RReal Madrid are European champions, but in that first half at the Etihad on Wednesday they were almost incomprehensibly outclassed. Every Manchester City outfielder, Rúben Dias, had a chance; Madrid succeeded in total. The fierceness of the City press was so disheartening that Madrid made just 13 passes in the first 15 minutes. At half time it was 2-0 and could have been five. City played with such speed and precision – against a European grandee – that the only proper response was awe.
But in mid-January, when City lost to Manchester United at Old Trafford, it seemed fair to suggest that this was not one of Pep Guardiola’s better sides, that with United’s rise to power, City could no longer take Manchester reign for granted. Four months on, with only United and Internazionale standing between City and the second treble in English football history – the 10th anywhere in Europe – such predictions seem a little foolish.
But they were valid then. City had just dropped points at home against Frank Lampard’s Everton. They had left the Carabao Cup for Southampton, led by Nathan Jones, Quadruple Denier. The following Thursday, City trailed 2–0 to Tottenham at half-time before coming back to win 4–2. For all their firepower, there was an unknown defensive vulnerability to them. That second-half comeback meant that City had 42 points midway through the season, having scored 50 and conceded 20, on course for their third-best goalscoring under Guardiola, but their second-worst points tally and their worst goals against record.
The reason wasn’t hard to figure out. Guardiola, determined to counter the counterattack, has always prioritized control, but Erling Haaland thrives on balls played forward quickly. Going more direct to make the best use of his pace allowed City to open up more. Finding the right balance proved difficult. Already during the Community Shield, when he touched the ball just 16 times, it was clear that Haaland was making dangerous runs that were not converted.
At Old Trafford, Haaland touched the ball just 19 times; in City’s 2–0 win in the same match last season, Ilkay Gündogan was the fewest touch contacts recorded by any of their players with 66. so limited? This seemed like a major incompatibility.
But you don’t have to be Harry Lime in The Third Man to believe that friction can be creative. Lionel Messi never quite fit into Guardiola’s system at Barcelona, always irked by his demands and yet he was the key player in one of the greatest sides of all time.
Haaland is likewise grit in the oyster. He’s the kind of deadly finisher City have been lacking: should they ever need to, they can now win games with half a chance, when before it felt they had to dominate to be successful. Above all, his size means teams can’t just sit deep against City – as, for example, Paris Saint-Germain did last season at the Parc des Princes, delighted that City were able to launch crosses from deep to Phil Foden; no one would risk that against Haaland.
Once a balance was reached, City’s dominance was extraordinary. Since losing to Tottenham Hotspur on February 5, City have played 23 games in which they were 10 minutes behind in total. However you judge the level of smothering associated with Arsenal’s run-up, the fact is that a team that wins 11 games in a row is very hard to stop.
Unless something completely unexpected happens next week, City will win the Premier League for the fifth time in six seasons. England are not yet in the same monopoly situation as France or Germany, but understandably there is a growing sense that City and Guardiola should not be judged in the league. This won’t be City’s best season under Guardiola in terms of points won, goals scored or goals conceded, but even taking into account the understandable wrinkles during Haaland’s integration, that doesn’t matter, apart from the possibility of a treble. For City, the Champions League remains the Grail. Win that and whatever happens in the FA Cup final against United, this would be Guardiola’s best season in England, the best season in Manchester City’s history.
How that measures up against other major parties is harder to say (even without the necessary caveats about the source of City’s wealth and the 115 allegations of financial impropriety they face). When United won the treble in 1998–99, it was only their fourth to be achieved, and the first time an English team had been European champions for 14 years; it felt harder won. Drama and novelty are elements in the construction of greatness, at least in terms of achieving more than respect; so is the feeling of defying the odds, but that’s a difficult image to create when, at least according to Deloitte’s latest report on football financing, you’re the richest club in the world. City may be on the verge of winning a treble in the opposite direction to United, with supreme authority but almost no drama.
Would this city beat Guardiola’s great Barcelona? It is arguable, but that Barça came with the shock of the new and swept away the era of exhaustion, the years of José Mourinho, Rafa Benítez and Greece. City may be developing from that, but despite all the adjustments, such as John Stones moving into midfield, they are not as radical as Barca were. They may be doing better, but they’re not making it new. And while City clearly remain a Guardiola side, they are not such a pure example of that Guardiolismo like for example City 2017-18 let alone Barça 2010-11. Evolution meant a compromise, none greater than the addition of Haaland.
It may be that step into the mainstream that finally brings City the European success they crave, that finally gives Guardiola, one of the few truly revolutionary coaches, his third Champions League.
He’s an all-time great and this might be his best side ever. But City is not loved yet.
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