Ken Early: Manchester City are their own best enemies
Beware of the recent ‘defending your title’ curse, but City’s style means they could soar
Manchester City’s manager Pep Guardiola with his goalkeeper Ederson after the match at St Mary’s Stadium. Photograph: Getty Images
It’s been nearly a month since Manchester City won the title and everyone would have understood if they had mentally clocked off at that point. Instead, Pep Guardiola was as good as his word that they would keep going until the very last seconds of the season, and as a result his players can boast about having established several new records.
There were five seconds remaining of their final match away to Southampton when Kevin de Bruyne launched the long ball towards Gabriel Jesus that would win him the new “Playmaker” award for the player with most assists. The three minutes of injury time had just elapsed as Jesus lifted the ball over the keeper and in for two new records: City are the highest-scoring Premier League champions with 106 goals, and the first team to win the English top-flight with 100 points.
The usual thing to say about something like a 100-point record is that it will stand for a long time, except that you sense there is every chance City themselves might surpass it next season. Since City are unlikely to lose key players – except perhaps Sergio Aguero, who is no longer really key – and since they are not about to be outspent by anybody, it is easier to see them breaking their own records than it is to see one of the chasing teams closing the gap.
The fact that they have set this record is already an awkward thing for the rest of the league to think about. This sort of thing is not supposed to happen in England. The best players still go to Spain, and English football can live with the idea that the technical standard there is higher, but the Premier League’s appeal is self-consciously based on the notion that it is the most competitive league. If City can walk the title with 100 points – scoring a goal a game more than the team in second place – then this supposed competitiveness has been exposed as a mere marketing conceit.
Defending the title
Recent history suggests that the only thing harder than winning the title is defending it, and perhaps gives the teams trailing in City’s wake some kind of reassurance. Four of the last five Premier League title winners have completely disintegrated the following season. Chelsea won the league last year with 93 points, but could only manage 70 this year.
The 2016 champions Leicester collapsed from 81 points to 44 the following season, a 37-point drop that sounds like it should have been the worst title defence of all time, yet in fact was scarcely even the worst title defence in 12 months. In 2015 Chelsea had won the league under Jose Mourinho with 87 points, only to slump to 50 points the following season. Going back a little further, Manchester United’s champions of 2013 won the league with 89 points, and collapsed to 64 under David Moyes a year later.
It’s natural that champions should not perform quite as well the following season: reversion to the mean is an iron law of sport. But there is something a bit strange about the enormous collapses of the last three seasons.
The reason for it may have to do with the peculiar nature of the teams involved. As Jose Mourinho pointed out in interviews earlier this season, the Chelsea (under both Conte and Mourinho) and Leicester teams that won these titles were “super-defensive teams” with a killer counter-attack.
For such teams to win matches consistently requires enormous focus and concentration. When you have sweated blood throughout a victorious campaign, it’s exhausting even to contemplate the idea of coming back to do it all over again next season, against opponents who have worked out your tactical tricks.
Maybe that’s why the only recent champions to buck the trend were the more attack-oriented Manchester City sides of 2013 and 2015. They also underperformed their title-winning campaigns of the previous years, but by more modest margins – 11 and seven points respectively. If Guardiola’s team were to finish next season with 11 fewer points, it would still probably be enough to win the title.
The most obvious difference between Guardiola’s City and other recent champions is that City have a stronger squad, but there is also an important stylistic difference. This City is a fun team to play for. That is not to say they can’t defend – they have conceded fewer goals than any other team and therefore have a decent case to be regarded as the best defence.
But their game is not all about strangling and picking off the other team, it’s much more positive than that. It’s about dominating games and expressing their own potential, and, mentally, creative football is less draining than the super-defensive school of winning by tight margins. When Chelsea and Leicester won those titles they knew they couldn’t play any better. City still don’t know how good they can become, and who knows how far they can go in the quest to find out.