2021-02-22 by W.M.
Man City’s relentless streak and the uncomfortable questions it raises
It was the kind of feat that would have felt sensational at a normal club, whatever about normal times, but here felt little more than a footnote. By beating Arsenal 1-0, Manchester City made it 13 victories in a row, which puts them one off the Invincibles’ old 2003-04 record and ensures the club is responsible for three of the six longest winning streaks in English football history. The other two also came in the last three years, under Pep Guardiola.
An important talking point for football is that it was the kind of run that was supposed to be impossible this season. It did look like it might be early on in this season, not to mention other European leagues.
If there are any clubs that are going to withstand the rigours and complications of this schedule, it is those backed by the wealth of states or emirates.
This remains an uncomfortable conversation for football to have – and one so often overlooked when pundits will talk glowingly about the admitted brilliance of these players – but it is one that is still essential. It actually feels all the more important at a time when football is genuinely proving people’s great distraction in lockdown, but is now developing into yet another procession.
Financial disparity has been a growing problem for football years, but this emphasised a capability of City’s beyond most others.
In fact, when PSG went for Neymar in 2017, part of the strategy behind the sheer magnitude of the deal was that they knew if they drove up fees and wages to a certain level there would only be a certain number of clubs capable of competing. Among them were the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea. The big Spanish two were not seen as part of that group.
It is possible that the complications from the Covid crisis, far from levelling football, may hasten this reality.
The reality right now is that, in this suppressed market, a £40m defensive signing would make a huge difference to a lot of the biggest clubs – not least the current English champions. It is beyond most, however, including that Spanish two, as well as Juventus. Such a purchase has meanwhile barely been required at City, given how the season has gone. There is already talk of Ake being used as a makeweight for summer targets.
These realities should not be seen as an attempt to dismiss the genius of Guardiola. He has still displayed his brilliance this season, as well as genuine resolve.
City’s current lead is actually all the more notable given how badly the campaign started. At that point, many players were fed up of Guardiola’s intensity. It grated on them, and some were seeing a time in the near future when he might move on. It was also true that the 2017-19 team had probably reached the end of a cycle, requiring change.
These kinds of problems of course always become more pronounced and vocalised when things aren’t going well, but part of the challenge is it all becomes self-fulfilling because it’s so hard to arrest and turn around.
This is what Guardiola has managed. He has built a second title team. In that, it is notable he is no longer so agitated on the line. A manager famous for such histrionics has instead taken a step back and shown the composure to assess this situation and adapt an awful lot about his team – from the fitness schedule to their movement, to their defence.
It has also been immensely aided by the resources available to the manager. Both of these arguments can be true at the same time. Working at such a club is Guardiola’s reward for being so good.
Such a club’s success is also football’s problem for allowing almost free rein in terms of ownership.
Financial Fair Play can only offer limited restrictions and it is notable that Chris Mort – the former Newcastle United chairman who worked on the attempted Saudi Arabian takeover – said this week he expects an “ambitious club” to eventually challenge it in courts.
That’s one for the longer-term future, but the short-term future is already appearing rather predictable even with FFP restrictions.
It already looks like City are going to win a third league in four seasons, with a huge points return. They are currently on course for 89 points, but that includes the patchy opening games. Another return of over 90 seems likelier. Another domestic treble is meanwhile within reach, and talk is growing of a quadruple. This will remain the great challenge, that restarts this week.
It would just feel so important if, in this season, when everyone in the game is supposed to be feeling the effects of the crisis, one of Qatar-backed PSG or Abu Dhabi-backed City won the Champions League.
The deeper reasons warrant deeper discussion than just praising the football personnel involved. They are why a 13-game winning streak can now be recorded with barely any extra recognition.