Relentless Pep Guardiola’s laser focus gives Manchester City cutting edge

<span>Julián Álvarez (below) celebrates scoring the fourth goal with Rico Lewis.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer</span>
Julián Álvarez (below) celebrates scoring the fourth goal with Rico Lewis.Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer

Too good, too strong, and the inevitable draws ever closer. Their fans’ “we’re not really here” chant may be soaked in deepest Manc irony but it also reflects the economic miracle of Manchester City being the best team in England by far. After victory at Fulham the unknown is about to be breached. Four league titles in a row is a level the greatest teams in English history – Huddersfield in the 1920s, Arsenal in the 1930s, Liverpool in the 1980s and two Alex Ferguson-era Manchester United teams – could not attain.

Success earns respect if not necessarily affection. Each of those predecessors found a way to win that did not achieve universal admiration. Within living memory, Liverpool were derided for overuse of the back-pass to the point of tedium. United were loathed for being the personification of Ferguson’s cheerlessness. The Manchester City of 2024 are – beyond the ongoing legal issues that overshadow their glory – dismissed as too surgical, almost too perfect.

Related: Josko Gvardiol doubles up to sink Fulham and send Manchester City top

Where that Liverpool team ruled the waves with a smirking superiority, and United fans hunkered down against those who chipped away, City supporters have adopted similar defence mechanisms. Match-goers swagger with the superiority that hiring the finest coach of the 21st century has brought their team. “Boring, boring City,” the away fans jeered from the Putney End, saving choice jibes for beleaguered United, who on Sunday can all but hand City the title and deepen the irony by winning against Arsenal at Old Trafford.

At first, ticking Craven Cottage off the list didn’t come easy. Holding your nerve in the last weeks of the season is part of the job and City have best-in-class expertise. After riding out Fulham’s early attacks, the home team full of end-of-season adventure, Kevin De Bruyne sent Josko Gvardiol clear to score. Such precision would have had those of an Arsenal persuasion reaching for the remote, switching to Cotswold Kitchen on ITV or the Old Firm or perhaps bringing forward an afternoon in the sun.

Once ahead, heavy pressure was brought to bear on Fulham who suddenly did not look nearly so carefree. Rodri, the winning machine still unbeaten – beyond a fateful penalty shootout with Real Madrid – since Steve Clarke’s Scotland did a number on Spain in March 2023, began to stride through midfield, Mateo Kovacic’s selection offering him licence. João Palhinha, one of the very best defensive midfielders in the Premier League, found himself outmanned, Bernardo Silva also buzzing with invention.

That Kyle Walker came on as a replacement for an injured Nathan Aké was a further reminder of the cupboard full of talent available to Pep Guardiola when he turns to his bench. Antonee Robinson’s previously dangerous overlapping bursts down Fulham’s left became a diminished force, while on City’s other defensive flank, Gvardiol ended up on five goals in seven matches. A player signed for defensive solidity has become a serious attacking threat. If Guardiola’s mastery has one defining quality it might just be his reinvention of players, taking them from comfort zones to add dimensions and that lesser coaches – and the players themselves – could never have envisaged.

His team’s expertise in throwing moments of vulnerability back in opponents’ faces collected the three points. One minute, Rodrigo Muniz’s improvisational flick had Ederson sprawling, the next saw De Bruyne force the same from Bernd Leno. The minute after that, after Palhinha’s tackle looked to have cleared the danger, up stepped Phil Foden, previously quiet, to drill home. Tottenham on Tuesday came into view and a chance to further tighten the grip on history.

Clad in a fisherman’s jumper unbefitting of a Thames-side burst of spring, Guardiola went through his usual agonies on the sideline. Those who make things look easy are usually those who put in the hardest yards. As Jürgen Klopp retreats to Black Forest quasi-retirement until his batteries are recharged, the question remains how long City’s manager can retain such laser focus. The cost of his successes are made clear by an often wraithlike appearance, and an intensity that would test the sanity of any ordinary man. The post-match media duties can be just as surly as Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish ever were.

At two goals up and cruising, though with an eye on Arsenal’s superior goal difference, Erling Haaland, as previously quiet as Foden had been, missed a sitter. Guardiola screamed blue murder to the skies, rubbing his cranium as if to soothe the pain. That Gvardiol’s reinvention continued with a poacher’s finish and Julián Álvarez’s late penalty allowed City to further bridge the goal gap was still not enough. Gvardiol, a two-goal hero, was afterwards criticised for lax defending in the second half. When winning trophies is the expected outcome, and considering the unprecedented successes that Manchester City reach for, then perhaps enjoyment becomes unreachable.