Don’t label City the “best ever”, but they are absolutely top dogs in 2023

IT IS tempting in the modern game to forget about the past and proclaim the current champions as the best bunch of players on the planet ever to kick a ball. In recent years, Liverpool 2020, Manchester City 2019 and 2022, Arsenal 2004, Chelsea 2005 and Manchester United 1999 have all had premature garlands placed around their necks. You get the feeling the current City side, with their intense focus on three trophies, are about to receive the same treatment.

In the spirit of presentism, City are certainly the best ever team of 2022-23. They have overcome the challenge of Arsenal, avoided banana skins in the Champions League and eased their way to Wembley for the FA Cup final. They are favourites for the two forthcoming finals.

But there have been City teams that have ended with slightly more impressive league records and we have to remember that they have been beaten in the Premier four times. But even when they have lost (all by the odd goal), they have outplayed their opponents and averaged 68.3% possession. Their average for the entire Premier campaign so far is over 65%.

City claim they have one of the smallest squads, and it is true they consistently play fewer players during the league programme than most of their rivals. They have used 23 in 2022-23, while Arsenal have fielded 27, Liverpool 29, Manchester United 26 and Chelsea 32, to name but a few. City’s financial resources mean they can buy top quality and they rarely make mistakes in player recruitment. Their squad has been built mostly during the Guardiola era, starting with the likes of John Stones and Ilkay Gündogan in 2016-17. Over a billion euros has been spent constructing City’s team, while over € 600 million has been received in player sales. Their wealth means that they have top talent to sell, witness the transfers of Sterling, Zivchenko and Jesus.

Guardiola became only the second manager to win three titles in a row with the same club when City clinched the title following Arsenal’s collapse at Nottingham Forest. Sir Alex Ferguson was the first to achieve this remarkable feat in 2001 and repeated it in 2009. Contrary to football folklore, Herbert Chapman did not win three consecutive titles at either Huddersfield and Arsenal. Others, such as José Mourinho (Chelsea), Bob Jackson (Portsmouth), Stan Cullis (Wolves), Matt Busby (Manchester United) and Bob Paisley (Liverpool) have won two successive championships.

With two games remaining, City have won 28 games, of which just seven were by a one-goal margin. Line that up against Guardiola’s previous Premier wins with the club, when City won nine or 10 by a single goal, the suggestion is that City might be pulling away from their rivals a little. City have won 18 games by two or three goals, eight more than 2021-22. 

Comparing City’s record this season to other much celebrated sides of the past is also favourable; Arsenal’s “invincibles” may have been unbeaten, but they won three games by 1-0, 10 by 2-1 and one by 3-2. As for Chelsea in 2005, they lost once but won 1-0 11 times and 2-1 once. It is not unreasonable to consider City 2022-23 are a more attractive team than either of the two Londoners.

But this City squad, which has a valuation of just over € 1 billion, has a lower win rate than two of Guardiola’s title winners. Their current record is 77.78% but in 2018 and 2019, the win percentage was 84.21%, which along with Klopp’s Liverpool of 2020, is the highest rate of all time in the English top flight.

Despite having the goal machine that is Erling Haaland in their line-up, City have not scored quite as many as last season, although they could still match the 99 netted in 2021-22. While they have scored four or more in a game 10 times in 2022-23, a year ago their total was 12 times. Haaland’s arrival changed the way City played, perhaps explaining why their midfielders have not scored as many goals. Haaland has 36 (up to May 22) but Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, Bernado Silva and Rodri have scored 23 goals fewer than 2021-22.

For all Arsenal’s consistency and table-topping leadership for most of the season, there was a certain amount of inevitability about City coming from behind to win the title. They should now finish with a comfortable margin, but it won’t be record-breaking. In 2017-18, Guardiola’s first title was won by 19 points, in 2021, there were 12 points between City and Manchester United. In 2019 and 2022, only one point separated them from Liverpool. 

Where do City go next? Soon they will need to replace some of their older players, but you could argue they are already starting to prepare for life without Kyle Walker, Gündogan, De Bruyne and Mahrez. City will, undoubtedly, strengthen their squad for 2023-24 with names like Jude Bellingham (Dortmund), Josko Gvardiol (Leipzig), Rafael Leao (Milan) and Joshua Kimmich (Bayern), already being linked with the club. Next season may be even tougher for City’s opponents.

