Scintillating City deserve plaudits
Towards the end their vulnerability was exposed but it was too late to stop Guardiola’s side breezing to the Premier League title, writes Jonathan Wilson
The statistics offer some measure of Manchester City’s greatness. They have won the Premier League title with a month to spare and are on course to set records for points gained and goals scored. Achieving that in an era when there is, theoretically at least, a big six – when they are not just steamrollering much weaker sides – is extraordinary.
But the stats are only part of it and probably not the main part. One does not have to be Manchester United’s José Mourinho or one of his acolytes to realise that, with the money City have spent in the two years since Pep Guardiola took over, a failure to challenge would have been an intense disappointment. But it is the way that money has been spent that marks them out.
City may have outlaid a net $515m under Guardiola but their most expensive player is defender Aymeric Laporte, brought in for $81m. They have not done what Paris SaintGermain have done – or even what Manchester United have done – and spent a huge amount on a couple of big-name players.
There was a joke doing the rounds last summer that featured Guardiola telling Sheikh Mansour, City’s owner, that he could win the league title with the most beautiful football imaginable and that all he needed to do that was the best two players in the world in every position. And that, essentially, is what has happened. There will always be those who see the money spent as detracting from the beauty but Guardiola has also improved players and he has blended them to accentuate their assets. Yes, money has been spent but City have got full value for it. And that is the wonder of this City team.
The statistical milestones do not tell the full story. The record points tally in England’s top tier is – for now – 95, held by Mourinho’s Chelsea in the first season of his first spell, 2004-05. They were, without doubt, a very fine side, one of the best of the Premier League era, but did they stir the heart as City have? Perhaps they did, with their organised muscularity enlivened by Damien Duff, Arjen Robben and Joe Cole. Aesthetics, after all, are subjective. It is entirely reasonable to argue for the thrill of the United treble-winners of 1998-99 with the contrasting wing play of David Beckham and Ryan Giggs and the intermovement of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke. Or for the blend of pace and finesse in the Arsenal Invincibles side of 2003-04.
Or, reaching further back, the blossoming of Liverpool in 1987-88, when the signings of John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Ray Houghton complemented John Aldridge and added a swagger to a unit that had previously been largely efficient with moments of brilliance. But that is where an aesthetic evaluation strikes a problem.
The best sides marry thrills and aesthetic pleasure with effectiveness. Those on the highest levels of the pantheon combine being good to watch with consistency and a capacity to get the job done in difficult conditions. City, perhaps, have been almost too good this season. They have won the league with such ease that it is hard to point to one defining game when they have been pushed to the limit and have found
the inner strength to win despite adversity.
There is a vulnerability to City and just because Liverpool – in their recent Champions League quarterfinal – are the only side to expose it for long enough to take advantage this season does not diminish the flaw, particularly when it is such a recurring theme for Guardiola sides. When they were unable to control possession, that defensive fallibility was their undoing and that raises a serious question.
How great can a side, however aesthetically pleasing, however easily they have won the league, really be if they cannot endure when games begin to turn against them?
City swagger … Kevin De Bruyne rushes to his teammates. Their side have won 28 of 33 league games so far