Very rarely has a cup final been as one-sided an affair as that of Sunday’s Carabao Cup final. In sweeping aside Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, Manchester City’s class of 2018 finally delivered the first major trophy of the Pep Guardiola era with a convincing 3-0 win over their beleaguered opponents who put in arguably one of the worst performances seen in recent cup final history.
With Wenger seemingly sleep-walking to the end of what was once an incredible era of success with the worst Arsenal side of his 22-year reign, watching Guardiola and his talented group of players lifting the trophy on Sunday would have been all the more galling by the familiarity of it all.
When Arsene Wenger first arrived in England in 1996 he proved to be something of a trail-blazer, a foreign coach who more than anyone else has revolutionised the way the English game has been played over the last twenty years. A great innovator, his players were the disciples to his exciting philosophy of the way the game should be played and the result was a level of football that left opposition teams dumbfounded and supporters awestruck as Wenger’s men enjoyed great success with three Premier League titles and four FA Cups in eight years.
Yet with time Wenger’s once midas-like touch has faded, and the animated intense figure of Guardiola has strolled into the Premeir League and in much the same way Wenger did all those years ago has brought with him a fresh philosophy that has caught the imagination of supporters and players alike.
In doing so the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach has gradually built a side that most closely resembles that of Wenger’s last great Arsenal team.
The likes of Chelsea and Manchester United may have had their own years of domination, but the Invincibles team of 2004 was the last truly-great footballing side of the Premier League era, and this current Manchester City is the closest any team has come to matching that side for style of play.
The similarities between the two sides are striking.
Where Arsenal had a strong authoritative, reliable goalkeeper in Jens Lehmann, City have their own in Ederson.
In midfield Wenger had the silky smooth footballing skills of Robert Pires, Guardiola has arguably an even greater natural talent in Kevin de Bruyne.
Up front Arsenal had the deadly finishing and devastating speed of Henry, whilst Manchester City possess a young striker likened to former Brazilian superstar Ronaldo in Gabriel Jesus.
Even the less eye-catching yet equally effective qualities of midfield enforcers Gilberto Silva (Arsenal) and Fernandinho (Man City) are linked through a shared nationality (Brazil).
Equally the bewitching all-conquering style of football seen by Guardiola’s City this season is much the same of that of Wenger’s Arsenal side in 2004, with City breezing effortlessly towards the title much like the Gunners did 14 years ago.
In lifting his first piece of silverware as manager, Guardiola has now laid the foundations for his exciting new side to go and dominate English football, and much like Wenger built his dominant side around players like Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry, the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus will be key to Guardiola’s City going on to achieve great things.
Yet it was perhaps fitting that as Sunday’s victory represented the start of a bright new dawn for Manchester City, there was a throwback to the successes of the past.
The three goal-scorers in Sunday’s cup final, Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and David Silva have seen it, done it and got the t-shirts.
Winners of Premier Leagues and domestic cups, the trio have already achieved much success in the sky blue jersey, and whilst perhaps not the stars of the team as they once were, have arguably taken on a greater importance and significance in Guardiola’s pursuit of glory.
In arriving in the summer of 2008, Vincent Kompany joined City just before the club was transformed by the investment of Sheikh Mansour’s millions, with Spanish international David Silva arriving a few years later in 2010 as the club went about building a squad of players capable of delivering the silverware demanded by such a large investment.
By the summer of 2011, the likes of Kompany and Silva had helped lay the foundations for the Mansour era by helping City secure Champions League football for the first time as well as winning the club’s first major trophy in 35 years when winning the 2011 FA Cup.
Yet it was the club-record signing of Argentine striker Sergio Aguero that really kick-started the City revolution, as his goals helped the club secure their first league title in 44 years with Aguero’s miraculous stoppage-time winner in the final game of the season seeing City pip arch rivals Manchester United to the Premier League title, with the spine of that first great Manchester City side of the Premier League era made up of Kompany, Silva and Aguero.
Contrast in class
Despite age now beginning to catch up with City’s iconic trio they once again showed their class in Sunday’s final, with each goal in itself a reminder of their world-class ability.
Sergio Aguero showed all his nous to push Arsenal’s Shkodran Mustafi aside before producing a clever impudent clinical finish in lobbing David Ospina in the Arsenal goal for City’s opener.
Captain Kompany – so often a scorer of important goals from defence – was in the right place at the right time to divert home Ilkay Gundogan’s shot to double his team’s lead.
Midfielder Silva, the heartbeat of the City side and a supreme controller of the ball at his feet produced a somewhat simple finish with as sweet a strike of a football as you will ever see – the sort of thing you would expect from a player with over 100 international caps.
The comparison of quality between the two sides on Sunday could not have been more contrasting and was evident with the players on show.
Whilst Kompany was dominating every aerial battle, £35 million defender Mustafi was being pushed aside far too easily by Aguero for the opening goal with a piece of defending that would have Sunday League coaches pulling their hair out.
Where 32-year-old Silva was running the show from midfield, dictating the tempo of the game with his passing game much like Xavi did for Guardiola during his Barcelona reign, Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka (another big-money buy) was throwing out wayward long passes and failing to gain any control from the middle of the park.
Up front City striker Aguero needed just one chance against the Arsenal defence to deliver a telling blow, in comparison to Arsenal’s £57-million striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who despite being hopelessly isolated up front seemed like a forward snatching at chances.
Although Mustafi, Xhaka and Aubameyang signed for Arsenal many years after City signed Kompany, Silva and Aguero, all three players cost more than their City rivals which in this age of massively over-inflated transfer fees begs the question – how much would City’s trio cost now?
Having wrapped up the first of potentially three trophies, Guardiola’s sights will now turn to the Premier League and Europe.
With his side 13 points clear at the top domestically, the manager has the breathing space needed to rest key players and with Kompany’s injury record, Guardiola may want to limit the game-time of his captain to enable him to deliver the same dominant type of performance he produced against Arsenal for the bigger tests that lie ahead against Europe’s elite.
Having lasted longer than title-winning managers Mancini and Pellegrini, as well as surviving Guardiola’s ruthless culling of players that saw title winners Joe Hart and Pablo Zabaleta sold and former talisman Yaya Toure marginalised, the three players have displayed outstanding levels of longevity to remain part of Guardiola’s plans, yet old father time is creeping up on each of them.
At 32, David Silva is unlikely to be around in four or five years time, Kompany’s dismal injury record suggests that at the age of 31 his body may not have the reserves to stave off those persistent injuries for much longer, whilst even at the younger age of 29, Sergio Aguero’s at times uneasy relationship with Guardiola as well as his emotional ties to former club Independiente make his future at the club doubtful.
With the Champions League being the only trophy to elude Kompany, Silva and Aguero during their time in Manchester, the trio will be extra motivated to make the most of an opportunity this season that might not come around for them in the future, and with Belgium (Kompany), Spain (Silva) and Argentina (Aguero) all likely to be major contenders at this summer’s World Cup there is every chance that one of the trio will bow out on top in the international game also.
All three players will go down as club legends when they leave.
Kompany, a title-winning skipper, Aguero the club-record goal-scorer and Silva a winner of six major trophies.
Guardiola knows that the trio are only likely to play a supporting role as he builds his team around the younger options of Ederson, Kevin de Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus, but the vast experience and winning mentality of Kompany, Silva and Aguero remains key to helping this City side deliver the success many believe they are destined for.