Despite three defeats in a week, it was only ever going to be a matter of time before Pep Guardiola’s runaway league leaders were crowned champions. The only real surprise being the manner in which the title was confirmed: with cross-city rivals Manchester United being beaten at home by bottom of the table and almost certain to be relegated West Brom.
The nature in which they were handed the title after the previous week’s wobbles should take nothing away from City’s dominance this season. The title was confirmed with a lead of sixteen points and a goal difference advantage of thirty-one goals. The only question hanging over the new champions at a domestic level is whether they can go on to break the records in terms of most points accumulated (95 by Chelsea in 2004/05), most wins in a season (30 by Chelsea last season) and most goals (103 by Chelsea in 2009/10).
In the immediate aftermath of being crowned champions, the narrative seems to have progressed to focus on whether this is the start of an era of dominance for City and whether any of their nominal rivals will be able to catch them and offer more of a challenge in the coming seasons?
Interestingly, Guardiola spoke in the aftermath of Saturday evening’s victory over Tottenham about the need ‘to build up the club’ and how ‘Manchester City is not like United or Chelsea or Arsenal, the big clubs in England who have a big history behind them’, hinting perhaps at the fact that he sees his mission as being beyond purely title success and about establishing City as the dominant force in the Premier League and also presumably as a major player on the European stage.
It is probably fair to say, as I have touched upon previously (https://football-nerd.org/2018/04/06/football-nerd-weekly-ramblings-manchester-city-on-the-verge-but-will-they-truly-be-regarded-as-one-of-footballs-greatest-teams/), it might be justifiable to feel a bit underwhelmed at Guardiola’s and City’s achievement since the Catalan supercoach came into post two seasons ago. The football they have played has been scintillating at times, yet it still feels like the ‘project’ is a work in progress, that more should be expected if they are ever to be revered as one of the truly great teams of football history.
As harsh as it feels to say about a team that dominated the title race pretty much from start to finish, the acid test for how they will be remembered will inevitably be determined by what happens next. If they repeat this season’s dominance at home and demonstrate progress and ultimately success in Europe over the next couple of seasons then we can begin to talk about them in the same terms as the truly dominant sides. However if they fail to back up their achievements where will that leave the perception of them?
One of the key criticisms of Guardiola’s success this season was that he inherited some of the key cornerstones of his team, specifically: David Silva and Sergio Aguero who were both brought in during the early days of the Abu Dhabi ownership and were both pivotal in City’s two previous Premier League successes. However Silva is now 32 and Aguero will turn 30 before this year’s World Cup, starting the process of replacing these two cornerstone players and how effectively this is achieved will undoubtedly have a major influence on how City fare in the future.
It seems inevitable that City will once again invest heavily in the transfer market this summer to continue to address certain issues within the squad and to enhance and develop it further. If the ex-Barcelona partnership of Guardiola and Txiki Begiristain continue to make the right moves and bring in the right players that complement those already there while retaining the balance in the squad, there seems no reason why City won’t, in the words of the previous title winning manager Antonio Conte, ‘continue to dominate not only in England, but also to fight for the Champions League’.
Even beyond how things evolve at the Etihad however, the state of the chasing pack suggests that the emergence of a credible challenger may not be forthcoming in the immediate future.
José Mourinho suggested during his now infamous twelve and a half minute rant last month that it would be ‘difficult to compete’ unless City stop investing. While anything Mourinho says should always be taken within the context of what he is trying to achieve by saying it, in this case presumably a further loosening of the summer purse strings at Old Trafford, we can also, to a degree, take his comments at face value. How are United and the other members of the chasing pack going to close a sixteen point gap if City are going to be even better next season?
While third-placed Liverpool seem to have City’s number in one-off matches: winning on three of the four occasions that they faced them this season, a consistent challenge over an entire season may be beyond a squad that lacks depth and that needs to sell a marquee player to buy another, as evidenced by January’s sale of Coutinho to finance the acquisition of the much-needed defensive reinforcement Virgil Van Dijk.
It remains to be seen what impact the move into their new stadium will have on Tottenham’s budget and their ability to retain their key players within a wage structure that is unable to rival the eye-watering sums offered by the true European football superpowers, or indeed the two Manchester clubs.
Last season’s champions, Chelsea, seem pretty much destined to finish outside the Champions League places for the second time in three seasons and look due for yet another overhaul with most likely a new manager and new players arriving in the summer. It is probably too much of an expectation to predict that whoever comes in will be able to repeat Conte’s first season title-winning exploits of last season.
As painful as it is to admit as a season ticket holder at the Emirates, there is no case to be made for Arsenal even being considered within this group any longer. The uncertainty brought about by the manager’s stubborn refusal to admit the blatantly obvious: that the club is regressing, provides very little grounds for optimism amongst the Gooner faithful. In fact there is a very realistic chance that Sean Dyche’s resilient and impressive Burnley will finish closer to City than the Gunners. For all the pipedreams of a return to the promised land of the Champions League via victory in the Europa League; the real rebuilding that is so plainly needed won’t happen until Wenger has finally fallen on his sword.
It may be a bitter pill for the rest of us to swallow but it seems like a period of dominance by Manchester City, at least domestically, is a very real possibility as a result of not only their own strategy and evolution but also because there is no one else who is in a position to stop them.