Manchester City are one win away from sporting immortality after underlining their greatness by clinching a Premier League and FA Cup double.
Manchester City are on the verge of joining the pantheon of football’s greatest. Pep Guardiola does not need a reminder of what is needed to take the final step.
Five league titles in six seasons represent almost total dominance. But City’s players now have their eyes on sporting immortality by beating Inter Milan in the Champions League showpiece this weekend.
Not even perennial city rivals Manchester United, in the red-hot atmosphere of a Wembley derby, could throw a spanner in the works as their seemingly unstoppable charge towards the treble continued on Saturday.
As the only previous English side to achieve the Premier League, FA Cup, and Champions League in the same season — back in 1999 — the Red Devils and their fans would have loved nothing more than to derail Pep Guardiola’s juggernaut.
Nonetheless, while they were not annihilated in the same way that Arsenal and Real Madrid were in two other high-profile Manchester City games lately, they were ultimately no match for a team that has evolved into far more than their “noisy neighbours.”
Manchester City will now head to Istanbul for next week’s Champions League final against Inter Milan riding high on verve. And the trophy they have craved most, for so long, should finally be within their grasp.
One of the most impressive aspects of this newly-incarnated City side is how, despite the brilliance of headline names such as Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne, other players are often ready to seize the moment when it matters.
In the semi-final against Sheffield United, it was Riyad Mahrez with a brilliant hat-trick. And on this occasion — and not for the first time — it was Ilkay Gundogan, whose goals gave City the FA Cup alongside the Premier League title that they successfully defended this season.
A host of intriguing Pep Guardiola and Manchester City-related narratives are building up ahead of the final. And you are in luck as we, at The Hard Tackle are set to uncover/expose them all ahead of one of the most important games in the history of Manchester City Football Club. (And their jealous rival fans, yes we’re talking about you, bitter Manchester United supporter).
Greatest English team ever?
“Not in my lifetime”, said legendary Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson back in September 2009 after being asked if United would ever go into a Manchester Derby as underdogs. Well, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are well-and-truly in the mix to threaten his legacy.
Sky Sports pundit and commentator Martin Tyler made an observation after his voice-box-shredding “AGUEROOOOO!!!!!” efforts as Manchester City lifted the 2011/12 Premier League title in memorable fashion.
“It could be the start of a dynasty,” he added as Roberto Mancini’s men revelled in the anarchy. The fact, though, was that City faltered in their title defence the following year, and Mancini was let go. Manuel Pellegrini reclaimed the crown in 2013/14. But by Pep Guardiola’s first season in command in 2016/17, City had won only once in the last five years despite their riches and mass spending.
The picture is quite different now, with City clinching a fifth title in six seasons after reeling in fading front-runners Arsenal. Under Guardiola, City have now won an incredible 11 major trophies since 2016, setting numerous Premier League records over the years, including being the first team to reach 100 points, recording the biggest title-winning margin, and winning the most games in a single season.
If you just skimmed through those numbers, you’d think City dominated because there was no competition. That could not be further from the truth. They have put this incredible sequence together while seeing off the challenge of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who would have sauntered to at least three titles in any other era.
The raw numbers are astonishing. But, despite all that success, no other Manchester City team has come so close to making history as this one. They are the best to have played the game.
There have been times this season when even opposition fans have been forced to sit back and admire the feast of football City have served up. Even Arsenal were completely and utterly demolished at the Etihad on April 26, a 4-1 win that all but secured another title for City.
Even their exploits in Europe are as impressive as it gets. You would need a thesaurus of superlatives to properly encapsulate their dominance in every department at home against the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and RB Leipzig. The ruthlessness, energy, tactical intelligence, and breathless spectacle of unceasing brilliance against their fellow title contenders have never been seen before in the European game, let alone from an English side.
The favourite football cliché ‘men against boys’ would not even do justice to the difference in quality between the two sides in those games. They just cruised through the CL quarter-finals and semi-finals. There was no hint of tension or drama.
Should Manchester City secure the treble, these questions will start flying around in the mainstream media, comparing Ferguson’s 1999 treble-winners to Manchester City’s 2023): Whose season was tougher? Who bought success? If City do it will theirs be the greater achievement?
While old pundits would continue to recite the same “The game was a lot tougher in our days” song, the game has moved on light years technically and tactically. And perhaps, nobody has pushed the limits further than Pep Guardiola.
An inventor, a football scientist, and whatnot? Guardiola wants to unpick football, recreate it, and discover new methods of expressing 11 men, two goalposts, and one ball. He does not so much think outside the box as he does convert the box into his system.
He wants to explore what happens when you play without strikers, without full-backs, with strikers as playmakers, or centre-backs as midfielders. He has gotten it wrong before, on big occasions, but this season he keeps getting it right.
Also, the competitors in terms of spending and quality of manager have come leaps and bounds in the Premier League season after season thanks to the lucrative TV money. And this is arguably the best version of the English top-flight with so many well-run clubs, overachievers, as well as underperformers. Still, Manchester City remain the only constant at the pinnacle, which is quite a feat.
