The english have arrived. Yes, it is that time of year again. The beloved buds of May are, with due sense of caution, beginning to bloom. And the Premier League is ready for its annual European Away Day.
First things first: the presence of two English clubs in the Champions League final is a source of great pride and excitement for the fans of both teams. For Chelsea, this is another brand in the boom years, a season that has turned upside down after the bitterness and helplessness of winter. For longtime Manchester City fans, this represents a barely credible and beautifully executed travel finale, more than a decade after the club’s complete overhaul.
There will be domestic triumphalism for the Premier League and high-fives in the committee rooms of the UK’s top rights holders. West London meets East Manchester in Istanbul – this is a brave occasion for English sport and a reward for two truly captivating sets of players, brilliantly trained and sprinkled with first-class local produce. Chelsea versus Manchester City, summer 2021, it’s all of these things. But it is not, in any sense, a surprise.
There are always phases in sport. What is happening now is not what will always happen. But the fact is that, at the moment, the dominance of the Premier League is the baseline. Five of the last eight Champions League finalists have been Premier League clubs.
And this is how the increasingly linear relationship between money and success should occur. Five of the nine richest clubs in the world operate in the Premier League. Two of them, Chelsea and City, are owned by bottomless backers, entities that are not in this business for profit, but for other rather opaque and unspoken reasons.
In a time of financial collapse, City can comfortably maintain a £ 220 million salary bill and pay Pep Guardiola £ 18 million a year to apply his brilliance on the Eastlands campus. Where others feared financial collapse, Chelsea saw a sensible investment opportunity and bet £ 200m on targeting talent, though much of it raised in sales related to previous overspending. lls sont les meilleurs! They are the best! Yeah well, probably all of that. But we are back either way. And yet, soccer being the most gloriously tough sporting substance, even this deeply familiar accessory looks cool and stylish.
Istanbul will be the fourth time these teams have faced each other in five months this calendar year. They have both evolved furiously in that time. The City’s 3-1 victory in January at Stamford Bridge was the launching pad for a shift to the current downsized winning machine and a headline hit for the false nine system. Chelsea was in the process of leaving Frank Lampard’s team. By the time these two met again in April for an FA Cup semi-final, the early tuchelismo had taken hold, that belt of defensive strength was in place.
City’s victory over Chelsea on Saturday at the Etihad Stadium will seal the league title. But of course there are important subplots here now, a bluff game and mental advantage before the final three weeks from now. It is also a good pairing. Both managers are drawn, as a first principle, towards holding the ball. Both have experimented this season with a deep and tough defense. There is a narrative around both teams that their intricate and technical attack patterns in the face of the high-speed transition are let down by the lack of a classic sword finisher.
This is a little old school unto itself. Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel are not settling without an orthodox center forward due to some kind of oversight or failure in recruiting. They want to play this way, score this way, prioritize other patterns. And despite all the reservations (where’s their Niall Quinn, their Kerry Dixon?), City are the Premier League’s top scorer, while Chelsea have 14 in six Champions League away games. They lost many chances to Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid. But this also involved making many opportunities.
The final will be fascinating for other reasons. Both managers are interventionists and detail traders. There will be a game of tactical feint and counter feint. The assumption could be that this suits Tuchel, who made it to the Champions League final last year after all and has a reputation for succeeding in these two managerial coaches.
But there is also a misconception about Guardiola, thinking too much and “bottling” the punctual matches. It seems fair to suggest that the reason Guardiola has been vulnerable on these occasions is more systemic than a personality flaw. His style is a league style, not a knockout style. His methods are not geared towards one-off collisions, where intuitive movements, emotion, or the ability to snatch the day can decide the contest.
Guardiola creates a system, a winning machine, something that will work for a season in a field impossible to match. Occasionally this will be derailed by opponents who are equally capable and who have a game plan that can take away the strengths of a Guardiola team. Perhaps Tuchel will seek to exploit João Cancelo’s tendency to wander inside, as he did in the FA Cup match. Perhaps Guardiola counterattack, as he did against PSG, readjusting his sides. It may or may not work. But this is not a fatal flaw or unscrupulous proof of fraud. Every way to win has its weak point.
However, the base position remains the same. The Premier League is dominant because it is the richest football environment in the world. City are the best team in that league with some distance, an amalgamation of squad depth, supreme organization and the resources to make that vision work. They should be comfortable favorites to win this game.
After which, well, what exactly? Both teams occupy a strange space in the operatic disputes of Big Football. Here we have two founding members of the Super League, a botched assassination of UEFA’s great old show, now lining up to swing that cup atop a podium in era-defining glory.
They both rushed back when everything fell apart. shocked finding this was, in fact, a terrible public relations move. But then joining him was always an odd personal choice given the reputation, fame, soft fuzzy feelings of love, whatever, it’s why these owners are in the game in the first place, rather than gain a few pounds.
This is the broadest and loudest subtext of an entirely English finale. The Super League was, above all, an attack on the primacy of the Premier League. It was an attack by billionaires on other, more powerful billionaires. This confrontation, Istanbul 2021, England against England, is another indication of why it happened; and why it is almost certain that it will return.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism