Sport tends to move towards perfection: cleaner lines, starker numbers, greater certainties. It is a process that football, with its deep variables, its notes of chaos and inspiration, has been surprisingly good at resisting, At least, it has until now.
When the players of Manchester City and Chelsea walk out at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday afternoon there will be the usual sense of event-glamour: the whooshing TV graphics, the anchorman urgency, the feeling of something planetary scale in train.
With good reason. For the Premier League 2021-22 this is one of the key points in the series arc. First plays second, title winners against European champions, a meeting of two of the three most valuable squads in world football. This is the product right here, the sales pitch, the heart of the global eyeball-supremacy.
Zoom out, though, and one thing is missing: any real sense of sporting jeopardy. No doubt the action itself will be supremely high-grade. The digital channels will thrum with game-day ephemera. But as red-hot Super Saturdays go, this is some pretty cold product.
It is a confusing point to make, in part because of the unprecedented level of talent on show. And also because of the basic sensory pleasure of watching this champion City team in action, its beguiling patterns, its architectural beauty, its simple sporting virtues, the collectivism, the selfless energy, the way players are coached and improved. In September City went to Stamford Bridge and seemed to be walking through a different kind of gravity, a high-end strangulation reminiscent of Pep Guardiola’s best-of-the-century Barcelona team of 2009-11.
Five months on those tender hopes of an actual Premier League title race have been lanced by the current run of 11 wins and 33 goals scored through autumn into winter. City were already 10 points clear at the start of January, season diced and trimmed, easing towards a fourth title in five years. And it is perhaps time to say it. We have seen domination before. But this is something new.
It isn’t just about the numbers. But the numbers are startling. Right now City are on course to hit 96 points. In 2017-18 they racked up a century, followed by 98 the season after. Before 2018 no other team in the history of English top-tier football, even allowing for 42 matches a season, had ever matched those totals before. Last season was a Covid-addled compromise but City still ended up 12 points clear of second place.
Some context: before the Premier League anything in the high 70s was a potential table-topper. Even during Manchester United’s imperial phase of the 1990s they were winning the league with, among others, 82 points, 75 points, 79 points, 84 points, before ramping it up to the high 80s in the Cristiano Ronaldo surge years. It took 120 years and one wild pre-FFP transfer splurge for Chelsea to set a new mark of 95 points in 2004-05. City could now pass that for the third time in five years.
Nobody has ever won like this before in English club football. No English team has come so close to stripping away the variables, to reducing the great unsolvable equation, 11 to the power of 11 times 90 minutes, to a kind of inevitability. Not just in terms of goals and points, but in tone and texture, the sense of something without edges or knots or notes of tension. How did this happen? And is it OK?
It is necessary to talk about money at this point. That financial gulf between top and bottom has been widening for a quarter of a century. Record points tallies seem a logical extension, whoever happens to be leading the way.
But there is something else here. This is a champion club owned by a country. Not by the usual gallery of hucksters, egotists, dividend-addicts and rubbernecking self-publicists, but by an entity without any of those constraints. And yes, having limitless financial resources at your disposal isn’t everything. But it’s quite a few things.
Certainly it is a happy coincidence so many Emirates-based independent entities have been drawn to the City brand. No doubt Etihad Airways, Etisalat telecoms, Expo Dubai, Emirates Palace, First Abu Dhabi Bank, Healthpoint Abu Dhabi, Masdar of Abu Dhabi, Noon of Abu Dhabi and the Abu Dhabi tourist board are all delighted with their speculative investment in this sky blue pretender.
Some will suggest financial fair play is in itself an injustice and a tool to promote the status quo, that it presents a pretty odd idea of what is good (the Glazer family’s vampiric ownership model) and bad (regeneration in east Manchester). As of this week City have surpassed Manchester united’s annual commercial income in any case, a return on all that seed capital. Isn’t this how businesses are supposed to work?
But really, it’s not about the money. Clubs have always spent vast sums. Success does not always follow. United have spent a billion pounds on players since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Barcelona have spent themselves into a state of glazed and drooling stupefaction. How’s that working out anyway?
It seems the real cheat code, the real magic ingredient is something else: an absence of stupidity. This is an industry shot through with incompetence, greed and competing interests. What if you took away those clogs in the machine? What are the long-term effects of being owned by a different kind of entity, without the everyday operetta, the doomed short-termism of the established model?
It turns out clarity of purpose, extreme competence and government-backed stability – plus (oh yeah) the guarantee of endless funds – is a pretty potent alternative.
United provide the most obvious contrast, a club with the same resources, but a club also shot through with confused desires, torn between siphoning off commercial income and still maintaining the pretence its on-field arm, its trophy-chasing customer interface, really is the core business. City have no such internal dance. And of course the unified, utterly focused nation-state avatar wins that game every time.
The same goes for a club such as Liverpool, where no matter how fine the first XI, the ability to challenge City will be undercut by more human-scale interests. The fund must be serviced, costs capped. How does a club such as Arsenal, hostage to egotism, nepotism, shareholder needs, even get on the same stage?
And really it is the sense of government-backed certainty that trumps the old panic-stricken model. Planning, recruitment, contracts: all of this can be viewed with a clear head. City can afford to buy and then basically lose down the back of the sofa a £100m player, without the need to worry about opportunity cost, resale value, marketing optics. Chelsea exist on this scale too. Only this month Roman Abramovich’s loans to the club topped £1.5bn, loans only he will ever have to pay off (to himself). When you have that unprecedented stability, when losses are always covered, then your planning makes sense, your model functions.
Perhaps Paris Saint-Germain offer a counterexample, another state-run club that for all its glitz seems clogged with inefficiencies. But what is the actual plan at PSG? To generate buzz? To employ Neymar as a public relations spokesperson? To camp in Paris over the World Cup years? To be visible and glamorous? In which case, missions accomplished.
With City the defining note is extreme, unfettered competence. How sensible to simply bolt on the Catalan model of how to win. To create a system where the manager is the star, to fill your squad with top-quality players in the £40m-£70m bracket, to make the system, the coaching school king.
And if it is all startlingly efficient, with something of the machine-for-winning in the way City have reduced the league season to an irresistible formula, perhaps the only ragged note is Guardiola’s own tendency to blink in big European games, the lurking egotism of the grand tactical stroke.
For the neutral that unticked box provides an engrossing minor chord in this brilliantly conceived and engrossing football entity. And right now this looks like the most irresistible club team English football has ever witnessed, sport reduced to a fine point –high-end and cold-eyed – functioning in its own patch of clear blue sky.