Pep Guardiola could hardly conceal his excitement. “In 180 minutes we conceded one shot on target – against Chelsea! Ah guys, that is so good!”
It was good for Manchester City, certainly. When your control of the game is so absolute that your opponents – a petrodollar-fuelled superclub that last season won the Champions League – can muster only one shot on target in three hours of football, you can feel proud of a job well done.
As for what the rest of us are supposed to feel? That is not Guardiola’s concern. In his enthusiasm for the way City had smothered Chelsea to virtual nothingness, Pep was beginning to sound curiously like Gianni Brera, the Italian journalist and ideologue of catenaccio, who claimed that the perfect game would always end 0-0 because nobody would have made a mistake.
It wasn’t all City’s fault that the game had been dull and featureless. When Thomas Tuchel spoke last week of how disappointed he had been with Chelsea’s performance against City back in September, it sounded like he had a more aggressive approach in mind for Saturday. These hopes faded within minutes of kick-off, as it became plain that Chelsea were only interested in pouncing on City mistakes.
In the event, their defend-and-counter approach did create two good chances to take the lead, but both opportunities were wasted by Romelu Lukaku. More precision from the striker and Tuchel would have looked like a genius; afterwards the coach made no effort to hide his annoyance.
The match went on like that, with City being careful on the ball and Chelsea being careful off it, until the 70th minute when Timo Werner lost a header, N’Golo Kante missed a tackle and Kevin de Bruyne found space to shoot. De Bruyne was asked afterwards if it had been one of his most important goals, and his uncertain expression suggested he understood that the goal had been the difference between leading the league by 13 points, and leading by merely 11. He has scored many bigger goals than that.
If the final whistle came as a blessed release to all concerned, at least nobody could dispute that City had been the better team. “We deserved it,” said Guardiola. “I like football when it is fair. I was happy to win against Arsenal but we didn’t deserve it and when we deserve it, it feels better.”
This clinical chloroforming of Chelsea . . . felt better? . . . than the deliciously unjust 2-1 victory at Arsenal, with the 93rd-minute winner by Rodri? Most fans would disagree. That crazy Arsenal match, with its chaos, controversies and violent swings in momentum, was the obvious dramatic highlight of this 12-match winning streak, which has mostly consisted of City taking candy from a series of babies. But then, the gap between football as understood and practised by top coaches like Guardiola, and football as understood and experienced by the fans, has never been wider.
The gap grows every time a crowd screams “SHOOT” when a player gets the ball in space within 30 yards of goal. Players today are told to avoid shooting from distance by coaches who have studied the stats and know precisely how low the chances of scoring from out there really are. Teams now aim to work the ball into a better position before pulling the trigger. The result is that the long-range screamer – arguably the most thrilling sight in football – is being optimised out of the game. Football evolves, while the fans pine for what’s been lost.
Most of us don’t watch football for technical quality or tactical intrigue. We’re watching because we want to feel something – and the risk of defeat adds savour to the joy of victory. In the simplest terms, we like a bit of end-to-end. No coach despises end-to-end more than Guardiola. His teams are designed to exert the maximum of control and allow the absolute minimum of randomness and uncertainty.
City are also the best-resourced team, so they have the best technical players, playing the most careful, disciplined, risk-averse football. It’s a style better adapted to winning titles than admirers. They would be more charming as a wasteful giant. Look at the joy Manchester United have given the world these last several years. Lurching from crisis to crisis, they continue to be more watchable than City’s vastly superior team.
Even some City players don’t seem thrilled to be part of it. Ferran Torres came, saw and left. Bernardo Silva has been a standout performer, but he spent the summer trying to engineer a move to Spain. Raheem Sterling was recently named Premier League player of the month for December, yet he too recently admitted he was considering leaving. These are the star players for what is now the richest and most powerful club in the world, and yet they seem to be wondering, “Is this all there is?”
Why doesn’t the City experience feel as exciting as their record-shattering numbers suggest it should be? Partly it’s the style that makes their matches too one-sided to be interesting. Even Jack Grealish is hardly worth watching these days. The most exciting footballer of last season has been subsumed into the City system as a kind of glorified ballboy whose role is to stand on the sideline and pass it quickly to the main man, João Cancelo.
But of course the main problem is, and always has been, the money. City represent the ruthlessly efficient application of overwhelming financial firepower and there simply is not a lot of magic about that story.
They will soon celebrate their fourth title win in five years, which is not an unprecedented level of dominance: Aston Villa did it in the 1890s, Arsenal in the 1930s, Liverpool twice in the 1970s and 80s, Manchester United three times in the 1990s and 2000s. City fans rightly point out that all of these dominant teams were underpinned by considerable economic clout. But in no previous case was the financial superiority as overwhelming as it is now.
For example, during the Liverpool-dominated 1970s eight other teams broke the British transfer record: Tottenham, Arsenal, Derby County, Everton, West Brom, Nottingham Forest, Manchester City and Wolves. Money was spread around more evenly, nobody had a decisive financial advantage. Contrast with the weekend, when City’s starting XI included nine players who cost £47 million (€56 million) or more – that is, each of these nine was more expensive than the record signing of every English club outside the big six. Is it surprising that nobody can give them a game?
Last week it was reported that City have leapfrogged apparently much-better-supported teams like Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern to become the world’s top-earning football club. The news was a reminder that there is one thing City are good at making you feel, and that is the helplessness that comes from knowing that you live in a world where the richest will always get their way, and if you don’t like it they will spend £30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue you for the next 10 years, as someone once said. In that sense at least, City have captured the spirit of the age.