WHEN Manchester City lost their unbeaten run to Chelsea a few weeks ago, it didn’t take more than a few minutes for schadenfreude to creep into the narrative. “You may be good, but you ‘aint no invincibles,” was the first tweet to appear, I believe from none other than Arsenal fan Piers Morgan.
Since 2004, any prospective Premier champion, or team that sets a blistering pace, starts being compared to the Arsenal team of 2002-04. Once they lose the opportunity to become “invincible”, people begin talking about record points hauls, most victories, most goals scored. And then there’s the inevitable benchmarking with past champions.
Manchester City’s barnstorming 2017-18 season (106 goals, 32 wins, 100 points, two defeats) prompted the media to rate the champions against past great teams. True, they were not “invincible” because they lost two games (Man.United at home, Liverpool away), but the goal difference of plus 79 and the manner in which they dominated the Premier League marked them as one of the all-time great teams.
Remaining unbeaten doesn’t necessarily make a team the best ever, but it does earn the right to massive respect. It’s a remarkable achievement, but it says a lot about organisation, team spirit and honest endeavour to keep the record intact. When Preston won the 1888-89 league title, they won 18 of their 22 games, scoring 74 goals and conceding 15. Arsenal’s 2003-04 campaign saw them win 26 of their 38 league fixtures and draw 12. They scored one goal less than Preston!
Arsenal were beatable that season, but only in cup competitions – losing twice to Middlesborough in the Football League Cup, once to Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final and three times in the UEFA Champions League, to Inter, Dynamo Kyiv and Chelsea. One can argue that they were totally focused on that league programme and may well have sacrificed something in the cup competitions.
Arsenal proved it could be done, but let’s not forget that other teams in the past have gone close, including Arsenal in 1990-91, who were beaten just once. Chelsea in 2004-05 also lost just a solitary game. Leeds United lost twice in 1968-69 and always targeted an unbeaten league season.
In the past 10 seasons, the average number of games lost by Premier champions has been 4.3 – which is less than the first 10 seasons of the Premier (4.9) and much lower than the 10 year period between 1967-68 and 1976-77 (50 years ago onwards) which had an average of 6.5 games. The last five years have seen champions lose on average 3.8 times per season.
Being unbeaten doesn’t mean you’re the most attractive or exciting team in the league. When City were setting records by the week in 2018-19 and playing some pretty dynamic football, the media rolled out the usual candidates for best ever title winners: Manchester United 1998-99, the Arsenal invincibles of course, various Liverpool champions, Mourinho’s first Chelsea side and more ancient winners such as the Busby Babes, Tottenham’s double winners and Revie’s Leeds United. Invariably, the fact that Arsenal were unbeaten was not seen as a great differentiator – indeed, there were more cases for United’s narrow 1999 winners because of their exciting approach. The pundits always lean towards teams that excite them – hence the Spurs team of Blanchflower, Mackay and White was the sweetheart of the press box for decades.
A truly great team can be measured in many ways, but the margin of success (either in terms of points margin at the top or average margin of victory in games) has to be one of the key performance indicators. Of City’s 32 league victories, 10 were by a single goal, nine by two goals, five by three goals, three by four, four by five and one by six. City drew only four games.
Arsenal, by contrast, drew 12 of their 38 games in 2003-04, and won 14 of their 26 victories by a single goal. Six wins were by a two-goal margin, four by three goals, one by four and one by five. Arsenal were unbeaten versus City’s two defeats, but by most measures, including the margin of success at the top – City 19 points, Arsenal 11 – make Pep Guardiola’s side more impressive champions.
However, being “invincible” makes good copy and creates headlines even if runaway winners are not especially good for a league, or an indication of a healthy level of strength-in-depth. Too often people believe an overwhelming dominant force is a reflection of widespread power when really, it is just an indication that having a very decent squad pushes the rest into obscurity. In City’s case in 2018-19, it is probably a symptom of both – a club with enormous wealth that gives them a very clear advantage over rivals and the bulk of the division being much of a muchness, or in transition.
With City losing for the second time against Crystal Palace (at home, too), Liverpool are the only unbeaten team and four points clear at the top of the Premier as Christmas 2018 approaches. They are now assuming the role of wannabee invincibles and yes, there have already been press articles to suggest “Liverpool can go unbeaten”. The pressure is on, but although Liverpool are certainly good to watch and can excite a crowd, not to mention their very animated manager, they are not quite City 2017-18. They will need to hold their nerve this time, for it is almost 29 years since Liverpool’s last title. Memories of the blow-up in 2014 are still fresh.
Ultimately, It should be good enough to be top of the table rather than becoming over-fascinated with being unbeaten. If the Premier is so good, so strong and so entertaining, then being top should be the target, not chasing an accolade which doesn’t necessarily have cachet. A team that draws 38 games will be unbeaten, but it won’t finish very high in the table – in fact, it could get relegated. A team that wins 32 games and scores 100 goals, will capture the imagination of the public, and surely that’s what we want champions to do – and with the race gradually crystallising into a three-horse race (Liverpool, City and Tottenham), we could be in for a very interesting second half of the season.