When all is said and done, it is looking increasingly likely that this iteration of Manchester City will go down as the greatest team in English football’s history, and Pep’s City have further raised the bar in English football.
The nagging asterisk
Pep Guardiola’s team are arguably the best the Premier League has ever seen. They decimate opponents with brutal consistency, playing a brand of football that makes them untouchable on their day. But City are also facing over 100 Premier League charges for allegedly breaching financial regulations. The Premier League referred the club to an independent commission.
City, who were acquired by the Abu Dhabi Investment Group in 2008, are accused of failing to provide accurate financial information in accordance with Premier League rules from the 2009/10 season until the 2017/18 campaign.
🗣️ “The architect [Man City] of that, should probably face a pretty stringent punishment. We are really in unprecedented territory.”@tariqpanja on the possible sanctions that Manchester City could face if they are found guilty of the charges they face for breaching FFP. 💭 pic.twitter.com/zZ7ZsfqO3y
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) February 6, 2023
City could well be suspended from the league, handed a points deduction, or ordered to pay an unlimited fine if found guilty. But that is a big IF due to the length of this kind of trial, which usually takes ages. And by the rule of law: they are innocent until proven guilty.
Why are we bringing this up? Because in the eyes of rival fans and the Twitter foolbase, who regard City as cheats and should be docked points straightaway, they should be stripped away from their trophy collection as well.
For example, just after the closely-contested FA Cup final between Manchester United and City, you would expect United fans to talk about their team’s good performance or the events that happened during the match.
Instead, a snobbish United fan took to social media and posted this: “Least Man Utd were not cheating when they win the Premier League, Fa Cup, and the Champions League in 1999. So, Man Utd is the real winner when they win the treble in the 1999 season with no 115 charges against them unlike Man City are now with 115 charges against them now still.”
This is not an isolated incident. There were literally thousands of posts like this one, denigrating City’s FA Cup glory. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I, for one, could not care less about Twitter toxicity these days, it takes away all credibility and undermines the achievements of that group of players.
Without the transfer cheat codes.
0 charges, never mind 115.
You may equal our achievement, but without a fraction of the class we had when we did it.
Your achievements will always have an asterisk to denote the fact that you are disgusting cheating rats. pic.twitter.com/sDQAPo7Itl
— Red 🇾🇪 (@RedlingMUFC85) June 3, 2023
More often than not, these takes are from cartel legacy club fans, who are hypocrites in every sense of the word. They first term it “dirty money”, and then the very same entitled fans call out their existing owners, despite significant success over the past few years, and urge state owners to take over their club and pour wealth into it like water.
Perhaps it is little more than a coincidence, but City have gone unbeaten in 25 of 26 games since those breaches were announced by the Premier League to move to the brink of a historic ‘Treble.’ Or, maybe, it was indeed a motivating factor at the club.
From a pure football standpoint, Pep Guardiola’s team are in a league of their own, and they look like they’ll keep getting stronger. Should they do the treble, they will earn their place in the history books while hoping that an asterisk is not placed against their names in the years to come. But discrediting them already is disrespectful and a disgrace, really.
Manchester City are not the only ones who spend a lot of money
For fans of opposition teams, however, City’s success comes with a catch. With a squad market value of over €1 billion, Manchester City undoubtedly laid claim to the most impressive and expensive squad in the Premier League.
There is little doubt that Guardiola inherited the spine of a great team. Vincent Kompany, Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne, and Sergio Aguero were all there when he arrived in the summer of 2016 to take over from Manuel Pellegrini.
Since the summer of 2017, when Guardiola benefited from an expenditure of over £200 million that helped first reshape his squad. The Catalan head coach has undoubtedly used City’s resources to create a super-club. But they have enjoyed success at several levels and are also getting plenty of local players into their first team, such as Phil Foden, Rico Lewis, and Cole Palmer.
Money obviously helps, but City have also hired the best coaches and administrators, and that depth of talent is as big a factor in their success as the quality of players on the pitch. They are now dominating, as Manchester United did in the 1990s and 2000s and Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s.
They are playing the best football in the world, picking up the cream from other clubs (barring their desperate rivals), they employ the best manager, and their team is stocked with superstars, including Haaland and De Bruyne.
As for Alex Ferguson’s treble-winners, this misleading romanticism that a bunch of youth products — David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers — were at the core of their success flatters to deceive.
This gets exposed via Athletic research, in which football finance experts Kieran Maguire and Jason Laws at the University of Liverpool created a transfer inflation calculator that names three of the signings in that treble-winning United side among the top 30 most expensive signings if they were to be made in the modern era.
Dwight Yorke: £12.6 million at the time, now £118.2 million. Jaap Stam: £10.7 million to £99.4 million. Andy Cole was snapped up from Premier League title rivals Newcastle United for a then-British record: £6 million readjusted to £109.5 million. Manchester City only have one in the top 30, and that is Jack Grealish’s £100 million move from Aston Villa.
