Manchester City’s Premier League triumph was inevitable as Pep Guardiola’s side proved to be on another level
Manchester City are champions of England once more. That has finally been rubber-stamped but has been so blindingly apparent that this column could easily have gone live moments after they crushed Arsenal’s resistance at the Etihad Stadium last month. The aura of inevitability might go yet further back for some, perhaps even to the moment a few weeks into the season that it became abundantly clear that they hadn’t whiffed on Erling Haaland, that the most consistently winning club side in world football for the last half-decade had added the elite level goalscorer they hadn’t had since Sergio Aguero’s powers waned.
City have peaked at the right time — Wednesday’s evisceration of Real Madrid may ultimately go down as the greatest match in Pep Guardiola’s tenure, perhaps even his career — but they have been building to this point all season long. At the World Cup break they had the best underlying metrics: the most goals, the most shots, the most expected goals (xG), and the lowest xG allowed. All that was up for debate was whether Arsenal had built up enough headroom; given they had not played their greatest rivals, there was always a sense of inevitability, that the eight-point cushion they would supposedly bottle only really existed because they hadn’t faced the reigning champions yet.
Since the World Cup the upswing has been vertiginous. Fourteen of their matches in 2023 have been won by a margin of three goals or more, in 33 games they have scored 86 and conceded 22. One might contend that the only two of the latter to be of any real consequence were those conceded to Southampton in the EFL Cup quarterfinals and that the man who has done the greatest damage to City’s prospects this season is Nathan Jones, one of the worst managers in the history of the English top flight.
It is as if Guardiola has created his own City supergroup, with Noel Gallagher confined to the role anyone who has heard his recorded output over the last 25 years would agree is most appropriate: cheerleader. Ilkay Gundogan has reprised his hybrid role as domineering central midfielder and penalty box poacher. Sprinkled alongside that: peak Kevin De Bruyne whipping in unerring crosses, Bernardo Silva manages to play six positions at once. There are references to the nearly Champions League winners of 2021 in the lockdown defense anchored by Ruben Dias. John Stones offers a subtle reworking of Joao Cancelo’s fullback-midfielder role. To top it all off, Jack Grealish is covering his best Villa tunes.
City end this season where they have ended every one of Guardiola’s campaigns, as the best team in England. Twice that has not been reflected in the final table but Understat’s expected points metric has them as the Premier League’s leading side on each occasion. In year one of the new project, there was no goalkeeper capable of both building play from the back and not making a fortnightly error of baffling proportions; Chelsea marched to the top off the back of a season where they only played 43 games against Premier League opposition. In 2019-20 Liverpool caught fire from the off, City found themselves enduring a season almost as freakish as Leicester’s title-winning campaign, the sort where they’d put up three-plus xG on Southampton and somehow lose.
Winning the title against Guardiola doesn’t just require a season of remorseless excellence — the sort that on both occasions left the victors a shell of themselves the following year — but for City to inflict damage on themselves, whether that be subpar performance in a key position or an Antarctic shooting streak. This season there were no comparable wobbles. Even adjusting their system to fit Haaland in was little more than a temporary hiccup. The minute City got up and running no one could keep up with their pace.
‘Twas ever thus. This is title number five in six years. Next year it will be six in seven, then seven in eight. Sooner or later you’ll look up and realize the Premier League is just like Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga. The odd rebellion on the fringes might briefly unnerve the Etihad empire but all things being equal, City are going to win the title whenever and however they feel like it.
The demands on their rivals only seem to grow. To build one of their greatest-ever clubs, Liverpool had to nail their recruitment season after season and then luck out in finding a club as financially incontinent as Barcelona, willing to effectively fund the purchase of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk by signing Philippe Coutinho with no idea how to use him. Arsenal could have been buried by the misspending on players such as Nicolas Pepe if their academy hadn’t blurted out Bukayo Saka and a string of squad players at once. Both these clubs cannot afford to drop £135 million on English talent like City did on first Grealish and then Kalvin Phillips before giving them what amounted to a gap year in which to learn the system.
City would contend that there is nothing they do that their rivals cannot. Ferran Soriano said as much in the hazy afterglow of the Madrid win, insisting: “We are never the club spending the most on players. There are many other clubs investing more money than us – Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal. Saying that we’ve spent a lot of money and we won because of that is just not true.” Of course, the issue that the rest of the Premier League have with City is not particularly the transfer fees they pay. After all, it was not Haaland’s €75 million release clause that kept him beyond the reach of many. He is reported to earn £900,000 a week when bonuses are taken into account. That is a price beyond the reach of even some of England’s richest.
City’s commercial revenue, much of which comes from companies based in Abu Dhabi, was €100 million higher than that of Liverpool, more than €200 million than Arsenal. City, majority owned by Sheikh Mansour, are said to receive around £67.5 million a year from Etihad Airways for shirt sponsorship. That deal was among the factors that caused the club to run foul of UEFA, briefly leading to their ban from the Champions League.
What is to be done for clubs to catch up? Many supporters of rivals seem to be hoping that this might be the year that Guardiola breaks his Champions League hoodoo at the Etihad, that matching Manchester United’s 1999 treble would convince him to walk off into the sunset. It would be the ideal ending were it not for the fact that he is contracted until 2025. Of course, contracts can be broken but the 52-year-old has never betrayed any sign that he is itching for a move. When news broke of the Premier League’s 115 charges against his club, Guardiola’s response was forthright.
“I am not moving from this seat. I can assure you more than ever that I want to stay,” he said. “Sometimes I have doubts, seven years already is a long time in any country. Now I don’t want to move.”
It is not as if there is some obviously tempting project for the Catalan elsewhere having dominated in Spain, Germany and England. Having done the same with City, would it really be that tempting to address Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League hangups? Is there a club in Italy that has sufficient organizational competence? That, after all, is what keeps Guardiola coming back to City, as he told CBS Sports in May 2021.
“The club give me everything I need to be happy. Not just the players, the managers deserve to be happy. Here I have everything … except the weather. Except for that, it’s a perfect club to be,” Guardiola said. “Support from the hierarchy, good players, good environment, people working for the same intentions: that’s why I’m comfortable. If we win, I stay.”
Taking Guardiola out opens a window but hardly a door. This is a club that has so had its shit together for long enough to keep him in Manchester, bad weather and all, for far longer than anyone believed he might stay when he arrived in 2016. They hardly look like an organization that is about to Moyes up the succession. For that reason, there are no guarantees that the other state-owned superpower, Newcastle United, will necessarily be able to match City. The early evidence of the Public Investment Fund era is that the Saudis have learned lessons from the Etihad but taking the step from perennial contender to continent-conquering superpower involved City building the perfect structure for the perfect coach to forge the perfect squad. There are no guarantees that the elite-level talent can be unearthed at every level.
This isn’t an era that will be stopped by something as prosaic as a change of coach. It will require an earthquake to dislodge City from the summit of the mountain. The Premier League’s investigation into the 115 alleged rule breaches between 2009 and 2018 could provide exactly that. City insist they have done nothing wrong. If the Premier League concludes otherwise then there would be be no limit to the sanctions imposed on the champions, relegation is not an unimaginable scenario. According to The Times, the Citizens have responded by disputing the involvement of Murray Rosen KC as the chair of the panel because he is an Arsenal fan. It does not look like the response of an organization that has firm belief in what it termed “the comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence that exists in support of its position”. One also wonders what City’s £5,000 an hour barrister Baron Pannick, an avowed Gooner, makes of it all.
Perhaps the nerves about which team which lawyer supports betray a deeper sense that City understand that if anything is going to stop their dominance of the English game it is this. On the football field they are unstoppable. In the Premier League offices, however, they are vulnerable.