There were hugs and kisses, cheers and whoops, fans singing and jumping in the stands. As the final whistle blew at St Mary’s Stadium on 22 January, Southampton’s players collapsed into each other’s arms in a mixture of pride and exhaustion. On the touchline their manager, the gregarious Austrian Ralph Hasenhüttl, pumped both fists and broke into a broad smile that had not shifted by the time he came to do his post-match interviews. “Amazing,” he said. “It was unbelievable to watch. We are super-proud of what we have done today. This means a lot to us.”
Southampton had just drawn 1-1 with Manchester City. Still, you could hardly blame Hasenhüttl and his players for celebrating as if it were a win. After all, until playing Southampton, City were on a streak of 12 consecutive Premier League wins, closing in on the record of 18 set by City themselves in 2017. Despite the draw they remain nine points clear at the top of the table and overwhelming favourites to win their fourth title in five seasons – a feat matched by only four clubs: Manchester United in the 1990s and 2000s, Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s, Arsenal in the 1930s and Aston Villa in the late 1890s.
By any objective standard, then, the side assembled by Pep Guardiola since his arrival in Manchester in 2016 is one of the greatest dynasties in English footballing history. Through a combination of shrewd recruitment, elite coaching and the financial might provided by the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi, the club has been able to install itself as the pre-eminent force in the game: one that does not so much beat opponents as suffocate them, coerce them, taking the ball and forcing them to chase and sweat and stress and suffer for the full 90 minutes.
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Guardiola’s early City sides played with a dizzying, almost religious fervour: relentless attacking football played at spine-tingling speed with beautiful interchanges and dazzling technical flourish. In recent years, however, there has been a certain tonal shift. Stung by multiple failures in the Champions League, Guardiola has remade his team as an instrument of control rather than a vehicle of expression. They defend in swarms, seek above all to manipulate space, exploit angles, restrict the opponent’s options. It is a team without individual stars; or rather, its stars, such as Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish, are encouraged to curb their individuality in the service of the collective.
It’s still quick, one-touch attacking football. It is, occasionally, still spectacularly good to watch. But it also perhaps explains the wider debate swirling around this City team, one in which their success is not lauded or garlanded but diminished, derided, often simply ignored. City are a brilliant football team. Everyone seems to agree on that. But the meaning and worth of that brilliance, how the game as a whole should feel about their dominance – this is the contested zone, from which the resentment and resistance towards Guardiola’s side seems to originate.
Of course, in the jungle of English football no champion team is ever truly loved outside its own fan base. Just ask Alex Ferguson’s widely despised United side, which was only really lionised and celebrated once its golden era had passed into nostalgia and its alumni began to infiltrate the media. But the objections to City’s ascent feel more complex than simple tribalism or the jealousy of beaten rivals. In certain quarters you will even hear them described as an existential threat, a permanent revolution, everything that is sick and twisted about the sport.
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It’s worth unpicking the various threads here. City’s financial dominance, buttressed not by an absent billionaire but by an entire state, is considerable but by no means unprecedented. The Arsenal side of the 1930s were dubbed the “Bank of England” club for their lavish investment. Manchester United broke the British transfer record three times between 1995 and 2002. Then Roman Abramovich at Chelsea remade the terrain again. Countless more speculators have spent big and won nothing. After all, football has always been a honeypot for new money, grand schemes, aggressive disruptors. The next thing – as ever in the world of unregulated capitalism – is always worse than the last.
Perhaps City’s biggest crime is to win in a sport where winning has scarcely been less fashionable. Virtually every major development at the elite end of European football in the past few decades has been an attempt to protect its biggest clubs against the turbulence of results. The proposed European Super League, for example, was an attempt to reimagine football as a steady-state content business, where income was essentially independent of sporting performance. In this landscape, the idea of a club being built solely for the purpose of winning, of honing and controlling and perfecting the game as if it were an intellectual exercise, feels quaint, counterintuitive, almost apostate.
City know that they’ll never be as big as United or as loved as Liverpool or as cool as Paris Saint-Germain. And they know that their age of supremacy, like all ages, will eventually pass. Whether it’s due to the departure of Guardiola, the arrival of new pretenders, legislative challenges from Uefa or the Premier League (which is still investigating potential financial irregularities at the club), or some deus ex machina we can’t yet foresee – at some point the City era will come to an end. And yet the forces that helped them to flourish in the first place – weak regulation, a lack of oversight, the moral desertion that allows repressive states to own cherished community assets – will not. After all, City didn’t invent the game. They’re just playing it better than anyone else.
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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed