Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering side not only set a new standard in England’s top flight, they also changed the face of the competition
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel are each building their own legacies in English football. Photo: PA/Reuters
On the bus to the 2021 Champions League final, Thomas Tuchel found out about Pep Guardiola’s decision to skip both Rodri and Fernandinho. The Chelsea manager was stunned. Tuchel thought it was such a drastic move that Guardiola took virtually all responsibility for the game. So it paid off.
While Tuchel has been more successful than most in figuring out how to beat this Manchester City team, he privately admits the final was down to Guardiola’s selection.
It was almost as if the English champions beat themselves instead of being beaten. That’s something the rest of football could be counting on this season.
Tuchel has of course spent the days leading up to tonight’s showdown looking for a new way to get close to City, but he knows this is a very different proposition is than last season’s games. There is another pressure too. It’s not just about Chelsea.
If City wins on Saturday, that’s basically it. A fourth title in five years is on the cards, three of them before European football restarts.
So much for an unprecedented three-team title race. Instead, Guardiola and his club have given the Premier League something different that has never been seen before.
They have changed the complexion of the competition. They ‘destroyed the Premier League’, to use Guardiola’s own words. This should bring new debates and recognition.
Is that too much? Is it actually healthy for English football? Is the Premier League threatening to become another one-club division?
A common answer to all of this is that over much longer periods of time it is no different from the Liverpool and Manchester United dynasties. The reality is they are not the same.
Liverpool’s dominance lay financially in such a different footballing world that it’s almost irrelevant. Teams like Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest could win both the league and the European Cup.
Get the facts of the Irish football scene with our free weekly newsletter featuring our football correspondent Daniel McDonnell and an expert team of writers.
Enter email address
This field is required
Manchester United were then the first club to recognize and maximize the marketing potential of football, giving them a significant financial advantage to go with Alex Ferguson’s genius. The most points they took in a season was 91, and some of their Premier Leagues were won by 75, 79 and 80 points.
In other words, they gave you a chance. Or at least, as so many late winners and title winners pointed out, there was a sense of danger.
That just isn’t the case with City. Competitors have to be pretty perfect to keep up with them. With an average of 2.52 points per game, Guardiola’s side are currently on course for 96 points.
This would make them only the fifth team in history to have surpassed 95 points. Two of those were Liverpool in 2018-19 and 2019-20 but only one of them won the title. That was because the other two were City in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Guardiola’s side forced Jurgen Klopp’s to an unsustainable level. Even the Catalan’s last ‘bad season’ in 2019-20 yielded 81 points. That would have been enough to win three of the 17 trophies City have not won this millennium.
Another common answer to this is that Liverpool and Chelsea are currently on track to have 80 and 78 points respectively, which is what this millennium would hardly be enough to win a title. That’s only a temporary drop, however, as both were pretty much level with City four games ago. Now the gap is almost incurably large. Spells that would have been considered mere stuttering a decade ago now look like total meltdowns.
It just doesn’t feel feasible for City to drop enough points when it counts. The return of Chelsea and Liverpool wouldn’t matter that much if City even went on a 90-point course as they were still in sight.
There is another effect to this. The distinctive chemistry of title races usually means teams keep pushing each other when there’s tension. This happened in 2018-19. That gives you the edge you need. Of course, if there’s even a subconscious feeling that it’s going to be lost, teams tend to drop out.
Now there’s a risk that City could just be too far ahead over a weekend in mid-January. If so, it will be the third time in five seasons that Guardiola has won the title with devastating mid-season runs that no one can match.
That has fueled fears for the future of English football, but perhaps that prospect should be be flipped.
If you’re trying to imagine what a government project with unlimited funds would produce where they could afford the best of everything, this would be it. So many records would be broken. It would be unprecedented performances like home heights. It would be a string of seasons in which the team scores over 95 points in a way that no one has been able to match.
Ferguson admitted Jose Mourinho’s 95 points with Chelsea in 2004-05 forced him to do so to change his view of title races, but City’s points records show that’s even a step further.
