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 Guardian Weekly - - Sport -

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?

Lau­rence Grif­fiths/Getty

City swag­ger … Kevin De Bruyne rushes to his team­mates. Their side have won 28 of 33 league games so far

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