Manch­ester City their own best en­e­mies

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Ken Early

It’s been nearly a month since Manch­ester City won the ti­tle and ev­ery­one would have un­der­stood if they had men­tally clocked off at that point. In­stead, Pep Guardi­ola was as good as his word that they would keep go­ing un­til the very last sec­onds of the sea­son, and as a re­sult his play­ers can boast about hav­ing es­tab­lished sev­eral new records.

There were five sec­onds re­main­ing of their fi­nal match away to Southamp­ton when Kevin de Bruyne launched the long ball to­wards Gabriel Je­sus that would win him the new “Play­maker” award for the player with most as­sists. The three min­utes of in­jury time had just elapsed as Je­sus lifted the ball over the keeper and in for two new records: City are the high­est-scor­ing Premier League cham­pi­ons with 106 goals, and the first team to win the English top-flight with 100 points.

The usual thing to say about some­thing like a 100-point record is that it will stand for a long time, but you sense there is every chance City them­selves might sur­pass it next sea­son. Since City are un­likely to lose key play­ers – ex­cept per­haps Ser­gio Aguero, who is no longer re­ally key – and since they are not about to be out­spent by any­body, it is eas­ier to see them break­ing their own records than it is to see one of the chas­ing teams clos­ing the gap.

Awk­ward

The fact that they have set this record is al­ready an awk­ward thing for the rest of the league to think about. This sort of thing is not sup­posed to hap­pen in Eng­land. The best play­ers still go to Spain, and English foot­ball can live with the idea that the tech­ni­cal stan­dard there is higher, but the Premier League’s ap­peal is self-con­sciously based on the no­tion that it is the most com­pet­i­tive league. If City can walk the ti­tle with 100 points – scor­ing a goal a game more than the team in sec­ond place – then this sup­posed com­pet­i­tive­ness has been ex­posed as a mere mar­ket­ing con­ceit.

Re­cent his­tory sug­gests that the only thing harder than win­ning the ti­tle is de­fend­ing it, and per­haps gives the teams trail­ing in City’s wake some kind of re­as­sur­ance. Four of the last five Premier League ti­tle win­ners have com­pletely dis­in­te­grated the fol­low­ing sea­son. Chelsea won the league last year with 93 points, but could only man­age 70 this year.

The 2016 cham­pi­ons Le­ices­ter col­lapsed from 81 points to 44 the fol­low­ing sea­son, a 37-point drop that sounds like it should have been the worst ti­tle de­fence of all time, yet in fact was scarcely even the worst ti­tle de­fence in 12 months. In 2015 Chelsea had won the league un­der Jose Mour­inho with 87 points, only to slump to 50 points the fol­low­ing sea­son. Go­ing back a lit­tle fur­ther, Manch­ester United’s cham­pi­ons of 2013 won the league with 89 points, and col­lapsed to 64 un­der David Moyes a year later.

It’s nat­u­ral that cham­pi­ons should not per­form quite as well the fol­low­ing sea­son: re­ver­sion to the mean is an iron law of sport.

But there is some­thing a bit strange about the enor­mous col­lapses of the last three sea­sons. The rea­son for it may have to do with the pe­cu­liar na­ture of the teams in­volved. As Jose Mour­inho pointed out in in­ter­views ear­lier this sea­son, the Chelsea (un­der both Conte and Mour­inho) and Le­ices­ter teams that won th­ese ti­tles were “su­per-de­fen­sive teams” with a killer

The usual thing to say about some­thing like a 100-point record is that it will stand for a long time, but you sense there is every chance City them­selves might sur­pass it next sea­son

counter-at­tack.

For such teams to win matches con­sis­tently re­quires enor­mous fo­cus and con­cen­tra­tion. When you have sweated blood through­out a vic­to­ri­ous cam­paign, it’s ex­haust­ing even to con­tem­plate the idea of com­ing back to do it all over again next sea­son, against op­po­nents who have worked out your tac­ti­cal tricks.

Maybe that’s why the only re­cent cham­pi­ons to buck the trend were the more at­tack-ori­ented Manch­ester City sides of 2013 and 2015. They also un­der­per­formed their ti­tle-win­ning cam­paigns of the pre­vi­ous years, but by more mod­est mar­gins – 11 and seven points re­spec­tively. If Guardi­ola’s team were to fin­ish next sea­son with 11 fewer points, it would still prob­a­bly be enough to win the ti­tle.

Ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ence

The most ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ence be­tween Guardi­ola’s City and other re­cent cham­pi­ons is that City have a stronger squad, but there is also an im­por­tant stylis­tic dif­fer­ence. This City is a fun team to play for. That is not to say they can’t de­fend – they have con­ceded fewer goals than any other team and there­fore have a de­cent case to be re­garded as the best de­fence.

But their game is not all about stran­gling and pick­ing off the other team, it’s much more pos­i­tive than that. It’s about dom­i­nat­ing games and ex­press­ing their own po­ten­tial, and, men­tally, cre­ative foot­ball is less drain­ing than the su­per-de­fen­sive school of win­ning by tight mar­gins. When Chelsea and Le­ices­ter won those ti­tles they knew they couldn’t play any bet­ter. City still don’t know how good they can be­come, and who knows how far they can go in the quest to find out.

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