On Saturday the 10th of June Manchester City became just the second English team ever to achieve the treble. Though for all intents and purposes, the treble was secured weeks before when Real Madrid was beaten 4-0 at the Etihad, the only team left in their path with the tournament pedigree to believe they could beat City, without requiring the miracle Manchester United and Inter Milan would have needed. From that point onwards it always felt like a mere formality. There was an inevitability in the way in which the Manchester City machine motored towards the treble. This was after all the third successive season in which City won the Premier League and reached the Semi-Finals of both the FA Cup and the Champions League. The treble has been within touching distance for quite some time.
And that as much as anything else is perhaps what differentiates this version of the Treble from Manchester United’s of 24 years ago. United went into the 98/99 season trying to wrestle the title back from Double winners Arsenal who were looking to form a dynasty of their own. In Europe, United had been knocked out of the previous year’s Champions League at the Quarter-Final stage by AS Monaco, which represented a backwards step from reaching their first Champions League Semi-Final under Ferguson in 1997.
Both United and City suffered indifference from their own differing standards on route to the treble. United won just 9 of their first 19 league games in the first half of the season, drawing 7 and losing 3. In December they won 1 of 8 matches across all competitions, going 6 without a win and winning just 1 of their 6 league games. This had United in 4th place at the end of 1998. Manchester City was also considered to be playing well below their best level, yet they still never dropped points in consecutive league games even once, their worst run of form coming to either side of the winter World Cup, when they won 2 of 5 league games, losing 2 of them which represented a crisis for them. Despite Arsenal posting their highest-ever points total at the halfway stage of a season with 50, an underperforming City were still only 5 points behind them, with 2 meetings between the sides still to come.
With 8 games to go in 98/99, United led Arsenal by 4 points, however in those last 8 games Ferguson’s side was only able to win 4 of them, none of them back to back. This made for an incredibly tight race which went right to the wire, with momentum swinging back and forth on an almost game-by-game basis. A 1-0 win away at Middlesbrough for United meant that with just 2 games to go they and Arsenal were dead level on not just points, but goal difference as well. United topped the table for having scored more goals, but it was Arsenal who had the superior form having won their last 5, scoring 16 in the process and letting in only 3. It was a victory for another United, Leeds over Arsenal which was the key result in the run-in, swinging the momentum back in United’s favour and though it wobbled still with United only managing a draw at Blackburn and then falling a goal behind at home to Spurs on the final day, it remained in United’s hands and they got the job done. A 2-1 win over Spurs secured the first part of the treble, they had bettered Arsenal by a solitary point and as well bettered them on goal difference by a single goal. Incredibly Arsenal conceded just 17 goals all season and managed the exact same total of points as the previous season with 78. Last season it had won them the title by a point and this time they had missed out by a point, the margins could not have been any tighter.
At the beginning of April, City trailed Arsenal by 8 points with 11 games to play, one of them a game in hand and one of them against Arsenal. Before City had even notched their 12th successive win of a run that had begun at the back end of February, they had already been declared Champions for the third successive season. The title decider between City and Arsenal proved an epic mismatch, the meeting between the league’s two best teams resulting in a 4-1 win for City, the same margin by which they had earlier that month already beaten the league’s worst side Southampton and as well City’s toughest and only challengers of the previous 5 years, Liverpool. By this stage City’s superiority over the rest was such that the opponent just did not seem to matter, they were dispatched in exactly the same manner. In winning the FA Cup, City did not concede a single goal from open play, a Fernandes penalty in the final proving the only blotch on their copybook. They themselves managed 19 goals across 7 games, reaching the final by scoring 17 and conceding 0. Arsenal were the only side to not concede 3 on City’s route to the final, as they hit Chelsea for 4 and Burnley for 6 in the Quarter-Finals. That United didn’t suffer defeat by a similar margin after falling 1-0 down just 13 seconds into the final (the fastest final goal in FA Cup history) was something of a shock.
In comparison United of ‘99 were minutes away from exiting the FA Cup at the 4th round stage at home to Liverpool. They had trailed for 85 minutes when with 2 minutes of normal time remaining Yorke equalised. Then deep in stoppage time, United avoided a replay back at Anfield courtesy of a winner from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. They could not avoid the cup replay in the Quarter-Final against Chelsea, needing a 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge to advance after a scoreless draw at Old Trafford. In the semi-finals against Arsenal, 120 minutes could not separate the sides, so they met back at Villa Park to do it all again 3 days later. Again the game went to Extra-Time, though only after Schmeichel had repelled a Bergkamp penalty which had been awarded late on, but the odds remained against United. They were down to 10 men, without their captain Roy Keane who had been dismissed and was against a team they had failed to beat in their last 6 attempts, 4 of which had taken place that season. Then of course Ryan Giggs stepped up and scored the greatest goal of his career at the best possible time to put United into a final they won 2-0 against Newcastle to secure the double. The margins again had been so tight, Bergkamp scoring a penalty and the knock-on effect of Arsenal progressing to the FA Cup final may well have seen them go on to win back-to-back Doubles. As it was, the Double was this time United’s, yet they still wanted more.
Such has been City’s recent results at the Round of 16 stage of the Champions League, a 1-1 1st leg draw away at RB Leipzig represented a novel occurrence. A round of 16 tie involving City which was still alive after the first leg. However, City returned to their usual selves in the 2nd leg, winning 7-0 with Haaland grabbing 5. There was another 1-1 draw away in Germany in the Quarter-Finals, though this time coming after City had already effectively killed the tie against Bayern Munich with a 3-0 home win. Their Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid was nicely balanced after a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu but in the second leg, City produced a vintage Guardiola team performance, winning 4-0. It wasn’t just the scoreline, but every single statistic which outlined City’s surreal dominance over the defending Champions and a team which featured multiple players who had won the Champions League 5 times. By half time City had mustered 13 attempts to Real Madrid’s 1 and 196 touches in the final third compared to 10 for Real. It took twenty-four minutes for Real Madrid to complete a pass in City’s half, a pass which came immediately after City had opened the scoring. City then immediately won the ball back. In the final City met Inter, a club who had spent less money in the last 5 years than Brighton & Hove Albion. The 3-time European Champions were amongst the biggest final underdogs there has ever been in the competition but they fared well, surprising many by only losing by a single goal.
Back in 1999, it was again Inter who stood in the way of a Manchester club in the Champions League, then at the Quarter-Final stage. A 2-0 home win gave United a good platform to build on for the 2nd leg, but they had needed a miraculous save from Schmeichel and an inspired goalline clearance from Henning Berg to deny Inter a precious away goal. In the San Siro, United fell behind in the 63rd minute and were not safely through until the 88th minute when Scholes’ away goal made sure of their progression. In the Semi-Final, United met Juventus, who were looking to reach their 4th successive Champions League final. United needed a 90th-minute goal from Giggs to get a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, but in the first 11 minutes of the return leg in Turin Juventus appeared to wipe away that goal’s importance by going into a 2-0 lead. United looked momentarily dead and buried against a team who made Champions League finals for fun, whilst United were attempting to reach their first in 31 years.
Goals from Keane and Yorke gave United the edge on the away goals rule before Andy Cole made their progression certain in the 84th minute. For the final though they would be without their two first-choice centre midfielders, Keane and Scholes both ruled out due to suspension. United’s makeshift midfield saw Beckham move centrally to play alongside Nicky Butt, while Jesper Blomqvist came in on the right. United faced Bayern Munich who were on course for their own treble. The two sides had already met in the Champions League that season in the Group Stage and there was more deja vu for both as they also returned to the Nou Camp, home of FC Barcelona who had also been in the “Group of Death”. Both of the sides earlier meetings had resulted in draws, but it was Bayern who struck first in the final leading after just 6 minutes. The Germans were the better side for much of the contest, with the usually deadly combination of Yorke and Cole failing to trouble Kahn very often. It had been a difficult season for Sheringham, he’d scored just 4 goals all season but one had come the previous weekend in the FA Cup final and he got another cup final goal here to equalise for United in the 90th minute after Bayern had failed to clear a Beckham corner. Sheringham was not done yet and he got on the end of another Beckham corner almost immediately, flicking the ball on for Solskjaer to plant in the roof of the net in the dying moments of injury time.
To achieve the treble Manchester United went unbeaten for the last 33 matches of the season, they won 23 and drew 10 including 2 FA Cup games in which they required replays to progress. United trailed in 11 of the games and 13 of their 23 victories came by virtue of a single goal. In City’s last 28 games of the season, they lost just once, on the final day of the league season away at Brentford with the title secured and 2 cup finals looming ahead. City won 22 of their last 28, scoring at least 3 goals in 15 of them and winning just 6 by a single-goal margin, including both finals. Guardiola’s team trailed in just 3 of those 28 games, including the one they lost. Not including additional time, City were behind for just 46 minutes across the final 28 games of their season.
For Manchester City fans, it had been a fairytale season. In fact, if they could write the script themselves they would have come up with something like this. City trailed leaders Arsenal for nearly the whole season, but City’s never say die attitude and relentless pressure forced the Gunners to fold and in the end finish a distant 2nd best to the Champions who made it 3 in a row. An FA Cup final victory over Manchester United, giving their hated rivals the chance to deny them a treble and then taking that chance away by beating their much inferior opponents. Then finally conquering Europe by beating the giants of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Inter Milan. You’d be within your rights to ask what can top/match this for City? Why do it all again next season, and that will be the target of the manager and owners, who will firmly believe in their capability to do it.Embed from Getty Images
In the first part of their treble, Manchester City became just the third English club since the Second World War to win 3 league titles on the spin, with Liverpool doing it between 81/82 and 83/84 and United doing it twice under Ferguson, first between 98/99 and 00/01, and then again between 06/07 and 08/09. They also became just the third team in this country to win 5 league titles in 6 years after Liverpool did it between 78/79 and 83/84 and United did it between 95/96 and 00/01. Liverpool dominated the 70′s and 80′s, as well as winning 3 in a row they also won back-to-back titles on two other occasions. Between 1975 and 1990, they never went longer than a single season without winning the title back. However, despite Liverpool’s long period of dominance, it was still possible in this period for Nottingham Forest to win the title in their first season after promotion from the Second Division, Aston Villa to win their first league title in 71 years using just 14 players as Liverpool finished 5th, Everton to be crowned champions twice in 3 years and Arsenal to win the title at Anfield on the last day of the season by the two-goal margin they required to snatch the Division One trophy from Liverpool.
Shortly after Liverpool’s reign ended, the Premier League began as did Manchester United’s era of dominance under Alex Ferguson. In 21 Premier League seasons under Ferguson, United won 13 league titles becoming the only English club to win the league title 3 years in a row on 2 separate occasions. There was however still room for Arsenal to win 3 league titles in 6 years, 2 as part of a double and the other with an unbeaten league campaign. Chelsea also won 3 and Blackburn and Manchester City won maiden Premier League titles. The closest an English team has ever come to winning 4 in a row came in 2010 when United’s title race against Chelsea went to the final weekend of the season.
City will next season have the chance to do what those great Liverpool and United sides were never able to do by winning the title 6 times in 7 years for their 4th league title in a row. In fact, since English Football’s first top-flight campaign was won by Preston North End 134 years ago, no English team has ever won the league 4 years in a row. It is the longest run of any major top-flight European league and this record has played a big part in establishing the English top division as historically the most competitive anywhere in Europe.
With its “Big 6″ the English league has been well positioned to avoid becoming the kind of “one-team league” which is so looked down upon. As well as the massive, historic institutions of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal who have won over 50 league titles combined, there’s Chelsea who have won 5 league titles as well as 2 Champions League’s this century and the Premier League also had the shocking story of 5,000/1 underdogs Leicester City becoming champions in 2016. There is something fitting about Leicester doing that the season before Pep arrived in England, as since then the Premier League’s position as the most competitive, winnable league has become illusory.
United have not finished above Manchester City since winning the league in Ferguson’s final season 10 years ago. Arsenal have finished above City just once in the last 13 seasons, that being the season before Pep took the job. Liverpool has been Pep’s main rival since he arrived in England, yet even they have finished above City just once in 14 seasons, the year they won the league. Since winning the title in 2017 and finishing 15 points above Pep’s City, Chelsea has finished at least 15 points behind City every season since, this past season the gap was 45 points. Spurs finished above City in back-to-back seasons in 15/16 and 16/17, every season since then they have finished over 20 points behind.
Gary Neville, whose Salford City team quickly rose 4 divisions thanks to heavy investment, has been a regular critic of the FFP model, bemoaning that it does not give smaller clubs the chance to compete against the historically big clubs. He argues that FFP makes football “a closed shop”, whereas heavy outside investment means we get a more competitive game where other teams can win. This argument is damaged by the fact that not only can City win, now that they have been the benefactor of significant investment, but we have reached the stage where virtually *only* they can win, if you look at how far ahead they are of all their domestic rivals.
Points amassed since the start of the 17/18 Premier League season: 1. Manchester City 547 2. Liverpool 499 3. Manchester United 420 4. Arsenal 403 5. Tottenham 400 6. Chelsea 393
In the last 2 seasons alone, 7 different clubs have finished in the top 4 in the Premier League. Meanwhile, Manchester City have finished in the top 4 for each of the last 13 seasons, coming in the top 3 in all but one of them. In 10 of the last 12 seasons, they have finished either 1st or 2nd. As worry over Manchester City’s dominance has grown in recent months, on the final edition of Monday Night Football of the season, Neville took to assuring us that City’s dominance is nothing new for English Football, pointing out that we have seen similar era’s of dominance from Liverpool in the 70′s and 80′s and Manchester United in the 90′s and 00′s. He pointed out that City has won 7 league titles in the last 12 years, whilst in the same timeframe Liverpool (between 72-73 & 83-84) and United (between 92-93 & 03-04) each won 8.
However City’s dominance in England goes beyond just the domestic league, it of course stretches to the two domestic cup competitions. This was not mentioned by Neville. In 12 seasons between 1972 and 1984 Liverpool won 13 major domestic trophies (8 leagues, 4 league cups & 1 FA Cup), so 13 out of the 36 available over 12 seasons. In 12 seasons between 1992 and 2004, United won 12 major domestic trophies (8 leagues, 4 FA Cups), 12 out of 36 available. City in 12 seasons between 2011 and 2023 has won 15 major domestic trophies (7 leagues, 6 league cups and 2 FA Cups), 15 out of 36 available. However, that includes a 5-year stretch which takes in the Pellegrini era and the first and last seasons of Guardiola and Mancini’s reigns, in which time City only won 1 league title. In the last 6 seasons alone, City has won 11 major domestic trophies (5 leagues, 2 FA Cups and 4 league cups) so 11 of the last 18 available. Meaning that in 6 years, half the time of the Ferguson period Sky Sports used to show this domination is nothing new, City have won just 1 less major domestic trophy.
City will be overwhelming favourites to make it 4 Premier League titles in a row, and we have seen recently the damage one-team domination has done to other leagues. In Germany, Bayern Munich have won the Bundesliga for 11 successive seasons. Even this year when Bayern sacked a manager mid-season, a dressing room fight between two-star players made headline news and Bayern’s CEO and Sporting Director were both sacked in the immediate aftermath of the season’s conclusion, Bayern still won the league. Juventus’ stranglehold over Serie A lasted 9 seasons which the league rapidly lost relevance as it became a foregone conclusion. The last 3 seasons have seen 3 different winners, none of them Juventus and it has done wonders for the leagues’ popularity, with the joyous scenes of Napoli fans celebrating their first Scudetto since 1990 viewed all over the world. PSG have reached just 2 Champions League Quarter-Finals in the last 7 years, but they have won their domestic league in 9 of the last 11 seasons, which has led it to be spoken of derisively as a “Farmers league”. But since Pep’s arrival in England for the 16/17 there’s been exactly the same number of Premier League winners as there has Ligue 1. City and PSG have won 5 each, whereas Liverpool and Chelsea have been able to nick one each, as have AS Monaco and Lille in France. City have won 5 of the last 6 Premier League title’s and their era of dominance looks far from over.
After going top of the league with a win away at Arsenal, City then dropped points away at Nottingham Forest which allowed Arsenal to regain top spot. City had wasted many opportunities to run out of sight as we have become accustomed to seeing, and this surprising slip-up strengthened some people’s belief that this was not the usual City, there was something wrong. In fact, a lot of the media attributed Arsenal being top of the league to the fact City were misfiring. After the Forest game, the players talked and decided that enough was enough. It was time to as they themselves put it “stop messing around”. Just for there to be a title race in England, City were required to not hit top gear for the first 24 games. In the end just being at their best for 11 successive games was enough, as they amassed maximum points in them to win the league with 3 games to spare.
Arsenal led the table for 93% of the season, 247 days, but they didn’t last long once City hit top gear. One draw at Anfield from 2-0 up was enough to dislodge Arsenal’s confidence as they felt Manchester City gathering speed and unstoppable momentum behind them. City just did what they always do, put together a winning streak which no one can match, in the past, it’s been as many as 18, this time 12 was enough as City could let their last 2 games go. The story of this season has of course been Erling Haaland, a player who more than any other before him epitomises the machine of Manchester City, he has even been nicknamed a “Robot” by fans of rival clubs, a name that is part derogatory and part begrudging respect for the prolific 22-year olds goalscoring exploits which saw him break the record for most Premier League goals in a 38-game league season with 7 matches to spare.
Why City will continue to Dominate
There are countless reasons why City’s domination will continue. One is their squad depth. Squad depth is what ultimately wins league titles over a long, hard season and nowhere is that more evident than with Manchester City. City’s squad depth makes for seamless rotation which ensures fatigue is avoided in the final months of the season where trophies are won. City had just 1 player (Rodri) in the Premier League’s top 100 for most minutes played by an outfield player. In comparison, Arsenal had 7, which goes some way to explaining why in the end they had nothing left, they were physically and emotionally shattered. Meanwhile, City was peaking. Whilst other teams suffered at the end of a gruelling season, City’s ability to rest players throughout the season due to their incredible strength in depth meant that their players still appeared fresh and therefore less susceptible to pick-up injuries which increase in likelihood when players are fatigued.
Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden are two young English talents, both of similar exceptional quality. For Arsenal, Saka started all but one league game, appearing in all of them for a total of 3,194 minutes. Foden in comparison only started around half of City’s league games and played a total of 1,842 league minutes. City’s strength in depth is such that Foden was more often than not an option off the bench, whereas Saka was so essential to Arsenal that when his goals and assists dried up at the end of the season, Arteta felt he could not rest him even when out of form, such is his superiority to Arsenal’s bench players. Last summer Kalvin Phillips was signed for £42M from Leeds United. He was a regular starter for the England national team, starting in the Euros final in 2021, a year in which he was later voted England Player of the Year. He made his first Premier League start for City in their 36th league fixture after the title had already been wrapped up. Fellow new recruit Julian Alvarez scored 4 goals in 5 starts in the mid-season World Cup his country won, with 2 of his goals coming in the semi-final. Before the Premier League title was secured, he started just 11 league games. It is not controversial to say City’s squad depth is on another level entirely to the rest.
Another reason City will continue to dominate is, of course, their manager Pep Guardiola. In his career thus far he has managed 11 38-game league seasons and has reached the 90-point mark 6 times. This season he reached 88 points with 2 games to spare, and had City been pushed by Arsenal to need to reach 90, they most certainly would have done, which would have meant a 7th 90-point season. Bundesliga seasons are shorter at 34 games long, but despite this Pep added another 90-point season there for a total of 7 90-point or above seasons in his career so far. This has helped Guardiola to achieve 11 league titles thus far in 14 years. That is by far the most of any manager in that time, in fact it as many as the 2nd and 3rd most successful managers Max Allegri and Antonio Conte have combined (Allegri 6 and Conte 5).
Guardiola has ruthless, unmatchable standards. He refuses to allow complacency and accepts bad results. After a game in which his side won 4-2 from 0-2 down at home to Tottenham, Guardiola hammered his players to the media, claiming the fire had gone and that he saw that old fire now in Arsenal’s team, whilst his team had become what he termed “happy flowers”. Laporte, Walker, Mahrez and Foden have been huge players for City over the years and all of them have done very little wrong in that time. But this season they have been confined to the bench for much of it, as Guardiola holds zero sentimentality about what has gone before, he cares only about the next result, getting the next win. Pep’s ruthlessness stands in contrast to for example Jurgen Klopp who has been sentimental with players he’s had success with and allowed them to stay too long without replacements, which has led to a sharp downturn in the team’s results this season.
Another reason City will continue to win is their ownership model, which runs at a level of efficiency on a different level to any in history. In the past, there were similarities and comparisons to be made with the ownership of PSG, in that they are both state-owned clubs, but in recent years they have taken two very different paths. They were once comparable, but now City cares only about winning and dominating the competition, whereas PSG has gone down the path of attempting to grow their brand, which has been successful but has come at the cost of going backwards on the pitch. City’s squad building is the best ever, they solve problems before they ever materialise before our eyes, the opposite of Liverpool whose midfield problem sprung up on them suddenly due to neglect. Even when City appears to have got a rare signing wrong, they work out eventually. For the majority of his first 2 seasons with the club, Nathan Ake was either on the bench or out injured after his £41M move to City, but in this now his third season he’s been a key player for them. Kalvin Phillips has been widely mocked this season, but so was Jack Grealish last season, so who knows he may be another one who eventually comes good.
Their transfer dealings run like clockwork, legends of the club such as Sergio Aguero and David Silva were moved on before they could decline, De Bruyne is turning 32 this month and should be difficult to replace but City always seemed to find the best possible replacement, such as the man who replaced Aguero, Erling Haaland who is 22 and will get even better. Whilst their rivals have weaknesses they have to wait to address, as there are so many squad deficiencies they can’t possibly deal with them all at once, instead of having to prioritise, City deal with theirs ahead of time.
City have become beyond a football team, where the usual pitfalls that befall others just do not apply to them. Arsenal fans were happy to see City progress in the cup competitions, the expectation being that playing more games would increase pressure on them and give them more stress and more fatigue. A trip away to Goodison Park should become trickier sandwiched in between two ties with Real Madrid. But City is immune to such things, they can play flawlessly every 3 days. If anything being in the cups actually helped City in the league, they were able to land psychological blows on Arsenal outside of the title race with thumping wins, such as when they scored 13 goals in 4 days against RB Leipzig and Burnley.
Arsenal were City’s only real challengers this season, and with 84 points they managed their 3rd highest points total ever in the Premier League and their highest since winning the league in 2004. But that total is only 1 win higher than what City consider an off-season, with it being just 3 points better than City’s total in 19-20, the only season they failed to win the league in the last 6 years and comfortably their lowest points tally in that time. The best Arsenal team of the last 15 years being just 3 points better off than a “poor” version of Guardiola’s City, shows the enormous gulf that has emerged between City and the rest.
