Manchester City’s dominance and the futility of the Premier League chasing pack

There were still five minutes plus injury time left to play inside Stamford Bridge when a group of ticketless Arsenal supporters spilled around the bend in Fulham Road and, in the downpour, set up shop on the esplanade outside the day shop. of the arena party.

The pack intended to serenade the steady stream of home fans already streaming out of the stadium, all disheveled and beaten as the game faded behind them, with a chorus of “Ar-se-nal, A-se-nal ” and various ditties. acclaiming the excellence of Bukayo Saka, William Saliba and Granit Xhaka. When that failed to rile most of the crowd, piling miserably towards Brompton or Broadway, the victorious few followed up with a chorus of “We’re the best in the league” before police stepped in to move them.

Mikel Arteta’s side have led the division in every match except the first two rounds, when they were only second on goal difference. Their victory over Chelsea on Sunday was a third successive success over a Big Six opponent, the first time they had done so in more than a decade. However, that particular chorus, about surveying the scene from the top, still tends to scream itself in giddy disbelief. Probably for a good reason.

Arsenal have been outstanding all season. They are benefiting from the long-term vision that fueled last year’s recruiting (many scoffed at the fees they paid at the time) and had an impressive following over the summer. They have full confidence in management. His is a real drive. Recent history suggests that teams that collect 34 points from their first 13 games win the title.

Except, in the Premier League, such an account is barely enough to fend off one of the best clubs on the planet.

“Do something: just look at the last six years (in) what Manchester City has done with the best manager in the world, the best team in the world,” Arteta said when asked if the conviction was growing that the championship could be claimed by him. the first time since Arsenal were Invincible. “What City does is what they have done for the last six seasons. Win, win, win, win. We are improving a lot as a team. We are getting very good results right now. But this is a long, long (process). Such is the fate of all suitors.

Sunday saw the six teams in action that Pep Guardiola pointed out as the best placed to challenge his own. Chelsea, gripped by post-takeover uncertainty, and Manchester United were beaten. Tottenham Hotspur were booed off the pitch at half-time, to the dismay of their manager Antonio Conte, before their last second-half revival attempt failed to force parity. Their victorious Liverpool secured their first league away win of the season, though each of their outings of late has felt like an exercise in stabilizing a tilting ship. They remain above Fulham and Crystal Palace on goal difference alone. Yesterday it was revealed that the owners Fenway Sports Group have put the club up for sale. It is not clear if an agreement will finally be reached or not, but FSG is inviting offers.

Admittedly, there was optimism at Old Trafford before the shock of a first defeat at Villa Park in 27 years, but only newly-money wildcard Newcastle and Arsenal really abound in positivity. Even they must privately despair at the relentless nature of City’s excellence.

The team that has been champion in four of the last five years had received Fulham on Saturday, seventh at kick-off, and played 64 minutes with 10 men. However, Guardiola’s side still enjoyed 71 per cent of possession, managed 16 chances overall, shrugged off a potential winner’s VAR denial and prevailed despite Erling Haaland’s penalty courtesy of the minute. 95.

The City manager may insist that this division is riddled with obstacles, but competing with his team is the challenge. To win the league in this country, all entrants must overcome a team fueled by a striker who seems unstoppable, a midfielder whose creativity is currently second to none, and outwit a coach who sets the tone. Oh, and outshine a club backed by wealth that no one, today, can match.

City’s revenue of £613m for the year to June 30, 2022, announced on Monday, dwarfed Manchester United’s by £30m. Its commercial income in the latest accounts exceeded by more than 50 million pounds that generated in Old Trafford.

This is your world. We are simply living in it.

Arsenal may lead the table by two points, but no one associated with that club, including Arteta, dares to dream yet. “You might hear some fans chant ‘We’re going to win the league,’ but I imagine there will be an element of irony,” says Bill Davis, season ticket holder at Emirates Stadium. “We are quite realistic. No one expects to win the league, apart from some lunatic, given what we’re up against.

“But we’re enjoying the ride for a change: it’s a joy to go to the games and it’s refreshing to feel upbeat. The way Arteta is going, we will be competitive for years to come whether he wins a title or not.”

To others, the chase looks more daunting than ever, and any design to reform Manchester City remains a long-term aspiration.

Manchester United had lost just once in 10 league games – that 6-3 humiliation at the Etihad – and were offering signs of progress under Erik ten Hag until Sunday’s limp display at Aston Villa. “I’ve been wondering a lot recently how we could bridge that gap,” says Jamie Reeman, season ticket holder and writer for the fanzine United We Stand. “Football has changed since the days when things could change in a season and there is a real danger of the English Premier League becoming like Germany or France, where you have a team that slips away year after year.

“What we are holding on to is the feeling that Ten Hag is doing a decent job and the hope that the recruitment of him, promising so far, will continue along the same lines. I’m sure the team is on the right path. So you have to expect us to settle the property and the city to reel. Maybe they make a couple of bad signings… anything.

“If I’m honest, it’s all pretty tenuous. Realistically, if you were a punter, and I am, you’d say City would dominate for the next five to 10 years. They will go on and on.”

Jurgen Klopp anticipates that this is the reality. The Liverpool manager attempted to offer perspective when he begrudgingly answered a question about what it took to keep pace ahead of the teams’ meeting at Anfield last month. “You have the best team in the world and you put the best striker on the market, no matter what it costs, just do it,” he said. “(Liverpool) can’t act like them. It’s not possible. There are three clubs in world football that can do whatever they want financially. It’s legal and everything, fine. But they can do what they want.

“We have to look at it (and say), ‘We need that and we need that, and we have to make (the group) younger, and here’s a prospect and there’s a talent and that’s what we have to do.'”

That tactic had worked before, but always outsmarting the market, betting more on potential, becomes increasingly difficult when confronted with the skillful and comprehensive infrastructure put in place at great cost by champions, who aspire to talent, already be it a teenage prospect or a player. , like Manuel Akanji at 27, to fit squarely into the first team. The city invariably feels one step ahead.

At least Liverpool and Klopp found a way to put pressure on them. His achievements in recent years feel all the more remarkable given the standards Guardiola has set. In contrast, since they last won the title in 2017, Chelsea have finished 30, 26, 15, 19 and 19 points behind City. They’ve been through the turmoil of a recent acquisition and the rather more familiar feel of a management change. But the mood of those somber supporters braving the rain and the jeers of Arsenal fans as they shuffled through Stamford Gate reflected a club some distance from mounting a proper domestic challenge.

Graham Potter was asked in the build-up to Sunday’s game what it would take to bridge the gap with the champions. “I would say it’s down to a lot of things in terms of aligning resources in a better way: how you recruit, how you develop the idea of ​​football,” he explained. “We need time with the changes we’ve been through. So probably a bit of stability, some smart recruiting to help the group we have and then keep working on the idea of ​​football.”

“A unique challenge, like ours in 2017 under Conte, is always doable,” says Tim Rolls, a contributor to Chelsea’s CFUK fanzine. “For something more far-reaching, you need City to turn down. In two or three years, Haaland could be gone. Kevin DeBruyne too. His defense is not infallible. That, added to the fact that we signed a first-class striker and a midfielder who plays with the ball, could reduce the gap. Maybe.

“At the moment, you could match them up in a solo game. You might beat them in a cup tie, like we did in Porto. But beat them in 38 games? No possibility.”

Conte, in his current role at Spurs, described City as “a monster” last week, adding: “They can be a good example for us.” “But as a fairly pragmatic Spurs fan, how are we supposed to win the league when there is Manchester City?” offers Adam Nathan, a season ticket holder in the East Upper at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. “If you are looking for something tangible, a trophy, this giant can come in and look at you at any time. So the existence of City – and, God forbid, Newcastle perhaps soon – makes it very difficult to set realistic targets for what would be a good season.

“All that said, and while it’s sad to admit, City have served as a useful ally to many other club fans by basically guaranteeing that their rivals won’t win the league. We were just three points behind City going into the weekend and yet most Spurs fans were quite scared on Saturday that City could drop points given they are the team most likely to cut down on the run from the Arsenal. I imagine United and Liverpool fans might be equally at peace with that. If we can’t win it, at least they won’t win it.”

The outliers are Newcastle. Guardiola sees a threat from them even this season, just over a year after the completion of the Saudi-backed takeover of him. He cited the rapid improvement with Eddie Howe, from the bottom two to the top three, and his friendlier schedule in the absence of European competition.

“They have a good manager, top players, they have experienced them, physicality in the middle, transitions from box to box,” said the City manager. “The way they do the intensity off the ball is impressive, they push high and go with real pace. I imagine they are going to stay there for a long time.”

Howe still feigns disbelief at the suggestion that Newcastle are in the mix and preaches a slow and steady evolution. His fans spent much of Sunday chanting what has become their usual chant of “E-I E-I E-I-O, up in the Premier League we go” rather than anything about titles. Such goals still feel fantastic. But in dismantling Southampton at St Mary’s, they scored four for the fourth time in seven league games. Their only defeat to date remains the injury-time inflicted by Liverpool in August. They are upwardly mobile and fiercely ambitious.

If they qualify for the Champions League and return to UEFA’s elite competition, with its associated implications for revenue streams, the extent of their new financial clout may become even more apparent. The temptation is to wonder if the best way to compete with a wealth-backed sovereign wealth fund is to benefit from a wealth-backed sovereign wealth fund of its own.

“You certainly need someone who is prepared to take on significant losses,” offers football finance expert Kieran Maguire of the Price of Football Podcast. “The 2021 Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester City featured the two biggest losing clubs in Premier League history. And not just by a small margin: a rural mile. So clearly there is a correlation.

“Newcastle have found that the FFP regulations make things difficult, but their potential is clear under this ownership structure and they have bought very well to date, almost looking to emulate the Manchester City model. They will believe that, in time, they can compete.”

Newcastle, as nouveau riche, come from further back but may pose the biggest threat to the other more established quintet. “But having them in the mix could help drag City into the pack,” Reeman adds. “As these other teams get stronger and copy the City model (player identification years later, succession planning), you would expect to end up with another five or six really strong teams that will take points away from City more regularly.

“Lately only Liverpool have had the guts to go and challenge them, but if you have a few tries, City could struggle to come out with 90 points every season. Bring that down to, say, 80 and there could be a few much closer to them.”

However, the real unknown remains the prospect of life after Pep at the Etihad. If Guardiola were to leave, either at the end of his current contract next summer or, should new terms be agreed, if he is satisfied if he ever leads City to their first European Cup, would his dominance accompany him? ? Would they be diminished enough to offer the rest a chance? Could his departure draw them towards the pursuing group?

“You end up holding on to thoughts like that,” adds Rolls. “English football has traditionally been cyclical. Liverpool dominated. United dominoes. So City can’t dominate forever. But this is all in the future. Apart from what Arsenal have done so far and the clear improvements they have made, it is very difficult to see anyone keeping City at bay. Not for a while yet, at least.

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