With Manchester City on the cusp of winning the Premier League title in the fastest-ever time in English top-flight history (a win against Manchester United on Saturday seals the deal) it’s worth contemplating just how good this masterpiece built by Pep Guardiola is.
Is this current City better than his best team at Barcelona?
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First up, let’s define his best team at Barca. We have plenty of epic teams to choose from but the double winning team of 2010/11 is widely regarded as the best team he coached, and perhaps the greatest team in soccer history, as they were only denied the treble by an extra time goal in the Spanish cup final by Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid.
Barca lost five of their 60 games in all competitions that season. Scored 147 goals and conceded just 36. This season City are on track to break Premier League records for goals, points and wins.
We’re talking a young Lionel Messi up top with David Villa. Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Xavi in their prime in midfield. Dani Alves, Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique as solid as a rock in defense.
This was a Barca team at the height of Tiki-Taka as their players not only dominated the club scene but also the international stage with three-straight major titles in the 2008 and 2012 European championships and then the 2010 World Cup for good measure. Therefore, it is tough to compare any team of any generation to the greatness of the team Guardiola was able to create in his third season at Barca.
That 2010/11 season Pep’s boys lost just one of their 13 games in the Champions League en route to absolutely smashing Manchester United 3-1 in the final at Wembley Stadium as Sir Alex Ferguson looked on in wonderment.
“They do mesmerize you with the way they pass it,” Ferguson said . “I expected us to do better, particularly after half-time, but it wasn’t to be. Great teams do go in cycles and they’re at the peak of the cycle they’re in at the moment. They’re the best in Europe, no question about that. In my time as a manager, I would say they’re the best team we’ve faced. Everyone acknowledges that and I accept that. It’s not easy when you’ve been well beaten like that to think another way.
“No one has given us a hiding like that. It’s a great moment for them. They deserve it because they play the right way and enjoy their football. But how long it lasts … whether they can replace that team at some point … they certainly have the right philosophy, but it’s always difficult to find players like Xavi [Hernandez], [Andres] Iniesta and [Lionel] Messi all the time. But they’re enjoying the moment that they have just now. We never controlled Lionel Messi, but many people have had to say that over the years.”
Now, Man City do not have Lionel Messi.
In Guardiola’s own words Messi is a “one-off” and the best player he will ever see. Messi scored 53 goals in all competitions that season, with Pedro scoring 22 and Villa scoring 23. It was both an attacking powerhouse and a steady defensive unit. The balance was near perfect and orchestrated by Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta in midfield.
Yet the Messi factor aside, there was also a similarity to this City side as Guardiola ousted plenty of big names who were getting on. Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Yaya Toure and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were all at least 27 years old and many had questioned Guardiola for getting rid of them. The same can be said for the way he has handled Toure, Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta and Kolarov since he arrived at City but there’s a clear plan and ideology that he prefers younger players who are quicker and more flexible in terms of formations.
Last season it looked like his methods may not have been possible in England but after just over 18 months in charge he is proving he can emulate what he created at Barcelona, and to a lesser extent at Bayern.
This City side may not emulate Pep’s Barca teams in terms of their league and European Cup double due to their 3-0 deficit from the first leg of their UCL quarterfinal at Liverpool, but there are a lot of similarities.
David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Fernandinho are in the exact same mold as Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. The former two are perhaps having the greatest seasons of their careers, reinvented as a deeper central midfield duo who have the freedom to attack the space which opens up between center backs and full backs when Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling drag defenders out wide.
Up top, Sergio Aguero isn’t scoring at the same rate his close friend Messi did in 2010/11 but he is still a monster, when fit, and has adapted to Pep’s methods. The entire back line has too and you could argue that Ederson is an upgrade in goal over Victor Valdes while Vincent Kompany would have surely got into that epic Barca side at his peak.
At full back is where both of these teams stand out. Dani Alves and Kyle Walker. Eric Abidal and Benjamin Mendy. The latter has been out for most of this season with a serious knee injury but if he had been fit, he would’ve added even greater balance to this City side. The ability of Walker, and back then Alves, to slot inside and almost act as an inside center back or holding midfielder who could spring attacks and create overloads is eerily similar.
It’s harsh to say this City side is a cheap imitation of his team at Barcelona. It’s accurate to say they are from the same blueprint as the greatest team the world has ever seen. When you have spent over $400 million, it’s easy to understand why Pep has built a machine at Man City but as we saw last season, he needed to clear out veterans who didn’t fit into his plans and invest in young, quick, flexible players who did.
City could perhaps emulate Barcelona in years to come, or even this season if they turn their UCL second leg against Liverpool around, but there’s no doubt that this team is up there with his greatest Barca side.
That Barca team was better and their greatness has so far stood the test of time. This City side may only be truly appreciated in years to come too but right now it feels like they’re at the levels of the 2008/09 Barca side (Pep’s first, which won the treble) but not far off the 2010/11 side who will always be the benchmark.