SoccerSoccer Angles

Mood turns sour on Manchester City and their Abu Dhabi wealth after record fourth title in row

City are short odds to make it seven from eight this time next year. The owners will love that as autocratic states specialise in monopolies – of power, of thought

If you can remember as far back as last August, the Premier League began on a sunny Friday night in Lancashire: Burnley versus Manchester City.

There were subplots – Vincent Kompany was managing against the club he captained so gloriously; Burnley, recently promoted on 101 points, smelled fresh; City were champions of Europe and had won three league titles in a row; no club had won four. There was anticipation.

Then Erling Haaland made it 1-0. After three minutes.

To tweak Mike Tyson’s old line, you can have all the plots and stories in the world until City punch you in the face. Haaland scored another before half-time, Rodri another in the second half and City had their first three of the 91 points that would win them that four-in-a-row. It was surgical.


Surgical City – a bit different from the “bitter City” and “sh**ty City” of yesteryear.

Pep Guardiola’s possessed team conceded a first goal in the 85th minute of their third game. They won their first six. They introduced some jeopardy, albeit fleeting, with autumnal losses to Wolves and Arsenal, but since the 1-0 defeat at Aston Villa in early December, City have not been beaten once. They didn’t even lose in the Champions League, they went out on a penalty shootout.

Now it’s Wembley again, Manchester United again and with City long odds-on it will surely be the domestic league and cup double again. Haaland after three minutes?

It was Ilkay Gundogan after just 12 seconds last year, remember. Bruno Fernandes did equalise but Gundogan got a second, City had 60 per cent possession and were two-thirds of the way into a treble. With about 15 minutes to go, Guardiola brought on Phil Foden, Erik ten Hag introduced Wout Weghorst.

City sealed the treble deal a week later against Internazionale in Istanbul and we all acknowledged the team’s greatness, the squad’s supremacy, Guardiola’s genius.

Some did so again last Sunday when Foden scored in minute two to erase any doubts they would beat West Ham comfortably and lift another trophy. But many did not. Many shrugged, looked away – the head of the Premier League Richard Masters could not even bring himself to be there. Maybe he feared photographic evidence being used in the future when, or if, the results of those 115 charges are at last heard.

Manchester City, the club, the entity? It celebrated of course. Shaped in the image of its Abu Dhabi owners, it has crushed the opposition.

This was not just a fourth league in a row, it was the sixth in seven seasons and City are short odds to make it seven from eight this time next year. The owners will love that because autocratic states specialise in monopolies – of power, of thought.

The trouble for Manchester City is that sport does not love it. Sport thrives on competition, on variety, on challenges and challengers.

We can all stand back and admire the majestic scale of Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, but Real have just won their second La Liga title in three seasons, fourth in eight and with Kylian Mbappe on board are very likely to make it five from nine next season. Bayern have just failed to win the Bundesliga for the first time since 2012, which is why so many neutrals enjoyed Bayer Leverkusen’s title. Who beyond Bayern, for example, was excited by their 2017-18 Bundesliga “triumph” by 21 points from Schalke?

It feels that way with City. London’s i newspaper produced a back page on Monday morning with big bullet statistics: “91 points; 96 goals; 4 league titles in a row; 115 outstanding charges”. It’s unlikely to have gone down well in east Manchester, but the general mood has swung against City and it is because of the completeness of their domination and from where that strength stems – which is external wealth. A team of such immense quality should not be provoking indifference.

Clearly Guardiola is a decisive factor – his talent is worth more than the two points that separated City from Arsenal – but you have to be able to pay his staggering wages plus all those bonuses that come with constant victory. City can, and just how they make it all add up will be the cause of circumspection until the 115 charges are publicly addressed.

At the end of November, after Everton’s initial 10-point deduction had been announced, Guardiola said: “I know people want [City to be found guilty]. I know it, I feel it. But wait and see. You are questioning [me] like we have been punished. And at the moment we are innocent until guilt is proved.”

It was the day Guardiola made the dramatic statement that he was more likely to stay at City “if we are in League One than if we win the Champions League”.

Sounds unlikely, but then City’s position – clear on the pitch, unclear off it – skews views. How for instance are we to look at these players, now and in the future?

Take Bernardo Silva, and what club wouldn’t? There have been times this season, in most games in fact, when the svelte midfielder actually seems unlucky to play for Man City. That will seem a peculiar conclusion given Bernardo is six Premier League titles in, plus two FA Cups and a Champions League.

But considering the medal haul and the telling weekly contributions, were he at another club he would be a far more praised individual. Rodri, Foden, Haaland, every game he’s got colleagues grabbing attention. Think of Newcastle 2-3 City in January – Bernardo scores a wondrous back-heel opener that only players of the highest calibre can produce; then Kevin de Bruyne scores with a shot of millimetre precision through the legs of Fabian Schar and creates a winner for Oscar Bobb that was arguably goal of the season.

Silva’s magic? It got lost in the understandable rush to laud others’.

Then against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu in the Champions League quarter-final, he scores a second-minute free-kick from 25 yards that wrong-foots Andriy Lunin and the rest of Europe. It’s a moment of genius.

But there were five more goals in that wild first leg and what will be more prominent in people’s memory is Bernardo’s missed penalty in the shoot-out in the second leg.

But what a player.

So here we are, the FA Cup final, once the season’s pinnacle. A truly excellent Man City will surely blow away a truly fragile Man United. A 19th major trophy since 2011 will be lifted and we will continue to look at City with a kind of wonder.