Tactical tweaks and a desire to improve - how Pep Guardiola turned Man City into history-makers

It all began on a Monday night in September, in an empty, soulless stadium. A football season as forgettable as it gets was the launchpad to the greatest period of domination the sport has seen in this country.

A few months short of four years later the scene couldn't have been more different. The Etihad was bathed in late May sunshine as Manchester City completed their ascent to greatness. For all that the final day was written off as a formality by many, it's worth pausing to consider what was at stake for this team, their manager and players.

The title would have slipped away from City, but so would a shot at history. They would have been back to the start, stuck on three successive titles with the 1920s greats at Huddersfield, Herbert Chapman's Arsenal, the dominant Liverpool side of the early 1980s and Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United.

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Instead, a 3-1 win against West Ham elevated them beyond those brilliant teams into a stratosphere all of their own. After 135 years of league football, a team finally has a four-peat.

Back on September 21, 2020, it was Kevin De Bruyne that got the ball rolling, scoring a penalty to open City's account for the season. Little did they know then the journey they were about to embark on.

That was the season that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Manchester United threatened a title challenge in January. Fernandinho was still starting for City, Frank Lampard was managing Chelsea and Jose Mourinho was in charge at Tottenham. Burnley were relegated that season, have been promoted since and now relegated again.

But in a league of ever-changing narratives, one has remained a constant. The brilliance of Manchester City has added new chapters but the plot never changes.

Some of the characters have. That is part of the genius of Pep Guardiola. This team is very different to his first title winners, the centurions of 2018. They have been rebuilt bit by bit. Just when opposing teams think they have a handle on what is going on, they find that they have changed.

This four-year period sums it up. That first title was Sergio Aguero's final season at the club, with Gabriel Jesus often filling in or Guardiola beginning to play without a striker. The following year he did just that, winning the league without a goalscorer. The next two have been won with the most ruthless goalscorer the Premier League has ever seen, but Erling Haaland is a player who doesn't naturally fit the Guardiola mould. He has improved his work off the ball and linking play, but most crucially City have adapted. That is why they have achieved what other great teams couldn't.

If Guardiola is the architect of this slice of history, some players have been on the journey throughout. Ederson, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Nathan Ake, Rodri, De Bruyne and Phil Foden all started that first game four years ago. All of them are better players now.

That is certainly true of Foden, the hometown hero who has developed from a player of limitless potential to the best in the league, just as Guardiola always predicted. His patient coaxing and evolution of one of English football's greatest talents has been rewarded in this breakthrough season.

Foden is no longer a winger who can sparkle during games but is peripheral come the business end of the season. He is one of the first names on the teamsheet and is central to City's best football. Guardiola has brought the best out of him. De Bruyne was the heartbeat of his team at the start of the journey, but it feels like it belongs to Foden now.

His goal after 79 seconds against the Hammers settled nerves and it was classic Foden, the kind of goal he has been scoring all season. The shimmy away from a defender, the balance to step inside and the left-footed rocket that arrows dead straight into the top corner. Knowing what he will do is one thing. Stopping it is another.

When he doubled the lead inside 20 minutes it looked like a procession, but for 20 minutes the tension made for an edgy experience for City. Only when Rodri restored the two-goal advantage did the cork pop out of the bottle.

It was party time by now. At least it was inside the Etihad. City will be uncomfortable champions for the Premier League and plenty of fans of rival teams will downplay their success, pointing to the 115 charges brought by the league or the idea they have bought their trophies.

Maybe some find their success boring, but they are thrilling to watch and for all the claims they are making the title a formality, they have been involved in six of their 14 final-day shootouts in top-flight history, including all of the last five since 2012. They have won the lot, including two in this four-year run. If they are that dominant then they are doing a good job of at least making it look like there is some jeopardy involved.

What they actually are is a team primed for the big moments with the mentality to go again and again and again. They just want to be there come the second half of the season. When spring blooms they know if they are within touching distance of the title they will win it. They can hold their nerve under pressure and they can put the frighteners on the teams ahead of them when it comes to the crunch. It is a potent mix and it has made them unstoppable.

All of this was built by Guardiola. He has been developing it and crafting it and tweaking it ever since. He is the intense genius with 38 major trophies to his name in 15 seasons. On a day when Anfield said a teary-eyed goodbye to Jurgen Klopp, his nemesis in this league showed why he is the greatest of them all.

For 1,337 days City have been the best that England has to offer. They wrestled their crown back from Liverpool and Klopp and have then kept hold of it, avoiding the natural inclination to let standards drop. They just have kept on winning - 112 of their 152 Premier League games - and kept on doing it when it matters most of all.

What a football team.