That shouldn’t take the credit off other big clubs who have wanted their own way for so long. There are questions about FSG’s investment in Liverpool, as illustrated by Mohamed Salah’s contract loophole. Manchester United are able to develop the financial means to be competitive. Chelsea have the support of an oligarch.
But the idiosyncratic way Roman Abramovich runs his club points to another difference. The fact is that no football club has ever been structured like City and it is at least debatable whether anyone else can be.
Abu Dhabi’s limitless money enabled the hierarchy to tear the club up completely and start over , eventually doing something no one before at City Football Group had dreamed up.
They are not so much a football club as they are a state-of-the-art multinational, an extension of a state. The sheer scale is unprecedented.
This brings City to the fore where there is so much more at stake than just spending on players. The club has the financial platform and infrastructure to ensure it receives the ‘best in class’ from top to bottom. They are described in-game as “a beast,” “the role model,” and “just plain the best in the business at everything they do.” Even in terms of commercial contracts, they are seen as “easier to handle than most”. Such blatant superficiality is important because one of the main motivations in all of this is that Abu Dhabi is seen as great to do business with, despite organizations like Amnesty and Fair Square describing it as a “surveillance state” with an “appalling” human rights record /p> The club quickly followed corporate policies at the top end of the emirate, ensuring they excelled in every department. You just have to follow the schedule. Khaldoon al Mubarak, who has dealt with heads of state as the UAE’s “de facto prime minister”, was quickly installed as chairman. Some of his interviews have enraged the general game, but he is seen as a “class act” by City players and coaches.
Khaldoon and the rest of the hierarchy looked to the sport for the “apple of football”, saw it was Barcelona and just appointed their 2008 hierarchy in a big way. Chief among them were CEO Ferran Soriano and football director Txiki Begiristain. It was Guardiola’s relationship with the latter that ensured his arrival at City, as he felt indebted to his former team-mate for entrusting him with this first chance as Barcelona manager.
City did what Abramovich could not. The Russian has long wanted Chelsea to emulate Barcelona but only ever tried to sign Guardiola himself and certain players. City went much deeper. By January 2013, former Barcelona president Sandro Rosell claimed “Manchester City have been trying to lure a number of staff out of the Camp Nou”. They did what no other club can do today.
Much of this was set up before Financial Fair Play, allowing City to erect a huge platform just before the drawbridge was raised. Newcastle United’s Saudi Arabian owners won’t be able to attempt anything like the same project.
The point to spell this out is that it’s unique in football. This project not only allows the city to nominate the best. It allows them to demand the best. Soriano has established a company culture where mistakes are not tolerated for long. That showed in such a high-profile situation as the Super League and the determination with which City pulled back until the point of recruiting.
When a signing doesn’t work, they quickly upgrade. The development in the team makes this clear. In goal, Joe Hart was abruptly replaced by Claudio Bravo, who was abruptly replaced by Ederson. There has been a string of expensive full-backs, centre-backs and creators, to the point that City Guardiola have bought another full XI and a half on top of the squad he inherited. Ten of those 16 have each brought in at least £40m.
It should be stressed that Chelsea and United have balanced these expenses over the same period. Liverpool don’t really come close, and that’s before you factor in net spending.
However, where the difference really lies is both in the depth of that infrastructure and in the squad. City are so in sync at such a high level that they generally get more value out of most signings. It’s hard to imagine them tolerating the outdated XIs that United seem to be releasing. Instead, it’s as if many players are almost interchangeable in certain positions and the side play at the same level regardless of line-up.
The slow adjustment of a £100m signing was easy to weather as they Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez.
This speaks to the depth of Guardiola’s coaching and also allows him to maximize the depth of his squad. Players can be rested and summoned when needed. The city can overtake anyone. This surprised many opposing players. It always feels like they have one more man. All of their Flair players generally run 11-12km per game.
