Two down, one to go: Manchester City on the brink of history

THE OUTCOME was what most people predicted; Manchester City had just a little too much for their local rivals, while United ended a season of progress in Erik ten Hag’s first with the club. City have very little time to celebrate, they play the third leg of their bid for the treble, the UEFA Champions League, in a week’s time, a game they will start as favourites.

In the end, the 90 minutes at Wembley was a little tougher than their 12-second opener suggested it might be. Ílkay Gündogan’s majestic volley caught out thousands of people settling into their seats and for one moment, sent a shiver down the spines of United’s fans. Was a thorough trouncing on the cards?

There has been a certain inevitability about City’s entire season, even when they were way behind youthful Arsenal. They calmly overtook the Gunners and easily marched to the FA Cup final by beating Chelsea (4-0), Arsenal (1-0), Bristol City (3-0), Burnley (6-0) and Sheffield United (3-0). Added to that, they reached the Champions League final by overcoming, among others, the Europa League winners, the top three clubs in Germany and, in the semi-finals, holders Real Madrid. Their path to Istanbul has not been a gentle stroll, it has been a severe test against some of Europe’s most accomplished clubs.

Although the unpredictability of a local derby at Wembley enhanced United’s chances of pulling off a shock result, in truth City always looked as though they were on their way to victory. The scoreline looked narrow, but the penalty that levelled that shock opener demonstrated everything that is wrong about the application of VAR. Little do referees know it, but this age of automated decision-making is triggering the beginning of the end for the officials. When judgement and discretion are replaced by technical accuracy, there will be no need for anything other than high-end artificial intelligence. Jack Grealish jumped for the ball and it was perfectly natural that his arms should be outstretched to provide some sort of balance as gravity brought him back down to earth. Yes, the ball grazed his hand, but was it really a penalty?

The goal made a game of it for United, for if City had not been pegged back, the final might have been embarrassingly one-sided. As it turned out, United had as many shots as City and restricted Pep Guardiola’s team to 60% possession, a relatively low figure for them. The second City goal, again by Gündogan, should have been saved by David De Gea, whose time at United may be coming to an end. Not only was the shot stoppable, but the German international was given far too much space. 

City’s superiority in domestic football is alarmingly clear; United finished third in the Premier League and won the EFL Cup, but they were 14 points behind their neighbours. In other words, aside from Arsenal, Manchester United represent the best the opposition has to offer but the gulf between City and United is certainly more than the cost of the starting line-ups. City’s spent around £ 100 million more than their United counterparts. United have had a good season, but they are some way behind and their best side includes no less than five players over 30 years of age. That said, City had four who won’t see their 20s again.

City’s critics will point to the club’s ownership as the catalyst for a growing competitive advantage, and they would not be wrong, but they have undoubtedly spent their money well, installing a very robust and innovative business model and employing top line professionals, including Guardiola, the most intelligent coach in the game. 

United are in a state of limbo at the moment, but when they are finally sold, they may just find themselves in the precisely the same category as City – owned by a middle eastern oil state with vast amounts of cash. On the other hand, the new regime may be a US sports team owner with more than one eye on the bottom line. United’s future is very much in the balance at the moment, although for the first time in a decade, there seems to be something of a plan. 

As for City, they have one game remaining to become the 10th team in Europe to win the treble of domestic league and cup and Champions League. The first to achieve this remarkable feat was Celtic in 1967, the most recent Bayern Munich in 2020. The club they face, Inter, won all three prizes in 2010 under José Mourinho. Manchester United are the only English club so far to pull it off, in 1999. Guardiola led Barcelona to the treble in 2009, he would be the first manager to do it twice. Who would bet against this all-conquering City team?

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.