Sunday, January 16, 2022

How Man City changed the way you win the league

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IOn the bus to the 2021 Champions League final, Thomas Tuchel found out about Pep Guardiola’s decision to skip both Rodri and Fernandinho. The Chelsea manager was stunned. Tuchel thought it was such a drastic move that Guardiola took virtually all responsibility for the game. So it has proven itself.

Although Tuchel has been more successful than most in figuring out how to beat this Manchester City, he privately admits the final was down to Guardiola’s selection.

It was almost as if the English champions were beating themselves rather than being beaten. That’s something the rest of football can count on this season.

Of course, Tuchel is spending these days ahead of Saturday’s showdown looking for a new way to get close to City, but he knows it’s a very different proposition than last season’s games. There is another pressure too. It’s not just about Chelsea.

If City wins on Saturday, that’s essentially it. A fourth title in five years is on the cards, three of them before European football restarts.

So much for an unprecedented three-team title race. Guardiola and his club have instead given the Premier League something different that has never been seen before.

They have changed the complexion of the competition. They ‘destroyed the Premier League’, to use Guardiola’s own words. This should bring new debates as well as recognition.

Is that too much? Is it actually healthy for English football? Is the Premier League threatening to become another one-club division?

A common answer to all of this is that, over much longer periods of time, it is no different from the Liverpool and Manchester United dynasties. The reality is that they are not the same.

Liverpool’s dominance lay financially in such a different world of football that it’s almost irrelevant. Teams like Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest could win both the league and the European Cup.

Manchester United were then the first club to recognize and maximize football’s marketing potential, giving them a significant financial advantage to work with Sir Alex Ferguson’s genius. The most points they took in a season was 91 and some of their Premier Leagues were won by 75, 79 and 80 points.

In other words, they gave you a chance. Or at least, as so many late winners and title winners pointed out, there was a sense of danger.

That’s just not the case with City. Competitors have to be pretty perfect to keep up with them. With an average of 2.52 points per game, Guardiola’s team is currently on course for 96 points.

That would make them only the fifth team in history to have accumulated more than 95 points. Two of them were Liverpool 2018-19 and 2019-20 but only one of them won the title. That was because the other two were City 2017-18 and 2018-19. Guardiola’s team forced Jürgen Klopp’s to a level that was practically impossible to maintain. Even the Catalan’s last ‘bad season’ in 2019-20 yielded 81 points. That would have been enough to win three of the 17 titles City have not won this millennium.

Another common answer to this is that Liverpool and Chelsea are currently on course at 80 and 78 points respectively, which would hardly be enough to win a title this millennium. That’s only a temporary drop, however, as both were pretty much level with City four games ago. Now the gap is almost infinite. Spells that would have been considered mere stuttering a decade ago now look like a total meltdown. It just feels unthinkable that City could lose enough points when it counts. Chelsea and Liverpool’s return wouldn’t matter so much if City were even 90 points on track as they were still within sight.

This has another effect. The distinctive chemistry of title races usually means teams keep pushing each other when there’s tension. This happened in 2018-19. That gives you the edge you need. If there’s even a subconscious feeling that it’s being lost, teams naturally tend to drop out.

Now there’s a risk that City could just be too far ahead over a weekend in mid-January. If so, it will be the third time in five seasons that Guardiola has won the title with devastating mid-season runs that no one can match.

That has fueled fears for the future of English football but perhaps that perspective should be reversed.

If you were trying to imagine what a government project would produce with unlimited funds where they could afford the absolute best of everything, this would be it.

So many records would be broken. It would be unprecedented performances like home heights. It would be a string of seasons where the team scores over 95 points in a way that no one has been able to match.

Ferguson admitted Jose Mourinho’s 95 points with Chelsea in 2004/05 forced him to change his view of title races, but City’s points tally shows that’s even a step further.

The future is already here. It belongs to Abu Dhabi.

City changed the way you win the league and changed the game.

This shouldn’t be to take the pressure off of other big clubs who have wanted to go their own way for so long. There are questions about FSG’s investment in Liverpool, as illustrated by Mohamed Salah’s contract loophole. Manchester United are able to develop the financial means to be competitive. Chelsea have the support of an oligarch.

But the idiosyncratic way Roman Abramovich runs his club points to another difference. The fact is that there has never been a football club as structured as City, and it is at least questionable whether it can be someone again.

Abu Dhabi’s limitless money enabled the hierarchy to completely tear the club apart and start over, eventually doing something no one in City Football Group had dreamed of before.

They’re not so much a football club in shape as a state-of-the-art multinational that’s an extension of a state. The sheer scale is unprecedented and often underestimated.

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