Manchester City were utterly superb, but we should worry

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.

Liverpool’s quad may not be impossible

THE ONLY credible quadruple in British football was achieved by Celtic in 1966-67, the year they won the European Cup, Scottish League, Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup. Jock Stein’s all-conquering team played 59 games across that lot, winning 48 and losing just three. They scored 184 goals and conceded 48. This was a great Celtic team that played wonderful attacking football.

Winning a double used to be near impossible, let alone a treble, hence when Tottenham achieved it in 1961, it was the first time it had been won since 1897. The modern treble of Champions League (European Cup), League and Cup has been won just nine times, the most recent being Bayern Munich in 2020 and the only English side being Manchester United in 1999. Manchester City became the first team to win all three domestic trophies in England in 2019, but Liverpool won a treble in 1984 when they lifted the League, the League Cup and the European Cup. 

Liverpool could, conceivably, win four trophies this season. They have already captured the EFL Cup, beating Chelsea on penalties, they are in the last four of the FA Cup (where they will face Manchester City), they are chasing the Premier League (where they are up against City) and they have one foot in the Champions League semi-finals (where they may come up against City in the final). In 2021-22, we face the possibility of a campaign that will be defined by a set of Liverpool-City clashes.

Before we analyse 2021-22, however, it is remarkable how the current battle between these two teams reminds us of the days of Leeds United’s golden period when Don Revie’s team chased every prize. In the early 1970s, clubs didn’t have sizeable squads and players often carried injuries into vital games. In 1970, for example, Leeds finished runners-up in the league and FA Cup, were semi-finalists in the European Cup and reached the third round of the Football League Cup. They played 62 games and lost just 10, scoring 127 goals, but finished with nothing. Similarly, in 2008, Chelsea were runners-up in the Premier, Champions League and League Cup and quarter-finalists in the FA Cup. They lost just six games out of 61 but never made the winners’ podium.

The way football has developed in recent years arguably makes it easier for Liverpool to achieve the impossible dream, simply because they are so much better than the majority of opponents they will face. English football has crystallised into a two-horse race with another two or three clubs behind the leading duo. At present, City and Liverpool are the leaders, Chelsea most definitely number three and then there’s Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal along with other pretenders to the top four.

Liverpool comfortably won their UEFA Champions League quarter-final first leg and unless something miraculous happens, Benfica will not be able to turn around a 3-1 deficit. In all probability, they will face Bayern Munich in the semi and on current form and strengths, they should beat the Bundesliga champions. The smart money is on another all-English final, but that also depends on Manchester City, who have a narrow 1-0 lead over Atlético Madrid from the first leg.

Liverpool face Manchester City on April 10 and this could be the moment the Premier League title race becomes a little clearer. Liverpool’s two league defeats have both been away, but two of City’s three losses have been at the Etihad. City seem to have problems with a certain type of side, they have dropped points against Tottenham (City gain 0), Crystal Palace (1) and Southampton (2) this season. The only other team to take points has been Liverpool.

The FA Cup has already got its big ticket bout in the form of City versus Liverpool in the semi-final. At present, Liverpool may have the edge on Pep Guardiola’s side, they have won 10 in a row in the Premier and they’ve lost just three games all season. Liverpool have more options than when they joyously won the Premier League in 2020, notably up front with Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz (both 25) being added to the Salah-Firmino-Mané trio. Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino are both 30 now and Mo Salah reaches that landmark later this year. Virgil van Dijk and Joël Matip are both 30 and Jordan Henderson is a year older. Liverpool’s team is at its peak, so 2021-22 may be the current XI’s best chance of immortality. City have over-30s such as Kevin De Bruyne (30), Kyle Walker (31), İlkay Gündoğan (31) and Riyad Mahrez (31), but they have a deep squad.

Liverpool seem more relaxed than during the 2018-2020 period when the anxiety about a lack of a league title hung heavily over the club. They won the Champions League in 2019, were denied by City after a sensational season, and a year later, broke the hoodoo of 30 years and won the Premier. Although they finished a disappointing third in 2021, missing Virgil van Dijk and perhaps fatigued by the previous two years, they regained their mojo from 2019-20.

It’s not just a Liverpool quadruple at stake. City could also win a treble (the treble) of UEFA Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup. Chelsea have won two “prizes” already in the FIFA Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup, so they could end with four, even if two are relatively insignificant baubles. Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Benfica and Villareal cannot win a treble of any sort.

History tells us that going for everything on all fronts usually ends in tears. Teams are tired, injuries and suspensions play havoc with selection and every game becomes a cup final. The pressure often gets to the sides striving for perfection. Liverpool and Manchester City, not to mention Chelsea, have learned to live with intensity. There is something “automatic” about the way the top teams perform these days and multiple triumphs are no longer unthinkable. Don’t be surprised if Liverpool win everything or Chelsea or Manchester City win two or three tin pots. Polarisation of elite football has given us the tableaux of the crowded trophy cabinet.