There’s been no shortage of praise for Manchester City’s leading stars this season. The stunning attacking performances week after week have been under the spotlight for months, as Pep Guardiola’s side has set about dismantling pretty much every opponent they’ve faced in the Premier League, breaking record after record along the way.
However, while the headlines have gone to players like Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and David Silva, others have slipped under the radar in what has been an extraordinary double-winning campaign. Without the often gritty or ugly hard work done behind them, those forward players wouldn’t have been able to perform to the level they have and wouldn’t have played the eye-catching passes or the breathtaking finishes that helped the club to the title.
Perhaps the biggest influence on City’s season has been the role that Fernandinho has played in the centre of midfield. He is rarely singled out for his displays, but he has stepped up his already impressive game to anchor the middle of the pitch. When other teams dared to try to break out from their backs-against-the-wall defensive displays, they had some job on their hands trying to bypass the Brazilian.
What was often missed was just how frequently the midfielder was able to not only regain possession quickly after it was lost, but also jump-start an attack that was on the verge of breaking down. There would be times where passes went astray in the final third and, less than five or six seconds later, City were back on the counter, purely because Fernandinho was on hand to stick a foot in, steal the ball and find a blue shirt.
When the ball is in the net after slick setup play by De Bruyne or Silva, cutting through the opposition defence to set up Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Jesus, that’s what people remember. It isn’t the dogged determination to get possession back, and the effort put in by the Brazilian to be an option on the edge of the penalty area later in the move.
Equally, City’s season could — and perhaps should — have been a lot more difficult when Benjamin Mendy was ruled out for seven months with a cruciate knee ligament injury. In his place, Fabian Delph stepped up to the mark — just weeks after turning down a move to Stoke in order to battle for a place in the team. He’d have been hoping for a central midfield spot, but it turned out he was a revelation at left-back.
The England international has been rewarded with a place on the plane for Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad, and it is merited for how well he slotted in during Mendy’s absence. However, praise should also go to both Danilo and Oleksandr Zinchenko for their performances, too.
Delph has been in and out of the team with injuries during his run as deputy left-back, and the upheaval that should have caused was barely noticed. Danilo, more comfortable at right-back, looked awkward at times when covering on the left — but by the end of the season he was looking a lot more settled.
Meanwhile, you suspect there is a big season coming up for Zinchenko. He didn’t get a look-in for his natural, attacking midfielder position, but his nature of playing on the front foot and his left-sidedness made him an option for Guardiola on the left side of defence. He took to it like a duck to water — unafraid of taking the ball under pressure and with a willingness to stand up to opponents or put in a tackle.
Of course, he was positionally a little naive at times, but that’s par for the course for a 21-year-old being thrown in to a new position in a title-winning team. Guardiola wanted to know if he’d sink or swim — and he swam.
There’s even an argument to say that the much-maligned second-choice goalkeeper Claudio Bravo was an unsung hero of the season. His mistake-ridden debut campaign in 2016-17 is difficult to forget, but save for going wandering for Brighton’s equaliser in City’s 3-1 win over the Seagulls in May, he’s had a good year in the Carabao Cup.
He made crucial penalty saves in the wins over both Leicester and Wolves, and kept his side in the competition with a string of one-on-one stops against the Championship winners, too. He’ll never be remembered fondly when he leaves, but he was as much a part of the League Cup win as any of the outfield players.
This has been an extraordinary season for City’s fans to watch and perhaps more than ever it’s been a real team effort. While the focus is on the players who have caught the eye with their fancy footwork, range of passing in the final third, their blistering pace running at defenders or fine finishing, the hard work behind the scenes shouldn’t be forgotten.
David Mooney is ESPN FC’s Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney