yesThe port tends to move towards perfection: cleaner lines, more marked numbers, greater certainties. It is a process that football, with its deep variables, its notes of chaos and inspiration, has known how to resist surprisingly well, at least it has done so far.
When the Manchester City and Chelsea players step out into the Etihad Stadium on Saturday afternoon, there will be the usual sense of event-glamour: the television graphics, the urgency of the presenter, the sense of something on a planetary scale by train.
With good reason. For the 2021-22 Premier League this is one of the key points in the arc of the series. First second moves, champions against European champions, meeting of two of the three most valuable squads in world football. This is the product right here, the selling point, the heart of global eyeball supremacy.
Stand back, though, and one thing is missing: any real sense of sporting danger. No doubt the action itself will be supremely high-end. The digital channels will vibrate with ephemeral images of the day of the game. But as red-hot Super Saturdays go, this is one pretty cool product.
It’s a confusing point, in part due to the unprecedented level of talent on display. And also for the basic sensory pleasure of seeing this city champion team in action, its alluring patterns, its architectural beauty, its simple sporting virtues, the collectivism, the selfless energy, the way the players are trained and improved. . In September, City went to Stamford Bridge and seemed to be walking through a different kind of gravity, a high-level choke reminiscent of Pep Guardiola’s best Barcelona team of the century from 2009-11.
Five months of those tender hopes of a true Premier League title run have been shattered by the current run of 11 wins and 33 goals scored from the autumn to winter. City were already 10 points clear at the start of January, the season shortened and shortened, heading for a fourth title in five years. And it is perhaps the moment to say it. We have seen dominance before. But this is something new.
It’s not just about the numbers. But the numbers are alarming. Right now, City are on their way to 96 points. In 2017-18 they racked up a century, followed by 98 the following season. Before 2018, no other team in the history of English top-flight football, even allowing 42 games per season, had matched those totals before. Last season was a complicated engagement due to Covid, but City finished 12 points clear of second place.
A bit of context: Before the Premier League, anything in the high 70s was a potential table topper. Even during Manchester United’s imperial phase in the 1990s, they were winning the league with, among others, 82 points, 75 points, 79 points, 84 points, before hitting 80 in Cristiano Ronaldo’s heyday. It took 120 years and wild transfer splurge before FFP for Chelsea to set a new mark of 95 points in 2004-05. City could now pass that for the third time in five years.
No one had ever won like this before in English club football. No English team has come so close to disassembling the variables, to reducing the great unsolvable equation, 11 raised to 11 for 90 minutes, to a kind of inevitability. Not only in terms of goals and points, but in tone and texture, the feeling of something without edges or knots or notes of tension. How did this happen? And it’s OK?
It is necessary to talk about money at this point. That financial gulf between top and bottom has been widening for a quarter of a century. Record point counts seem like a logical extension, whoever is leading the way.
But there is something else here. This is a champion club owned by a country. Not by the usual gallery of hucksters, egoists, dividend junkies, and obsessed self-advertisers, but by an entity without any of those limitations. And yes, having unlimited financial resources at your disposal is not everything. But there are quite a few things.
It should be noted that City are still under investigation by the Premier League for alleged breaches of financial rules, which they strongly deny. There are now rules to regulate related party sponsorship deals, to try to ensure they are valuable and not just a hose of cash gushing out endlessly.
It is certainly a happy coincidence that so many independent entities based in the Emirates have been attracted to the City brand. No doubt Etihad Airways, Etisalat Telecoms, Expo Dubai, Emirates Palace, First Abu Dhabi Bank, Healthpoint Abu Dhabi, Masdar of Abu Dhabi, Noon of Abu Dhabi and the Abu Dhabi Tourism Board are delighted with their speculative investment in this suitor. Sky Blue. .
Some will suggest that financial fair play is itself an injustice and a tool to promote the status quo, presenting a rather strange idea of what is good (the Glazer family’s vampiric ownership model) and bad (regeneration in East Manchester). As of this week, City has in any case exceeded Manchester United’s annual commercial income, a return on all that seed capital. Isn’t that how businesses are supposed to work?
But really, it’s not about the money. Clubs have always spent large sums. Success doesn’t always follow. United have spent a billion pounds on players since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Barcelona has been consumed in a state of glassy, drooling stupefaction. How is that working anyway?
It looks like the real cheat code, the real magic ingredient is something else: the absence of stupidity. This is an industry riddled with incompetence, greed and conflicting interests. What would happen if you removed those jams in the machine? What are the long-term effects of being owned by a different kind of entity, without the daily operetta, the doomed short-termism of the established model?
It turns out that clarity of purpose, extreme competition, and government-backed stability, plus (oh yeah) the guarantee of unlimited funds, is a pretty potent alternative.
United provide the most obvious contrast, a club with the same resources but a club also full of confused desires, torn between siphoning off commercial income and continuing to maintain the pretense that its arm on the pitch, its trophy-chasing client interface , it really is the core business. The city has no such internal dance. And, of course, the avatar of the fully focused, unified nation-state wins that game every time.
The same goes for a club like Liverpool, where no matter how good the first XI is, the ability to challenge City will be undermined by interests on a more human scale. Fund must be maintained, costs limited. How is it possible that a club like Arsenal, hostage to selfishness, nepotism, the needs of shareholders, get to the same stage?
And it really is the government-backed sense of certainty that trumps the panic-stricken old model. Planning, recruitment, contracts – all this can be seen with a clear head. City can afford to buy and then basically lose a £100m player on the back of the sofa, without needing to worry about opportunity cost, resale value or marketing optics. Chelsea exists on this scale too. This month alone, Roman Abramovich’s loans to the club exceeded £1.5bn, loans that only he will have to repay (to himself). When you have that unprecedented stability, when losses are always covered, then your planning makes sense, your model works.
Perhaps Paris Saint-Germain offers a counterexample, another state club that, despite its ostentation, seems mired in inefficiencies. But what is the real plan at PSG? To generate rumours? Employ Neymar as a public relations spokesman? Camping in Paris during World Cup years? Be visible and glamorous? In which case, missions accomplished.
With City, the defining note is extreme, unrestricted competition. How sensible to simply apply the Catalan model of how to win. To create a system where the manager is the star, to fill his team with the highest quality players in the £40m-£70m range, to make the system the king of the coaching school.
And if it’s all surprisingly efficient, with something of the winning machine in the way City have reduced the league season to an irresistible formula, perhaps the only irregular note is Guardiola’s own tendency to blink in the big games. Europeans, the selfishness that lies in wait for the great tactical coup.
For the neutral, that unchecked box provides a fascinating minor chord in this fascinating and brilliantly conceived football entity. And right now, this looks like the most compelling club English football has ever witnessed, the sport boiled down to a fine point: high-end and cold-eyed, operating in its own patch of clear blue sky.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism