By the time the Premier League trophy is handed over to Pep Guardiola again, the English game will have something it has never seen before. It has made many within the sport unsure how to feel.
That goes beyond a staggering level of domination, which ensured Manchester City only felt the prospect of defeat for a mere 10 minutes for the final third of the season, something that should raise questions about the competitive health of the Premier League. City are after all only the fifth club to win three English titles in a row. They are also the third club to win five in six.
They are however the first English team to do it with such a suffocating sense of dominance. They are also the first English champions to face charges from the very competition they have just won, that – if proven – could yet see the club stripped of previous titles and even expelled from the league. That is a historic landmark, even if the length of time until its conclusion is as uncertain as the outcome. For now, it leaves a caveat and a question about all this success that may see the perception of the club’s entire era completely changed.
Back in February when the Premier League understatedly released such a jaw-dropping announcement, Guardiola already realised so much about his team had to change. The City manager denies that the charges served as motivation. You could understand why he doesn’t want that to become a central part of the story right now. It was nevertheless a period when so many strands of the season came together, as well as the team. The most common account put forward is that the players came together for a clear-the-air meeting after the 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest, and decided enough was enough. That match represents the last time they dropped points before winning the title.
There was a frightening new focus about the team. If Arsenal had a “hunger” that previously concerned Guardiola, his team responded with a new ravenousness.
Many sources feel it was impossible that the charges didn’t influence this, that the squad played on a sense of righteously proving they could do it on the pitch. Those at City would point to pure football reasons, of the type that are given exaggerated weight in the moments of glory; that see Erling Haaland’s diet mentioned more than the ownership.
The squad had already been reshaped by getting rid of Joao Cancelo, a decision that represented a message to anyone content to be “happy flowers”, as Guardiola so memorably put it. This restored focus to their outlook. Guardiola then restored focus to their shape.
Haaland naturally warrants focus in such a season, especially since his potency has come to personify City’s overbearing new power. Except, rather than a boot stamping on the face of football forever, it is a Nike Phantom GX sidefooting the ball into the net forever.
It’s remarkable to think now that, amid Haaland’s most productive spell, he also represented the closest City have had to a “problem”. Although the Norwegian had scored 69 per cent of his total Premier League goals with 25 by the end of January, it was clear to the manager and almost everyone else that he wasn’t fully in tune with the team. Haaland often had so few touches that it was as if he was separate to the other 10 players, in a way that seemed to go against Guardiola’s principles.
The Catalan is after all one of the game’s great ideologues, but this was one area where he was willing to bend. Guardiola had been seeking to add more attributes to the Norwegian’s general game, humorously calling him “Haaland!” rather than by his first name, in the way he does with other players. The manager soon realised it was better to just go with his best player’s best strengths. It also gives Guardiola some satisfaction he went back to his own roots. The Catalan recreated the defensive “box” that Johan Cruyff devised in the Barcelona team that won the club’s first European Cup in 1992, and that Guardiola himself played at the tip of.
It at once solved so many issues in the team, while allowing Haaland to move in the way he needed to without the cost of more space opening up elsewhere. John Stones has excelled. City, put bluntly, became close to perfect. They became something unstoppable.
They finally put up “the run” that everyone had felt would eventually come, and Arsenal would have no answer to. That was precisely what happened.
City won 13 of 14 games, the exception being that 1-1 draw against Forest that preceded 11 straight victories. The most momentous of those was the 4-1 over Arsenal, but to cast it as a title showdown would be as much of an illusion as the idea that there was ever a race at all. The truth is that City just reached the pace they were always going to reach when a team close to trebles for half a decade has a goal machine added under a genius. That April victory made it 7-2 over two games against the runners-up, Mikel Arteta’s side just blown away along with everyone else.
Arsenal have been fairly criticised for the way they have “collapsed”, as it’s clear the pressure got to their players. But how couldn’t it? They were up against a team who considered an 81-point return in 2020 their “bad season”. In even matching that, a feat that is one of Arsenal’s highest ever Premier League hauls, Arteta’s young side have performed to their outer limits. It was almost inevitable they would buckle as the realisation grew any slip would be fatal. This is one element that really separates City: that ability to sustain it. It’s very difficult for almost anyone else. And it’s not even like City have gone to the ludicrous levels of 2018 or 2019. Their current return of 85 points from 35 games, and a forecast of 94, would leave them in the mid-range of their own performance level under Guardiola.
That is how much this project has distorted the game. Just pointing to winning runs doesn’t sufficiently explain the nature of these titles any more. Much more telling is the manner of those victories.