City has spent billions to catch up with the European elite, and now they are ahead of the pack. But they will not rest in the lead and wait for others to catch up, Guardiola will not allow it, he will always want more players and always strive for improvement. And they are currently so far ahead of the rest. Playing twice a week for 3 months, they’ve been behind in 3 games. In that time they’ve played Liverpool, Arsenal twice, Bayern twice, Real Madrid twice, United and Inter Milan. In the Etihad games against Arsenal and Real, the then league leaders and defending European Champions respectively, they were so much the better team it would be redundant to analyse the visitors’ performances. As there was no performance, you need the ball in order to do things wrong with it, and neither team could get it until they were 3-0 down. Real Madrid and Arsenal are both blessed with excellent young wingers in Rodrygo, Vinicius, Saka and Martinelli. Rodrygo didn’t touch the ball until the 14th minute, the other 3 wingers scarcely fared better. As journalist Colin Millar put it “the games are largely non-events. Often ludicrously lopsided, non-competitive and entirely drama-free.”Embed from Getty Images
The Champions League is a difficult competition to dominate. As a knockout competition factors such as luck, the draw you are dealt and refereeing decisions have a much bigger impact than they would over a 38-game league season. Guardiola’s Barcelona team was until now the best team there’s ever been, but they still only managed 2 Champions League’s in 4 years and required an outside-the-box wonder strike from the unlikely source of Andres Iniesta with virtually the last kick of their 2009 semi-final with Chelsea to win the first one of them. The margins are much thinner for winning or losing a Champions League than they are for the domestic league where there is always enough time to right wrong and with a length of 38 games the best team should ultimately always come out on top in the end. However, in the Champions League, those fine margins have cost Guardiola, such as in 2012 when Messi struck the crossbar with a penalty in the semi-final against Chelsea whilst the tie hung firmly in the balance, in the end, it went Chelsea’s way. Guardiola has also suffered with fine margins in the Champions League whilst at City, being knocked out at the Quarter-Final stage by Spurs in 2019 due to Aguero being stood in a marginally offside position before Sterling seemed to have put City through in stoppage time. Pep has reached the last 4 of the Champions League in 10 of his 14 attempts, with his 4 failures coming in his first 4 seasons at City, where he may feel he got all his bad luck and marginal losses out of the way, falling at the Quarter-Final hurdle 3 seasons in a row.
Real Madrid were fittingly the first team to win back-to-back Champions League titles since the competition shifted to a Group Stage format in 92-93. They went on to win 3 in a row, being the first side to do so since Bayern Munich in the 70′s, for what was their 4th Champions League in 5 seasons. Strangely this period never felt predictable nor as dominant as the history books will suggest when only noting the eventual winner. That Real Madrid group is not really thought of as one of the best and most dominant teams in history, partly because in that 5 year period where 4 Champions League’s were won, they only won their domestic league once. Partly also because they were involved in so many compelling Champions League ties which swung this way and that before in the end landing in Madrid’s favour. This of course reflected their winning mentality and resilience but also the fact they had plenty of weaknesses and vulnerability, they undoubtedly had to rely on plenty of luck too.
5 of the 8 quarter-final and semi-final ties Real Madrid played in those winning campaigns were won by a margin of a solitary goal over the two legs, as well as being taken to extra time 3 times including in 2 finals. The Spanish giants had so many tight games in this period, it would not be an accurate reflection to call it “domination” as they were often won by the smallest of margins, a penalty or offside decision given or not given and a couple of these ties could so easily have gone the other way. In their 7 knockout stage games including the final, City scored 18 goals and conceded just 3. They were trailing in just one of the games, falling behind at the Bernabeu. They then scored 5 unanswered goals across the tie to go through 5-1. Domination is felt more in the manner in which Champions League titles are won, rather than necessarily just being about how many of them are won, and due to this City may quickly begin to feel a more dominant Champions League team than Real Madrid did.
Though saying that, City will also feel capable of putting a run together similar to Real’s 4 in 5 years. Europe is weaker than it’s been for a long time, next season competition will take place without recent winners Liverpool and Chelsea, Barcelona hasn’t made the round of 16 since Lionel Messi played for the club, Bayern Munich just had their worst season points-wise since 2011, PSG looks further away from winning the Champions League as perhaps they ever have under the Qatari’s ownership and Real Madrid will need something of a rebuild as they embark on a new era without a long time forward Karim Benzema. In this climate, City will be overwhelming favourites to retain the crown. The Champions League has given Guardiola lots of pain over his career, the 2 narrow semi-final defeats with Barcelona, 3 successive semi-final losses with Bayern Munich, and then falling short in the round of 16, quarter-finals (3x), semi-finals and final with City before finally getting over the line at the 7th attempt. Now he has the chance to do something not even his great Barcelona sides were able to do, retain the Champions League and perhaps then go on to equal Zidane’s Madrid with 3 in a row. To do that would be a huge dream and motivator for Guardiola, who’ll feel he should already have more than 3, as he hunts down Ancelotti’s record of 4.Embed from Getty Images
What ends City dominance?
No matter who City get to replace Pep (the likeliest candidates right now are Roberto De Zerbi and Vincent Kompany, but that may have changed in 2 years’ time) there will be a drop-off. A decline is inevitable, for the players and as well the hierarchy, as they adjust to life post-Pep. City would of course be much better placed to deal with the loss of Guardiola than United were after Ferguson, but there’s no denying that for the first year or two it would feel very strange. There are other intense, demanding managers out there with great tactical acumen but there is not another Guardiola. There is no other manager so set on dominating the field and prepared to take such ruthless actions to ensure it. So the board will no doubt be using all tools of persuasion at their disposal to keep Guardiola for as long as possible.
