City came good when it really mattered.
Arsenal obviously let a strong position slip but, in a disrupted season, when City had more players at the World Cup than any other club, Guardiola paced the challenge perfectly. To have maintained intensity while also competing in two other competitions makes it all the more remarkable.
City still have to win two more finals to complete a glorious treble, but their Premier League success alone is a phenomenal achievement.