by Olawale Agbede – Chief Sports Writer
Rafael Benítez is not the sort of coach who has ever seen a team he did not think he could outwit. If he has ever encountered an opponent too illustrious to overcome, or a gulf in resources too wide to bridge with some bright thinking, some grand idea, he hides it well.
His instinctive reaction, then, to the question of how to beat Manchester City, who opened its campaign to win a third straight Premier League title, is telling. Benítez should be in a position to offer the league’s 20 managers a glimmer of hope: His former Newcastle team, after all, was the last to bloody City’s nose in a domestic game.
Instead, though, all Benítez did was laugh and say. “Go to a church, and light a candle,” “It seemed to work for me.”
His more considered assessment, of course, is not quite that bleak. It is possible to beat City, he said, though he admits it requires not just flawlessness on the part of the challenger, but for all the stars to align. It is not just that you need your players to perform at their very best, but Pep Guardiola’s players need to fall short of theirs, too. If not, what you do is largely irrelevant.
“You have to be perfect to beat them,” Benítez said. “But even if you are perfect, they can still beat you.”
That serves as well as anything as an epitaph for last season. Liverpool, the team eventually crowned champion of Europe, was as close as any team might reasonably expect to get to perfect. It finished the season with 97 points. It lost only once. It still finished second.That is testament, of course, to the quality of the team that Guardiola has built, to the meticulous planning that has gone into it, to the devastating effectiveness of the style of play he has painstakingly drilled into his players.
So dizzying are the numbers, so complete the control, that it is easy to lose sight of Manchester City’s dominance over the last two years: 198 points of a possible 228; only six defeats in 76 games. Perhaps even more staggering: only six draws; 201 goals scored; 50 conceded. This is a historically good team, an era-defining one.
It is also testament, though, to the unparalleled resources at Guardiola’s disposal. Last summer, City made Riyad Mahrez its record transfer, paying Leicester City £60 million for his services. Mahrez made only 14 starts in City’s victorious Premier League campaign.
This summer has provided further evidence. As well as spending 56 million on Rodri, the Spanish midfielder, City made João Cancelo the most expensive fullback in history, in a deal worth around £52 million. (The cost was partly offset by the exit of Danilo, the Brazil defender, to Juventus, but still: City has now spent more than £200 million on fullbacks in three years.) Given that Kyle Walker remains, there is no guarantee Cancelo will be Guardiola’s first choice at right back.
Likewise, look at Leroy Sané, the German forward who appeared to have decided he wanted to move to Bayern Munich before sustaining a knee injury that has ruled him out for several months. Despite his obvious talent, Sané was not always a first choice last year, and yet City is holding out for somewhere in the region of £130 million for him. It is not prepared to be haggled down; there is no pressure to balance the books.
Yet Guardiola and City now bridle at even innocuous suggestions that some of the club’s success can be attributed to its purchasing power in the transfer market. City’s chairman pointed out earlier this summer, for example, that the team was not responsible for any of the most expensive signings in history. That his argument hardly presents the full picture of City’s financial resources does not necessarily detract from all that Guardiola has achieved — the travails of Manchester United prove rather neatly that spending money is no panacea — but to dismiss the relevance of it is disingenuous.
It also is why, for all the creeping animosity between City and Liverpool, the former should have welcomed the latter’s concerted challenge last year.
By keeping pace until the final weekend, Jürgen Klopp’s team made challenging City seem feasible, if not exactly straightforward. It created the impression that the riches at City’s disposal had not created an insurmountable advantage. This season is likely to expose that as an illusion.
It is not impossible that Liverpool might match its form of last year, but it is improbable. Not simply because the standard it set was so high, but because of the circumstances.
The attacking trident that carries so much of Liverpool’s weight — Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino — has barely rested this summer because of international commitments; Klopp has chosen not to add a single senior player to his squad, other than a reserve goalkeeper; and Liverpool’s success in the Champions League means its season will be complicated by competing in the World Club Cup in December. A fixture backlog, and the inevitable strain that places on Klopp’s resources, is unavoidable.
Should Liverpool stutter, Tottenham is perhaps its likeliest replacement as City’s competition, a club galvanized by a new stadium, energized by a run to the Champions League final and bolstered by new arrivals: Tanguy Ndombele from Lyon, Real Betis’ Giovani Lo Celso and Fulham’s Ryan Sessegnon.
Even then, though, expecting Spurs to close the gap — it finished 27 points behind City last year — seems ambitious. So, too, is the idea that any of the rest of England’s putative Big Six might be genuine contenders: Chelsea, with its rookie manager and itstransfer ban; Manchester United, its transfer policy still so enigmatic; Arsenal, stronger now, but so far back. None seems in a position to take a great leap forward.
If there is to be another title race in England this year, then, it will rely not on City’s rivals rising to its level, but on City sinking to theirs; not on others getting more points, but on City’s gathering fewer.
For that to happen, more teams from outside that cosseted elite need to follow Benítez’s lead and find a way to bring City low. It has been done: Besides Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Leicester City both beat Guardiola’s team last season.
How they managed it varied. Benítez’s approach, aside from that candle, was to clog the middle of the field, to force City wide, to make sure not so much as a scintilla of space opened between his defense and midfield, and to contain Guardiola’s players as far from the Newcastle goal as possible. He told his players, before the game, to expect that the slightest mistake would be punished, that they could not afford so much as a moment’s rest.
Claude Puel, whose Leicester beat City in the Premier League and held it to a draw in the League Cup, prioritized something else. “You have to accept you will not have the ball,” he said. What matters is what you do as soon as you have it. “The first control, the first touch, the first pass after you recover it is very important,” he said. “It has to be forward.”Puel’s lineups for those games were not filled with players who would just run and bite and tackle. He selected sides with enough technical quality to play “securely” under City’s anaconda pressure. He told them not to risk losing possession quickly with hopeful long balls or speculative shots; that, he said, would only bring another wave of attacks.
Instead, Puel said, he asked them to play “two, three, four passes, one- or two-touch, quickly, with quality, to find some space,” to break free of City’s press. Then his players might be able to ask Guardiola’s team some searching questions. It is not his preferred style — “I did not find games like that very satisfying,” Puel said — but adaptation was key to survival. “It is complicated playing against them,” he said. “They have a complete game.”
If anything this season, City will be more complete than ever: Such is Guardiola’s relentless search for perfection. It will, if it is possible, be an even more daunting opponent this year than last. A handful of Benítez’s and Puel’s former peers will have to find a way to follow in their footsteps, or the rest of the league might as well light the candle now.