And they will have lots of strong arguments to make. There are no other inviting club projects currently, and the other leagues are struggling financially compared to the booming Premier League. So winning leagues in those other countries will not win Guardiola the same respect he gets for winning the English league. Due to the money now invested by the big clubs in the Premier League, Guardiola will always have a rival that presents enough of a challenge to keep him engaged, for years it’s been Liverpool, and now it’s Arsenal, in the future, it could be Newcastle or United. The league continues to improve in a way that benefits City, as the competitive top 4 and top 7 races will mean all those teams take points off each other regularly, whilst City remain head and shoulders above the pack. The competitive nature of the league has also meant clubs having to pick and choose their games, unable to go for all of them. No one will ever pick City as the game to go for as beating them is a long shot, so instead teams may look to let that one go (as West Ham did, resting Rice for their trip to the Etihad). Brighton on the other hand targeted Arsenal away winning 3-0 in between heavy defeats at home to Everton and away at Newcastle.
After 7 years at City, Pep has built his best team yet, a team completely without weakness. Next season City has the chance to become the first English team to win 4 straight league titles, the first English team to retain the Champions League since its format was altered in 1992 and the first team anywhere in Europe to retain the treble. By winning the Charity Shield, UEFA Super Cup and World Club Cup, City can also become the first English club to hold six trophies. With his 5th league title in England, Pep recently equalled Busby. Next season he can equal Paisley and then it is only Ferguson ahead.
In the aftermath of finally winning the Champions League with City Pep has hinted that this 2-year contract with City will be his last. He undoubtedly felt a lot of pressure to win City their first Champions League, it would have taken its toll on him, the embarrassing exits in his first 5 years and then falling painfully short against Chelsea and Real Madrid. Getting that monkey off his back will have given him considerable peace of mind. He will want to win another Champions League with City and once he has, he may feel there are not many more ways he could add to his legacy there.
In the summer of 2001, Alex Ferguson announced his retirement from management. His United team had taken 7 of the last 9 Premier Leagues, recently winning the treble and a threepeat of league titles, taking the title by 18 points in 2000. Ferguson felt there was nothing left to achieve and it had become too easy. Of course, what happened next was Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal hit top stride becoming a very worthy adversary again, then Chelsea arrived on the scene followed by Manchester City. The thought of retiring became a distant memory, Ferguson stayed at United until 2013. But if Guardiola adds the UEFA Super Cup and World Club Cup to his City collection and another Champions League as well as a further Premier League title or two by the time his current deal ends in 2025, he may be having similar thoughts to the ones Ferguson had in 2001. He will be too young for retirement, and his need for Football is too strong, but he may feel it’s time to step down from City, with there being nothing left to conquer, at the top of the mountain the only way is down.Embed from Getty Images
As you’d have to be living under a rock not to know by now, Manchester City faces over 100 charges from the Premier League. They are accused of 50 breaches of providing inaccurate financial information, 8 breaches in relation to manager remuneration, 5 breaches linked to UEFA financial regulations, 25 profitability and sustainability breaches and 30 breaches of assisting the Premier League investigation that has finally concluded after more than four years. The case has now been referred to an independent commission and should City be found guilty they could face a multitude of punishments ranging from fines to points deductions to relegation to being stripped of their honours.
The Premier League’s investigation took 4 years to conclude, we are looking at another wait of around 2 to 4 years before the conclusion of the independent commission will give us a final verdict. Armed with the best lawyers money can buy, City will fight the charges tirelessly as they did back in 2014 when they had their first brush with UEFA over financial fair play regulations. City’s legal counsel revealed in an email that City Chairman Al Mubarak “says he would rather spend £30m on the best 50 lawyers in the world and sue them [UEFA] for the next 10 years” rather than agree to a financial penalty that UEFA was proposing. UEFA initially imposed a 2-year Champions League ban upon City, but CAS overturned the verdict with some of the charges being time-barred. In the end a fine of around €9M was paid by City for lack of cooperation.
Jamie Carragher said recently that “Manchester City don’t want this hanging over them” and Pep Guardiola expressed his wish that the outcome comes quickly. But this would be to misunderstand City’s response over the years against charges from both UEFA and the Premier League, which has to been to delay and hold up the cases for as long as possible. In fact, the Premier League was so frustrated with City’s delaying tactics that it went to the Court of Appeal two years ago, accusing the club of “making as many procedural applications and complaints as it possibly can to slow the day when it will actually have to provide the information”. Carragher went on to say there is something of an asterisk over City’s achievements at the moment, but clearly, they don’t agree. City will argue that the asterisk only comes if/when they are found guilty, otherwise, why would they want to delay? They don’t care if no outsiders believe they are innocent, City believe it. And for as long as there is no proof of wrongdoing and the punishment that comes with it, they will always maintain that. This season saw Italian giants Juventus docked 15 points for rule-breaking, this was then revoked before a new punishment of 10 points came in before the end of the season. Meanwhile, in England, charges against City beginning back in 2009 and extending to 2018 have been allowed to drag on for years with no end in sight.
