That’s not the only conceptual shift he inspired. When Manchester City entered this season without an acknowledged centre-forward, it was seen not as folly but as a bold, if slightly risky, call; playing with a fluid front three is no longer anathema. The idea that full-backs can switch places with midfielders and serve as playmakers has also been internalized and emulated. He ushered in an era of open-mindedness in which, yes, in fact, maybe goalkeepers could take penalties.
Its statistical impact was as great as its stylistic impact. Guardiola, just like he did in Spain and Germany, changed what it takes to be a champion. Responsible for the most lavish sports project ever contemplated – well, cut – and given the control of a club that could afford to establish itself as the best in class in almost everything it does, Guardiola shattered our conception of the possible.
It’s no surprise that the four highest point totals in English history came during Guardiola’s time: two of them for Manchester City and two of them for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, the only team that could, for a while, keep pace. A fifth is within reach this year. Each of Guardiola’s winning seasons at City has included an impossible run of consecutive wins or unbeaten matches.
How much it depends on him and how much it depends on the money he has is an ongoing debate, although in his favor is the fact that he did exactly the same thing in Spain: just as he has credited Liverpool’s challenge with pushing their side to new heights, there’s no doubt that the need to get ahead of Barcelona inspired Real Madrid to claim 100 points in 2012.
Either way, it’s become clear that even to approach Guardiola’s Manchester City, a rival has to be near perfect. That didn’t happen this year. Liverpool lost ground over Christmas and New Year, a few creditable draws and a disheartening loss to a weakened Leicester City that sent Klopp’s side adrift. Chelsea, if they lose to City on Saturday, will suffer the same fate after a stuttering and stumbling winter.
This can have consequences. If – as seems likely – City win the Championship within the next few months, Liverpool and Chelsea will have their flaws ironed out, their vulnerabilities exposed, their flaws uncovered. Players could see their place in the team threatened or their reputation diminished. It’s not entirely impossible that Blues manager Thomas Tuchel, at least, could even see his job at risk if Chelsea end the season 10 or 15 points behind.