THE last time the football world eulogised so enthusiastically about the single performance of a team was when Barcelona were at their 2011 peak in the Champions League final against Manchester United. There have been other occasions when perfection has been on the pitch, but the way Manchester City tore apart Real Madrid, the reigning and ageing European champions, was so compelling that even the club’s detractors were purring with delight. It was, in all probability, a signal for their rivals; having conquered English football, City are now moving on to the next phase of the project. It’s called, Ladies and Gentleman, “Europe”.
City have, since Pep Guardiola became coach, won nine major trophies and a 10th is likely going to be secured by the end of the coming weekend. In that time, they have kicked Chelsea and Manchester United into touch, finished ahead of an excellent Liverpool side and have been too good for the north London duo of Tottenham and Arsenal. This season, Arsenal’s young team have overperformed and made the title challenge real, but they could yet finish seven points behind City. In other words, even the best of the other “big six” clubs cannot compete on a consistent basis with City.
Already, Arsenal’s empty tank is being explained as an inevitable consequence of trying to keep pace with a state-owned club. That they did is to the credit of Mikel Arteta’s team, but the “collapse” was really in a string of draws and finally, a 3-0 home defeat at the hands of Brighton. Arsenal, like Liverpool in recent years, have had to be at their absolute best to seriously trouble City. City’s wealth is one thing, but wealth doesn’t guarantee success, you have to spend your money well and City, generally, do just that. The wealth also enables them to concentrate on quality rather than squad fillers, but essentially, their game-plan and their coach is what creates the gap between them and their opponents.
The bad news is, the gap between City and at least 14 clubs in the Premier is vast: in the five years between 2017-18 and 2021-22, they averaged 91.6 points per season. Liverpool had the second best average (86.4) but after that, no other side managed to break the 70 mark. Chelsea, who were the most successful team in the seven years prior to Guardiola’s arrival, won nine trophies in that period but since Pep turned up, they have won just four. Liverpool, by contrast, have risen to the challenge and have won four prizes in the Guardiola era, three more in the previous seven years. Tottenham have been potless since 2008 and Arsenal’s haul has been five FA Cup wins from 2014 to 2020. Manchester United’s ability to win major prizes has, in comparison to the days of Sir Alex, fallen off a cliff. United’s dominance was stymied by Abramovich’s Chelsea, but Abu Dhabi-owned City are now standing astride football and Chelsea are struggling to keep in the top half of the Premier League. It’s not that they don’t have money, because they have spent heavily, but they haven’t been smart.
Questions have been asked, and will continue to be asked, about Abu Dhabi and City Football Group, but they are the same concerns that have clouded Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of Newcastle United and Qatar’s ownership of Paris Saint-Germain. It is possible Manchester United will be in the hands of Qatar in the near future. We have seen, all too vividly, that football will forget its values when the stakes are at their highest – hence FIFA’s love affair with Qatar and the scenes in Newcastle when the plane from Riyadh landed and brought an end to the Mike Ashley years. Hypocrisy is everywhere in football: if it suits our club, we’ll look the other way.
The trend of state-connected clubs is not at an end yet and for every big takeover that takes place, there will be clubs who start to seek-out a new owner who can keep them competitive. In other words, there will be a certain amount of pressure to follow the oil.
Manchester City could be on the brink of all-out control of English football. When they clinch the Premier League in the next few days, it will be their third consecutive title and the fifth under Guardiola. They could win the FA Cup against Manchester United on June 3 and a week later, will be favourites to complete a treble against Inter Milan in the Champions League final. Who is to say they cannot repeat this stellar performance in 2023-24? Liverpool will be in transition (with or without Klopp), Chelsea are in a complete mess and Arsenal may have trouble motivating themselves after going so close. Tottenham are Tottenham and are still grappling with an identity crisis. Manchester United could be City’s main rival next season, although Newcastle’s evolution may make them into more robust contenders.
The Premier League is said to be the strongest and most exciting league in the world, but it is a two-speed competition with six or seven clubs battling for the top four and the rest hoping to steer clear of relegation. Most have no chance of winning anything other than maintaining Premier status. At some point, this model will surely become stale and crowds will start to tail off, although it may take a while yet. If City and other state-funded clubs begin to make the differential into an impossible chasm, there may come a time when these clubs become too big and their stable mates will be consigned to a level of mediocrity that will be quite unattractive. This won’t be good for profitability, investment or sponsorship. It is absolutely a “gorilla in the room” discussion, but would football actually benefit from taking the giants out of the equation to introduce more competitiveness to legacy structures?
There would be many considerations and lots of hurdles, but the football world has to ask itself if the current aristocracy – Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and others – are ever likely to be anything other than richer than the rest. The answer is no, because it is not in their interest to shrink and in modern business, continual growth is the name of the game. That’s why there is a danger to the rest of football that these clubs will forever be in control and the chances of anyone else getting even a sniff of glory is more unlikely than it has ever been. Unless they can find an owner that becomes a king-maker, of course.