That’s not the only conceptual shift he’s inspired. When Manchester City started this season without a recognized striker, it was seen not as madness but as a bold, if somewhat risky, decision; playing with a flowing front three is no longer an abomination. The idea that fullbacks can switch places with midfielders and serve as playmakers has also been internalized and imitated. He has ushered in an era of open-mindedness where, yes, actually goalkeepers might be able to take penalties.
Its statistical impact is as great as its stylistic one. Guardiola, like in Spain and Germany, has changed what it takes to become champions. Guardiola has envisioned the most luxurious sporting project ever – well, collectively – and took control of a club that could afford to establish itself as best-in-class in almost everything it does, and has shattered our conception of the possible.
It comes as no surprise that the four highest point totals in English history have come in the Guardiola era: two for Manchester City and two for Liverpool from Jurgen Klopp, the only team that could keep pace for a while. A fifth is within reach this year. Each of Guardiola’s title-winning seasons at City has included some impossible streaks of consecutive wins or undefeated matches.
How much of that is due to him and how much of that is due to the money he has at his disposal is an ongoing debate, but in his favor is the fact that he did exactly the same in Spain: just as he credited the challenge of Liverpool for pushing his team to new heights, there is no doubt that the need to outdo Barcelona inspired Real Madrid to reach 100 points in 2012.
Regardless, it has become clear that even to approach Guardiola’s Manchester City, a rival has to be close to perfect. That didn’t happen this year. Liverpool lost ground over Christmas and New Year, a couple of creditable draws and a disheartening defeat to weakened Leicester City that left Klopp’s side adrift. Should Chelsea lose to City on Saturday, the same fate will suffer after a stuttering, stumbling winter.
That can have consequences. Should – as it seems likely – City run away with the championship in the coming months, then both Liverpool and Chelsea will be tearing apart their flaws, exposing their vulnerabilities and exposing their flaws. Players may find their place in the team under pressure, or their reputation deteriorated. It’s not entirely impossible that Blues manager Thomas Tuchel could at least jeopardize his job if Chelsea ended the season 10 or 15 points behind.