The figures are almost as overwhelming as Haaland’s 36 league goals.
In those last 14 league games, City have spent just 10 minutes losing. That was the brief period between Mohamed Salah’s goal for Liverpool at Eastlands and Julio Alvarez’s equaliser. City won that match 4-1. It was one of four three-goal-plus wins over Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea, to go with the same in Europe against Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. That was close to their default position in that final unbeaten run.
In those 14 games, which represent over a third of the season, City spent almost 50 times as long winning by two goals as they did actually losing. Any sense of sporting struggle was a distant memory.
This is what is most galling about this, and why this season represents such a threshold, while posing greater questions for football.
City have brutalised the very idea of sporting competition. There’s been no tension. There’s been no drama.
That has meant there haven’t been any real memorable moments, beyond some great goals and the repeated image of Haaland and De Bruyne tearing at goal. Guardiola and the players would of course argue about how hard they work, but the consequence has been that the results of so many matches have been so predictable.
It can’t even be said it’s a one-off. It is anything but. Since the summer of 2017, when Guardiola benefitted from an expenditure of over £200m that helped first shape his squad, City have claimed 543 of 675 available points. That amounts to over 80 per cent over six seasons. Needless to say, no one has ever done this over this stretch of time.
This is one crucial reason why there hasn’t been too much will around the game to discuss their greatness or Guardiola’s genius, despite profound respect for the coach and the players. It doesn’t feel like sport should. There is a growing backlash, and a willingness to point out the exact nature of the Abu Dhabi project.
As one prominent figure put it, “they have ruined our league, and we still have Newcastle United and maybe Manchester United to come”.
This is the story that an increasing number of people around football are now demanding be told, beyond the more simplistic old-fashioned narratives about fine champions or managerial genius.
Such a view is entirely consistent with the reality that Guardiola is one of the greatest managers of all time, maybe the greatest ever. But he isn’t separate to all of this, his brilliance just lifting City up. He is a key part of it, as well as the final part of it. The club was first of all able to afford him. Guardiola’s wages are not cheap. They were then able to afford to persuade him. That involved almost wholesale appointment of the hierarchy that gave him his break at Barcelona, as well as the perfect sporting infrastructure, constructed to his specific preferences.
This is what happens when you give a genius these pristine laboratory conditions. It has eroded the likelihood for human failure that actually enriches sport.
This is what happens when you give him the greatest goalscorer in the world, who also has the potential to be the greatest ever in terms of numbers.
Fitting Haaland into a record-breaking team was quite the “problem” to have. Lo and behold, Guardiola managed to do it. City managed to convince the Norwegian to come.
There have been moments this season when the £51m figure has been talked of as some sort of bargain, as if it was brilliant negotiation to pull it off. The reality was the club met a clause and were then willing to pay the immense agent fees.
This points to one other element that isn’t afforded enough attention in all the discussion around this project. It is not that City always spend the most. It is that there is no financial risk. The state has limitless funds. That is quite a safety net.
And this is all happening, it must be remembered, with Financial Fair Play. Imagine what would be happening if such restrictions didn’t exist.
That’s also why figures within football are as eager for the outcome of the FFP case as many rival supporters. Some have discussed the idea of clubs chasing damages if the charges are proven. There is a genuine anger within the Premier League, which spiked again on Thursday with the report that the involvement of Murray Rosen KC as chair of the disciplinary commission had been challenged due the fact he is an Arsenal fan. A common view within the legal side of football is that this was “a disgrace”.
For the moment, though, it’s all futile. Only a handful of people actually know how the case is proceeding. Nobody can say how long it will take, and it could go into years.
City’s hierarchy are meanwhile just as adamant they are innocent.
The outcome will be one of the most significant moments in English football history, not least because it will reframe this entire period regardless of what the decision is.
This is symbolic of what the sport has become, since almost everything that happens on the pitch is explained by what happens off it.
This is why an article marking the English champions goes into so many other issues beyond the excellence of Haaland, the elegance of De Bruyne or the quality of Stones. That’s without even getting into the questions about what Abu Dhabi are using the club for, or the concerns raised by human rights groups.
The reality is all of City’s success is ultimately explained by the fact they are a state project.
It says much that three successive titles – a feat that has been historically rare – hasn’t been lauded as that much of a landmark. There’s still more to come, maybe for a long time.
This City have been so dominant they have eliminated core concepts of sport. They may well have removed the very unpredictability the Premier League sells itself on.