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Friday, June 21, 2024

Is it really Manchester City’s fault there’s no Premier League title race drama?

Follow the final day of the Premier League on The Athletic

There is an interesting debate to be had about what people want from football these days.

As Manchester City aim to beat West Ham United on Sunday to clinch their fourth Premier League title in a row, there have been complaints that the race has been ‘boring’.

It is not the first time such an accusation has been levelled at City, either: two years ago, their style of play came under fire.

City have become so good that they win at a canter, not giving their opponents a sniff. Do that enough times and you get a sense of inevitability rarely came with Premier League title races of the PG (pre-Guardiola) era.

So despite this race going to the last day, like two of their previous four title victories, there has long been a sense that there is no jeopardy.

And this was supposed to be the best title race ever, with three top teams gunning for glory. Barely a month ago, City were third favourites behind Arsenal and Liverpool, but then both of those teams lost on the same day, providing exactly the kind of twist that everybody wants from these things.

Arsenal lost to Villa, dealing a huge blow to their title hopes (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

The problem is that City, until this point anyway, have not looked like having the same twist in them. Which brings us to the question: do people want the champions and their football to be good or do we want flaws and drama?

The elephant in the room is that it’s City. Guardiola was asked on Friday if he thinks people “like” his team. He said, “F***”, put his head back and laughed. He knows as well as anybody that, generally speaking, they do not.

A large reason for that is the Premier League charges against them, which are yet to be resolved. City are on the verge of winning four titles in a row, a year after winning a treble. They are ticking off the biggest achievements in English football and yet there is always a caveat, an issue The Athletic’s Oliver Kay explored on Friday. For many people, that cloud will not go away until the charges are dealt with, and it is tempting to believe that even if City are cleared, they will never fully escape suspicion.

The question about style is an interesting one anyway because it could be coming to a club near you soon; just look at Leicester City. They won the Championship this season but their manager Enzo Maresca said he would walk away if there were doubts about his playing style after complaints from Leicester’s own fans. At the time, they led the table by 10 points, having won 26 of their 34 games.

The general idea was that, yes, the football was successful and the results were following, but it was not ‘fun’ enough. It is quite something for your rivals to complain about your style, sniping at the leaders, but something else entirely for your own fans to rise up against it, especially in a manager’s first season.

Maresca, funnily enough, is another Guardiola protege, having worked as his assistant at City last season. Guardiola’s influence is spreading, with former players Xavi and Vincent Kompany and another former assistant, Mikel Arteta, managing in top divisions this season.

Even those who have never worked with him are credited with, or blamed for, copying his style, and with Premier League clubs hiring Roberto De Zerbi (who is set to leave Brighton & Hove Albion), Andoni Iraola (Bournemouth) and Ange Postecoglou (Tottenham Hotspur), there has been a shift to teams playing out from the back and, in many cases, trying to dominate possession.

City fans have never seriously complained about Guardiola’s style, certainly not to the level at Leicester, although even last season there were some grumbles about his increasing use of Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez as wingers, in part because of their ability to slow down the tempo and control the game.

Leicester’s Maresca faced complaints over playing style, despite winning the Championship (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

If there can be complaints about style from fans of teams at the top of their league then it would not take a huge leap to imagine it happening at clubs where victories are rarer.

Most people watching football want matches not involving their club to be chaotic and dramatic, rather than the dreaded ‘fascinating tactical battle’, which has become innuendo for a 0-0 draw.

By extension, most people would want to see teams who at least appear fallible in their matches and title races. More drama in the 90 minutes, more drama in the race.

City just beat everybody in title races and are disliked by many people, so you end up with complaints that there is no jeopardy in their matches — essentially, they are too good.

Guardiola was even asked on Friday about his future because of the idea that no other teams stand a chance of winning until he has gone. Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville suggested that might be Arteta’s only realistic chance of winning the title with Arsenal.

“It’s wrong,” Guardiola said. “If every season I won by 20 points I would say, ‘Yes I am a genius, I am so good’, but it’s not. The Premier Leagues we won against Liverpool, they could have won. Arsenal can win.”

He then went down the route of explaining all the hard work and big personalities that go into success in football, particularly City’s given the heights they have reached.

City’s title races, including this one, have also been incredibly high quality. In the 2018-19 and 2021-22 seasons, City and Liverpool won basically all of their matches. There were not many twists and turns for months on end, just two brilliant teams winning matches in their own ways.

That is more or less what has happened this season, with data showing that the gap between the Premier League’s top two (whether City, Arsenal or Liverpool) has been an average of 1.51 points, the lowest on record.

It is not just a complaint about City, then, but the others too. Yes, the teams involved are playing brilliant football, but where is the fun in that? Or is it just that the races are only judged to be boring once City have won them?

For City and Guardiola as a coach, other than the general dislike over the charges and money available, they are basically cursed by the fact that the more they win, the easier it looks. ‘Oh, they’ve won the treble have they? Of course they have. Four titles now? Meh.’

It is why Guardiola was asked another question on Friday regarding whether he feels his side get the credit they deserve after all they have won and how they have won it.

“I think so,” he replied. “In world football, for sure.”

The implication being that players and managers know exactly how impressive their feats are, how good the football is, but that those on the outside, fans and us in the media, find it easier to talk about boredom and chequebook.

Guardiola believes his players and team get the credit they deserve inside world football (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

It is too late for City and Guardiola on that front because minds have long since been made up one way or another.

Maybe things will be easier to understand in future, once the charges are decided and Guardiola has left, presumably with City unable to keep pace with their previous achievements.

Guardiola will be gone by then but his football, in its various forms, will probably still be influencing at least half of the Premier League clubs, possibly every team in with a shout of winning a trophy.

Guardiola’s City have achieved the highest standard of football in Premier League history no matter what happens on Sunday, and his true legacy might be changing the style of English football all the way down the divisions.

But is that what people want?

(Top photo: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

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