Going by this definition, Erling Haaland for £51 million, Kevin De Bruyne for £55 million, and Bernardo Silva for £43 million were indeed bargains. It is a convenient argument for opposition fans to say City have simply collected the best players when it avoids some of the realities and ignores how Guardiola has elevated so many of them into something much greater than they were previously.
Would Stones have become this exceptional if he had swapped Everton for Old Trafford rather than the Etihad? Or Grealish, or Sterling, for that matter? Both have had more than their fair share of baseless critics, especially in the English media.
Where was the rest of Europe in the pursuit of Rodri and Ruben Dias? How many people can honestly say they knew a great deal about Manuel Akanji before City signed him from Borussia Dortmund for £15 million last September? Now arguably the signing of the season.
Plenty of established clubs were not ready to take a gamble on Gundogan amid serious injury record concerns up until 2016. Similarly, it is easy to forget now what Sky Sports pundits were saying about City’s decision to pay Wolfsburg £55 million for De Bruyne: he was a Chelsea reject; how could he come good now.
It’s not even that City have won every transfer battle. Marc Cucurella, Fred, Harry Maguire, and the list goes on and on.. where their rivals decided to overpay while they stood their ground.
Guardiola’s new system’s success, in which players may swap freely and nothing appears noticeably different, and talents grow to the point where they seem so superior to when they first stepped foot in the building, is not merely the product of money.
Ultimately, it all comes down to the fact that winners tend to be disliked eventually, especially serial winners; it is similar with this City team, who have this cloud of sanctions hanging over their heads.
Citizens set to pass the final test with flying colours
Manchester City have been top of the class this season. But they have one more test to pass if they want immortality and to achieve true greatness.
Victory over Inter Milan in the Champions League final on Saturday will clinch an historic treble for Pep Guardiola’s side and confirm their status as football immortals. Despite their domestic dominance, Guardiola has admitted that City cannot be considered a truly great side until they have conquered Europe.
City have come close to the ever-elusive European glory in recent years – most notably losing in the final to Chelsea two years ago – but have fallen short when it mattered in the Champions League. But there is a new-found belief and assurance about Guardiola’s double winners that suggests they are destined to finally end their European misery on Saturday and take their place in history.
The agony of past Champions League failures have been an essential part of City’s European journey, to the point where they feel they are ready to reach the summit of the mountain. The manner of City’s ruthless 4-0 demolition job of Real Madrid in the semi-final, a year after their agonising semi-final exit to them, suggested Guardiola’s men have finally come of age in Europe’s elite competition.
Make no mistakes, Inter are no pushovers, and will certainly not be there in Istanbul to just make up numbers. Simone Inzaghi will have his side well-drilled, and tactically coached to negate Manchester City from playing their football, while the counter-attacking duo of Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez have been on absolute fire heading into this tie.
Pep Guardiola at 1:58PM: "I'm not overthinking tomorrow, don't worry guys…"
— City Xtra (@City_Xtra) May 16, 2023
The real battle may be between Pep Guardiola and his own creative ideas. He joked before the semi-final second leg against Real Madrid that he wouldn’t “overthink” his tactical approach after being accused of doing so in previous major Champions League matches.
Manchester City fans will recall him bizarrely starting the 2021 Champions League final against Chelsea without a holding midfielder. And many of the fans making the trip to Istanbul will not be confident in their prospects until they see the teamsheet. Only a few Inter players would make it into a combined XI, which tells you that, on paper, City hold the edge man-for-man.
There is no reason for Guardiola to change too much from the team that thrashed Real Madrid. Rodri has been one of City’s most important figures this season. His commanding presence and authority in midfield allow City’s attackers to flourish, with the 26-year-old in the best form of his career.
John Stones has slotted seamlessly into that position, as the English international regularly moves into central midfield when in possession and takes half-turns like prime Sergio Busquets. Nathan Ake, Ruben Dias, and Manuel Akanji have formed a rock-solid centre-back unit, all of whom love physical defending and putting bodies on the line when necessary, which has made City’s backline impregnable.
As alluded to above, the likes of Gundogan and Bernardo Silva are as clutch as they can get, always capable of chipping in with goals from midfield. Grealish was once Aston Villa’s game-changer, a free-spirited dribbler they looked to for moments of individual brilliance. But at City, his role is, in the words of Guardiola himself, primarily that of a facilitator or ball progressor.
He will be asked to stay high and wide when City have possession, the intention being to stretch Inter’s defences and create space in central areas.
Change is the only constant in Guardiola’s universe. When he signed Haaland, he realised he was getting one of the most dangerous young strikers of his generation. So he opted to build the team around him without forcing the Norwegian to change his own game.
He is their target man, someone who is always present inside the box as players like de Bruyne ping passes to him. His physicality around the box is another added plus, as the Belgian-Norwegian combo wreaks havoc on defenders. Will the lethal duo be able to fulfill City’s long-standing dream for a Champions League title and add to Pep’s ever-growing legend? Only time will tell.