By Steve Wilson
Is it possible to have too much of a good thing?
In winning this year’s Premier League, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City has set breathtaking new standards in raw statistical domination.
No team before City has reached the 100-point mark in the English top flight.
After years of selling itself as a competition where noisy excitement was loud enough to drown out questions over technical quality, and which traded in drama and unpredictability, a certainty has descended on proceedings where it matters most.
A new bench-mark for aesthetics has been set, too.
Pep Guardiola’s title-winning Manchester City side has set new standards in the Premier League. (Reuters)
The latticework of passing moves that produced a record number of victories in a season have elevated sport to near performance art at times.
However, that tension between celebrating a truly great team operating with a surgeon’s precision, and a yearning for a competitive contest to be maintained, will be something English football needs to reconcile in the comings years as the club threatens to make the next decade its own.
The Guardiola effect pays off for City
City’s rise to this point has been a decade in the making. When Sheikh Mansour first took over and began pouring Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth in to East Manchester, the initial impact was disruption.
Stars like Robhino were bought to make statements rather than build teams.
Since then hundreds of millions have been invested in the youth academy and training facilities, as well as a playing squad that became good enough to win league titles under first Roberto Mancini and later Manuel Pellegrini.
A step change occurred, however, once long-term target Guardiola was convinced to take the reins and backed with funds — $300 million in his first trophyless season, a further $400 million the next — to flesh out a squad able to truly execute his brand of high-tempo, incisive football.
Guardiola’s ability not only to shop unhindered in the global marketplace for top talent but also his ability to improve the players the club already had has produced a team operating on a different level to the rest of the division.
City re-writes the record books
New records have been set in almost every other meaningful metric, too: The most goals scored, the highest aggregate possession, the number of points won, the longest winning streak, the most wins, the most successful passes in an individual match.
But perhaps the most telling — and potentially worrying for the state of the competition — is the size of the gap between the champions and the second-placed Manchester United.
At the turn of the century United finished 18 points clear of runners-up Arsenal. City had 19 points worth of daylight between itself and its nearest notional challengers this year.
Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne is the heartbeat of a fluid Manchester City attack. (REUTERS: Darren Staples)
Arsenal had a campaign to forget in Arsene Wenger’s farewell season. But in sixth place the Gunners were still a barely credible 37 points adrift. For context, they were only 30 points clear of relegation.
Even the most traditionally one-sided competitions have been closer-run things.
In Spain the winning margin was 12 points; in France, where Paris Saint Germain boast a similarly petro-dollar-funded hegemony, Monaco was 15 points back; in Scotland, that most traditional one-horse race, Celtic was a mere nine points clear of Aberdeen.
So should football lovers in the UK and beyond settle themselves in for a period of complete dominance, where the rest of the ladder are playing for second place and the minor prizes of Champions League qualifications and cup competitions?
The odds are stacked against any other outcome. But not insurmountable. It is only two years since Leicester City achieved that which looked to be impossible.
Who can challenge City next year?
City is not unbeatable.
Liverpool blitzed City at Anfield to record a famous league victory this season and produced more of the same to put City out of the Champions League.
Jurgen Klopp’s “heavy metal football” has proved the equal of Guardiola’s when going head-to-head.
Greater consistency across the season would make Liverpool genuine challengers. A strengthening of its defensive qualities via the transfer market is needed, as is an improvement in squad depth.
After a season that has taken them to the Champions League final, money will undoubtedly be made available to the German coach to spend.
Both Liverpool and Tottenham are on an upward trajectory with more expected of them under progressive and skilled coaches.
Tottenham will be better resourced itself once it moves into a new stadium that will swell matchday revenues.
Manchester United has underperformed this season but still finished second and remains an attractive destination to top talent.
Arsenal will have a new coach at the helm next season charged with reviving a moribund side. Chelsea, who like Arsenal missed out on Champions League football for next year, most likely will too.
As such they remain in part unknown. But an injection of fresh ideas and the less distracting Europa League on their schedule offers a potential route to revival.
City has set a benchmark for others to aspire to and has the wealth to cement its advantage for the short to medium term.
Mo Salah’s Liverpool has proved more than once that Manchester City is not unbeatable. (AP: Rui Vieira)
But football is cyclical. And resilient. Capable of surprising. The Leicester story is testament to that.
Incomprehensively wealthy foreign investors, as well as the financial rewards of the Champions League, have distorted the power balance in English football with City at the very apex of that.
The hope for the neutrals is that City’s excellence demands a raising of standards from those around the club and a case can be made for the other five of the big six making strides forward, even if matching City’s consistency is a mighty challenge.
City itself will seek to improve through recruitment. The best can always get better. A terrifying thought for City’s opponents.
As well as those who fear processions taking the place of title races in the coming years.