Strength and power of Manchester City can reinforce Premier League dominance

The Premier League is the dominant force in the Champions League: Saturday’s final will be the fifth in six years to feature at least one English team. Football generally works in cycles, though, and the rest of the continent will be plotting to take over again.

In the five finals before 2018, there was not an English side in sight and Spain was lauding it over its rivals. Real Madrid won four out of five from 2013 in their dominant cycle, but they have been overtaken. Manchester City enter their second Champions League final in three years against Internazionale, who are the first Italian team since 2017 to reach this stage of a competition Serie A has dominated in the past. In the 10 seasons starting in 1988-89 an Italian club reached nine finals and won four.

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There are numerous reasons why the English game is enjoying a glorious spell. It is no coincidence the biggest clubs can attract the best managers. Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel have taken English teams into the Champions League with knowledge gained elsewhere of how to beat the best in Europe. They arrived with experience of different leagues. Managers learn from one another, too. Mikel Arteta and Erik ten Hag worked with Guardiola at City and Bayern Munich respectively and they are pushing one another to be at their best.

Guardiola keeps evolving, changing things tactically each season to maintain City’s challenge for trophies. Klopp brought his pressing style to Liverpool and has taken them to three Champions League finals. Those styles and philosophies have added to the English culture of technical play and fandom, aided by players wanting to be with those managers.

Guardiola knows what worked for him in the past will not necessarily work now. At Barcelona, he, in essence, invented the false 9 for Lionel Messi; at Bayern he did the inverted full-back with Philipp Lahm; this season we have seen him create John Stones’s hybrid role, which was carefully thought out and planned, and it has paid dividends in the biggest matches.

Erling Haaland fends off a Manchester United defender
Erling Haaland shows the physical side of Manchester City’s play. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Top managers’ tactics only work if they have the right players and the Premier League can attract the best in the world. Almost every team in Europe would like Erling Haaland but City were able to snare him because they have a coach everyone wants to work with. If we look at the clamour to sign Ilkay Gündogan it shows what incredible players City have. Players under Guardiola will be more desirable to bring in because of their skillset.

The competitive nature of the Premier League is helping its clubs in Europe. City rarely had an easy weekend this season and had to fight for their points, regardless of who they were playing. There is strength throughout the league, which means the best teams have to push themselves. As an indication of how strong the Premier League is, Leicester won it seven years ago and were relegated this season. No other competition can boast this strength in depth. The need to maintain standards benefits a club such as City when they face quality opposition in the Champions League.

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What sets City apart, as Internazionale will know, is the physical advantage they have because of the high tempo required in the Premier League. I was at the FA Cup final, which was not City’s best performance, and got to watch from behind Guardiola’s dugout. It gave me a great perspective. I usually think in advance about what I am going to learn about the technical or tactical aspects but what really surprised me seeing City close up at Wembley was the sheer physicality of their team.

The defence is really imposing – John Stones is slighter than Manuel Akanji, Rúben Dias and Kyle Walker, but he is still a big presence. Technically and tactically they are superb, but if they are drawn into one-v-one battles, they are physically dominant too – and then there is Rodri, Kevin De Bruyne and Haaland.

Not many teams will be able to compete with that on a physical level and then we have to add in how good City are technically and tactically. If anyone tries to bully City, they are going to fail. United really struggled in those physical one-v-one battles. It was something I had never noticed and it was interesting to see.

If City have to mix it up and go long, getting Haaland to pin the ball to hold it up, they can do that too. They have every attribute required and character to go with it. They can win the duels, meaning they get the ball back quickly, and their work rate does not give opponents the chance to build a couple of passes or have any respite in possession. That is why sides have to counterattack against them or pick their moment wisely and City are well set up to deal with that.

Bayern and Real Madrid learned to their cost about City’s relentless pressing and clinical nature. They will take these lessons and look at how they can close the gap to instigate a new cycle of dominance for German or Spanish football. But the Premier League has the momentum and I cannot see that changing any time soon.