Manchester City’s remaining fixtures

May 24: Brighton – Away

May 28: Brentford – Away

June 3: Manchester United – FA Cup final at Wembley

June 10: Internazionale – Champions League final in Istanbul.

Arsenal v Chelsea: The pit and the pendulum

THE ONLY real surprise at the Emirates was the scoreline; Arsenal should have won far more healthily than they did. A two-goal margin really did flatter a Chelsea side that gave new meaning to the term, “Ragbag Rovers”. In little over a year, the club’s new ownership appears to have dismantled two decades of achievement through misinterpreting the asset class they have bought and the nature of team-building. The commitment is there, but the product knowledge is lacking. And Arsenal were hungry and desperate enough to take advantage of Chelsea’s miserable state.

Nobody can blame a lack of money on the part of the new Chelsea regime – they have spent like macho City traders celebrating bonus week, but the cash looks to have been wasted on a selection of players that look like they do not want to be there. Many have been signed because of potential and promise, yet the culture of the club continues to be about immediate success, not delayed gratification, as demonstrated by the reinstallation of the revolving door. Unless there is a swift change in mindset, Chelsea may be launching a fire sale without a fire in the summer. 

Arsenal, apparently, had been on a poor run. Chelsea fans would have given their right arm for that sort of bad sequence of results, a few draws and a defeat. For all the money spent, Chelsea do not have a goalscorer but they do have a disorganised defence and Arsenal revelled in its chaos. 

It took seven minutes for the game to be up, Granit Xhaka, Arsenal’s renaissance man, sent over a cross and Martin Ødegaard sent a superb shot in off the crossbar.  Before the Gunners’ scored their second, Ben Chilwell almost put Chelsea level with a left-foot drive on the run that Aaron Ramsdale did well to push away. But then came two goals in a five minute spell that highlighted Chelsea’s inadequacies, the first a near carbon copy by Ødegaard and then a scrambled effort from Gabriel Jesus. Thirty-four minutes one and it was 3-0. Chelsea were dead and buried and more goals beckoned for the rampant home side as their fans chanted, “you’re going down” at the visitors.

Frank Lampard, who probably cannot get away from “my club” quicker, changed his team in the second half and this, along with Arsenal’s realisation they didn’t have to do too much to keep control, meant the Blues grabbed a consolation in the 64th minute from the willing horse that was Noni Madueke, the former PSV Eindhoven striker who cost a mere € 33 million. Chelsea introduced Mykhailo Mudryk and Arsenal’s loyalists demonstrated their resentment that he chose London SW6 rather than Finsbury Park in the last transfer window by jeering the Ukrainian striker and foolishly and a little tactlessly aiming lasers at his face and body.

In the end, 3-1 really did not do justice to the balance of play over 90 minutes, but Chelsea must have been relieved the game didn’t run dramatically away from them. At half-time, it looked like it could have been a Manchester City-type runaway result. 

The composition of the two teams underlined the current state of the two clubs. Arsenal’s starting line-up and used substitutes cost the club £ 459 million in transfer fees, while Chelsea spent £ 630 million on theirs. Only two home-grown players were employed by both teams. And yet, for all the young talent bought by Chelsea, they had no less than four players over the age of 30 in their first XI. Thiago Silva has been an outstanding addition since he joined, but Cesar Azpilicueta – fine player that he has been – spent the entire game shouting at clouds. Something is very wrong and one wonders how many of the club’s acquisitions in this chaotic new era will be at Stamford Bridge come the middle of 2023-24 season.

As for Arsenal, they have just one nagging problem: Manchester City. This is the Gunners’ season, possibly their best chance of the Premier title because City won’t be weaker next year, they will work tirelessly and economically to put more sky blue water between themselves and their main contenders. Arsenal couldn’t have had a better opponent after their recent run than a directionless Chelsea, but unfortunately for Mikel Arteta, City have to play Chelsea aswell. Arsenal can still win the title, but City have to slip-up. As Liverpool have discovered in recent years, it’s hard to compete with them – and it is not just about money (as Chelsea have shown), it’s also about hoe you spend it.

Chelsea will not get relegated, but ultimately they have to thank the manager they started the campaign with for keeping them up. Thomas Tuchel had a win rate of 50% when he was sacked in September after six games and those 10 points gave them to cushion to survive the 2022-23 season. His record has been much better than the three characters that have followed him in the role.  They might want to think about that one in the dress circle at Stamford Bridge in the coming days.