The influence of fitness coach Lorenzo Buenaventura (left) is revealing. That’s what people mean when they talk about top of the class everywhere. This is how Guardiola accumulates points no matter what league he plays in.
He and his staff quickly realized that the period that really makes the difference in the Premier League is the period between the Champions League groups and the K .-o.-rounds is, from December to February. Buenaventura has been tasked with devising a fitness program that will ensure City’s squad are at their peak physical performance throughout December and March.
How they win titles with mid-season runs. That’s why they looked a step above Paris Saint-Germain in last season’s Champions League.
The problem for the challengers is how they react, as Ferguson did with Mourinho in 2006. More and more believe it’s futile and fuels resentment in the rest of the game. It doesn’t help that so many people want to work for City now.
‘They’re the best running club in the world, but they have no friends’ is a common sentiment.
The European giants are all still saddened on the development of the CAS case at UEFA and it was a major factor in the Super League which ironically included City.
The majority of Premier League clubs have other issues including concerns about the extent of dominance from City. One problem is that there are too many factions, each with their own competing agendas. There was a rare moment of unanimity in the recent “related parties” vote.
“Everyone realized they made a mistake in taking over City in 2008,” says a source. The game was too naive for its nature. It’s another reason Newcastle won’t be able to repeat what City have done.
Some sources couldn’t help but laugh on Wednesday as they watched City emerge from the Covid essentially unscathed crisis had come out. Their earnings rose 19 per cent to £569.8m despite a pandemic that has shut down revenue streams.
There’s even a belief in football that City are in such a position of power that transfer targets aren’t just about that goes to improve their team. They want to take them off the market. A well-placed source insists that one reason they were cool about Harry Kane was because they realized no one else was there for him. The ominous picture, given how good they were, is what they would have looked like had they managed to land a £150m striker.
All of this spills over into a wider debate City and the style that has accompanied their dominance.
There is no denying that they produce football of the highest technical quality, to the point where some games feel more like art exhibitions than sporting achievement.
p> However, it is very open to debate how admired this is. It’s not generally revered like Guardiola’s Barcelona.
This seems to be due to more than the fact that they were first or that they were just envy. It depends on the way. Simply put, Guardiola’s Barcelona had an extremely compelling history. A Masia product returned as a coaching prodigy to take on a new generation. It felt like an ideological milestone in football.
Some of it may be over the top, but it was emotionally compelling. For those unfamiliar with it, City’s progression feels comparatively unemotional. There is also no escaping what it is all for.
This is the glory of Abu Dhabi who essentially took a football club and changed it to its former form or anything ever seen in the game , is no longer recognizable. This adds an extra dimension to the debate. They are changing football, but for political rather than sporting reasons.
Of course, Guardiola and the Catalan contingent don’t see it that way. Abu Dhabi’s desire for dominance coincides with Soriano’s sporting desire. Dominance, meanwhile, is what Guardiola tends to produce.
At least some of that will stop with him. Guardiola represented an end point for himself, particularly in football terms.
If he leaves, City will no doubt get their next best manager and we may see many more £100m+ signings like Erling Haaland to come. Guardiola will have given them an even higher platform so the success will inevitably continue. That determines the money. However, he can be irreplaceable in terms of aura.
Many in the coaching community are adamant that he and Klopp are simply on a different level than everyone else.
Guardiola is currently continuing to strive to bring City to a to raise a new level. He wants the Champions League. He knows that if he doesn’t win it, it will damage his legacy. Some even think he would have run if he had won it in May.
That holy grail feeling, that Champions League psychodrama, is probably the most interesting thing in City right now. The club, which can buy almost anything, has not yet achieved that. It makes them human.
If the Champions League were actually a league, City would probably have entered it long ago. Knockout games don’t quite allow that. They can easily outrun even the most controlling team.
It’s saying a lot that, even against a club as financially strong as the European champions, the Premier League can count on City to beat themselves. (© Independent News Service)
A Mediahuis website