Manchester City seemed to use the coverage of the Premier League charges levelled against them to their advantage on the pitch. It galvanised the club into an ‘Us against the World’ mentality. Pep was trying desperately before it to get his players riled up enough to take the threat of Arsenal seriously, but it was the public announcement of the charges that seemed to shock City back into life. The Premier League announced their charges on the 6th of February and City didn’t lose again in any competition until the final day of the league season after they’d already been handed the trophy of the competition which is accusing them.
The accusations of wrongdoing united the club, bringing the fanbase, players and manager closer together. City fans quickly made their position clear, booing the Premier League anthem, holding up banners for £5,000 an hour lawyer Lord Pannick (known recently for advising Boris Johnson over the ‘Partygate’ inquiry), and singing the name of club owner Sheikh Mansour, the current Vice President and Deputy Prime Minster of the UAE. In buying Manchester City, Abu Dhabi made the perfect choice in a club with a relatively small local fanbase that had achieved no success since the 1970s. This has kept them outside of the ingrained tribal rivalries of English football, which has meant fans of other clubs will always take them winning trophies over the likes of Liverpool, United and Arsenal. They also have appointed the perfect manager in Pep Guardiola who is worshipped for his methods and seems to have a messianic-like pull for many football watchers, which takes attention away from any other reasons why City might be so dominant. Perhaps no Football manager has ever been so highly thought of by the media, who seem endlessly fascinated by Pep’s methods.
And for as long as he is City’s manager, the club will not be knocked off their perch. It’s possible someone else might get 1 Premier League if Arsenal’s young players and manager can continue to improve, or if Klopp, who has already built one great Liverpool team can build another. The Saudis are making huge investments at Newcastle, and United will be under new ownership eventually, but none will keep Pep’s City off the top spot for longer than a single season.
If City are found guilty of all or at least some of their charges, we have to be realistic about what that will likely mean. Will they be relegated or stripped of trophies they’ve won under one of the best managers the league has ever seen? It’s highly doubtful. The most likely on-pitch punishment (I.E not including fines) would be a points deduction. A points deduction for City would likely see one of the best Premier League title races in history, with clubs who have been starved of winning the league seeing this as their best chance to win in years. It would have to be a significant deduction though to stop City from winning the league, if it was 10 or even 15 points you can picture Guardiola staving off sleep and food until City return to a positive points total and with that added motivation they’d likely find a way to win the league anyway.
However, nobody has much faith that the Premier League charges will lead to anything significant. We have seen in recent years how much our systems struggle with holding power accountable and upholding rules. With a Tory Government in power for 13 years, our society has become desensitised to corruption and come to accept that “money talks”. In Sports that is the case even more so. There weren’t rules in place to stop Chelsea from doing whatever they wanted in the early years of Abramovich, and City has consequently seen it as “if they can do it, why can’t we?” The media in this country loves winners and sporting excellence regardless of its cost and the reasons for it. They were cheerleaders for Abramovich breaking up United and Arsenal’s hold on the Premier League without asking any critical questions about who he was and why he was doing it. This lack of scrutiny went on for nearly 20 years until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led the Chelsea owners’ assets to be frozen, due to his association with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Abramovich for years had been praised for his ambition and love for Chelsea Football Club, and now suddenly Chelsea fans weren’t allowed to purchase a pie in the stadium.
Lessons have seemingly not been learned, and much of the media remains wilfully ignorant of what the ownership model of Nation States means for football. In 2018 Amnesty International said, “the success of the club(City) has involved a close relationship with a country that relies on exploited migrant labour and locks up peaceful critics and human rights defenders.” Football has less control over its own governance than ever before, the sale of Newcastle United to Saudi Arabia was pushed through by the UK Government as the Saudis threatened to pull UK investment if the Premier League resisted the takeover. Under the ownership of Todd Boehly, Chelsea has been handing out 8-year contracts to players to help bypass FFP and reportedly promised to invest in Sporting Lisbon in exchange for them agreeing to sell them, Manuel Ugarte.
Going back to the charges, the perception seems to be that there’s only a problem if City are found guilty. People are thinking about what the consequences would be if a club had won all these trophies and received all this praise whilst cheating rules all the way. But if the charges don’t stick, there is still another huge problem and that is that because of City’s ownership model, they could only be consistently beaten to the Premier League title by other Nation states. And even then they have a huge head start on Saudi Arabia at Newcastle and potentially Qatar at Manchester United. When Abu Dhabi came in at City, they were aiming to catch Liverpool and Arsenal teams in decline and a United team with lowered spending under the Glazers. Saudi Arabia and Qatar would be aiming to catch City, and the type of spending required for that would be mind-blowing.
As journalist Miguel Delaney puts it what Guardiola has at City is “the perfect sporting infrastructure, constructed to his specific preferences. This (the domination) is what happens when you give a genius these pristine laboratory conditions. It has eroded the likelihood of human failure that actually enriches our sport. City has brutalised the very idea of sporting competition. There’s been no tension. There’s been no drama.” For as long as that is the case, no matter the outcome of City’s case, difficult and uncomfortable questions should persist.