City and the dangerous pursuit of excellence

REMEMBER Leeds United in 1970? They were chasing a treble and ended with nothing. They finished in second place in the league, runners-up in the FA Cup final and lost in the “Battle of Britain” against Celtic over two legs in the European Cup semi-final. They were worn-out, heart-broken and stressed – above all, they were potless. Leeds had a relatively small squad with 12 or 13 very good players and a lot of untried reserves. In those days, chasing prizes on multiple fronts was very, very difficult, mostly because players were not fit enough, there was less money in the game and the difference between the best and worst was arguably not as great as it is today.

Manchester City are in a unique position for an English club – they are in pursuit of four trophies, one of which (the Football League Cup) has already been won. They will start as favourites against Watford in the FA Cup final as they did against Wigan in 2013!) and their battle with Liverpool for the title could go either way. City still have to play rivals Manchester United, probably not the game they wanted in their run-in. That leaves the UEFA Champions League, and they have to turnaround a 1-0 deficit from the first leg against Tottenham in the quarter-finals. If they do overcome Spurs, they will face the winners of Ajax and Juventus.

We live in a time when teams like City are supposed to “win it all” even though nobody has ever achieved that in English football. True, there have been trebles (Manchester United 1998-99, Liverpool 2000-01, Liverpool 1983-84) but four? That’s a little like gluttony.

City have not yet reached the stage where they are seen as invincible, and I’m not talking about the Preston 1889 and Arsenal 2004 type of immortality, I am referring to being so utterly formidable that opponents do not expect to get anything from playing them and buckle with fear. They haven’t quite got there yet, but if they do the quadruple, that might change.

Every game City play is seen as another Grand National fence towards the Holy Grail. Yet it can all change in an instant – one goal conceded can knock them out of a cup or damage league chances. And City are prone to the odd slip-up, they are only human, after all. Consider that their league defeats this season include surprise setbacks against Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Newcastle United.

But of their 27 Premier League wins, City have won 22 by two or more goals, with six by more than four goals. They have played 52 games in all competitions and scored 148 goals. On the way to the FA Cup final, they scored 20 goals in five games. It’s clear that City have a strong margin of superiority over most of their rivals.

They’ve also got the squad to fire on all cylinders. They’ve used 21 players in the Premier League and all of them would probably grace any team in the Premier. Nobody looks exhausted in the City squad and that may just be because they can switch players around, give one or two a breather or use them sparingly to preserve energy levels. This is where the club’s financial clout becomes a competitive differentiator.

Yet keeping the boiler stacked and maintaining acceleration mode can result in the team over-heating. As pressure rises, both internally and externally, over-focused players can suddenly feel as though adrenaline drains when a setback occurs. This hyperactive syndrome is what may have been Leeds United’s downfall in the early 1970s – the tension builds and when it is not rewarded with success, the come-down can be painful. Maybe Leeds were just too prepared, too mindful of the situation, and basically, not relaxed enough.

You sense that Pep Guardiola is a man of his time and has the savvy to avoid these pitfalls, but between now and the end of the season, he could be facing a dozen cup finals. He has the players to pull it off, but invariably, in these circumstances, injuries can deprive a team of key men. City, though, do not seem an anxious team – unlike Liverpool who have the burden of 29 years without a title – there is a kind of calmness about them.

At the moment, it is one in the bag, three up for grabs but the dynamic will alter with every result. A defeat, any defeat, will have a psychological affect on the team for the next game – for instance, if City do go out of the Champions League against Tottenham, not only will it make the quadruple a treble, but the two teams will meet again almost straight away in the league, with Spurs having an advantage of a sort. If that was to happen and Liverpool gain the initiative in the title battle, that treble might start to look even more doubtful. And then, the FA Cup could easily swing Watford’s way if the underdog has his day. City could then be left with just the League Cup on their shelf come the end of the season, not exactly what was foretold. It is a deck of finely balanced cards – at the moment.

City – and the media – have to concentrate on one prize at a time and not see the season as some almighty date with destiny and a campaign that is built around winning everything in sight. It should not be a mission that has only one correct answer – four pots of silverware and anything less a failure.

And there’s another consideration. Win the lot and what will you do in 2019-20? Do it again, or at least try to do it again. Do it better, perhaps? One team winning everything on the domestic front is not particularly good for the English game.

City, and indeed Liverpool, will not be hampered by fixture pile-ups, one of the problems that Leeds had to contend with on a regular basis in the 1970s. Squads are bigger today and in City’s case, the strength in depth is certainly there. It is difficult to see them not winning a couple more trophies but out of the three still undecided, the Champions League will surely be the biggest ask even if they are better equipped for the task than at any time since the club was taken over by Abu Dhabi.

Photo: PA


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