Centurions

Centurions

Before 2017 was even over, pundits and fans started to ask: Is the current Manchester City side the best the Premier League has ever seen?

By April, the mere suggestion had morphed into serious debate. It seemed the crown was to be contested by Pep’s latest side, and this season’s Premier League champions, Arsenal’s Invincibles, and Manchester United’s treble winning team of ’99.

All had merits that were difficult to argue against. Arsenal hold one of the few records that the current City team didn’t break. It was of course, the honour of going a full 38 games without tasting defeat.

Nothing should take away from that feat – one which may never be beaten – but the table never lies (we’ll keep coming back to that cliché). This season, the Citizens won an incredible 32 games; the Invincibles drew 12 in their unbeaten campaign.

If Mayweather gets criticised for winning without being exciting, the old chants of “Boring, boring, Arsenal” can be shoehorned (if a little unfairly) into this debate. Arsenal took a great singular achievement – going undefeated – and have traded on it ever since. It kept Arsène Wenger in a job for a decade longer than necessary.

The United team from 1999 is remembered as an all-time great because of how it captured the perfect treble: league title, FA Cup, European Cup. The injury time heroics against Bayern Munich helped give the season a Hollywood ending, almost on a par with that Agüero moment.

But the table from that year paints a different picture. They edged out Arsenal by a solitary point, tying with them on most wins that year – 22. It was actually Leeds United that held the record for consecutive victories with seven.

It hardly reeks of domestic dominance.

By comparison, this season City smashed records for most away wins in a season (16); most goals scored in a season (106); best goal difference (79); and one that will stand the test of time like Arsenal’s Invincible record – breaking the 100 point barrier.

City were head and shoulders above the rest of the league during the 2017/18 campaign. Detractors can’t say the league isn’t as competitive as it was in 1999. Back then the traditional Big Four played without fear of failing to qualify for Europe. Nowadays there is a strong top six, and anyone outside it can win any given match.

The results, week-after-week, promote unpredictability. The only certainty, the season defining constant, was Pep’s men would continue to march onward.

The competitiveness and response to it was best summed up in the home game against Southampton. A team that would avoid relegation by three points managed to hold the Blues until the fifth minute of injury time.

Then along came Raheem Sterling, he linked up with Kevin De Bruyne with a quick return pass, and curled the ball into the net, and was probably this writer’s favourite goal of the 106 scored all season.

It kept the winning streak going, making it 19 on the bounce.

That defiance and determination to keep excelling propelled City to unimaginable heights. Guardiola’s style of football, which had faced doubters the season before, was now controlling the English game.

Armchair experts – whose simple solution to Pep’s possession-based attacking football was simply to press City into submission – had to sit stunned as the Blues steamrolled every team they faced. They made the Premier League look like the top-flight North of the border.

Unfortunately, the seven days of destiny became a week of despair as City lost to Liverpool in the Champions League twice and missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clinch the title at home by beating arch-rivals United.

In a way, it had to be this way. A strand of “Typical City” will always exist in the club’s DNA. If there’s a hard way to do something, that places untold strain on the hearts of supporters, City will find it.

But this time, it was a blip rather than a prolonged period of pain. It acts as a slight taint on an otherwise perfect league campaign. No one remembers the three teams that beat United in the league back in 1999, or the 12 times The Invincibles dropped two points as they went unbeaten.

City’s slight imperfections make for more dramatic stories.

But they shouldn’t be the story or cloud judgement. Remember, the table really doesn’t ever lie. After 38 games the only story that matters is told by points acquired, goals scored, goals conceded, and the gap created by these in relation to other teams.

If those damning statistics aren’t enough, remember how City achieved such a massive gulf. It was by playing the sort of football that turns drunks into poets. It’s more than just possession football; the ball isn’t kept for the sake of keeping it away from the opposition, it is kept to create dreamlike sequences.

No team’s highlight reel from any era is a such a pleasurable viewing experience.

Pep’s team are the first Centurions, this alone makes them deserving of being named best team the Premier League has ever seen. The manner in which they achieved it just underlines the point.

The scary thought: they are only going to get better.

(Photo credit: http://www.mancity.com)

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What £100m meant in Manchester

What £100m meant in Manchester

Back at the start of the season, What £100m means in Manchester looked at the two differing approaches Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho took to their respective rebuilds at Manchester City and Manchester United. The main crux of the issue was Mourinho’s seemingly small recruitment drive, with a large portion of his budget splashed on one man – Paul Pogba. Guardiola was applauded for a policy of planning for the future.

As ever, football is a results business. Both managers had the luxury of being able to impress upon the board the size of the task ahead. José could nod to the failing of two previous regimes, Pep had – and still has – the bonus of being so vaunted by his employers, he is virtually “unsackable.”

This doesn’t mean he, or his United counterpart, is beyond criticism and analysis. Each would have entered the season with personal objectives, presumably closely aligned with the board’s. Despite the early bookmakers’ odds, neither would have courted the idea of a Premier League title.

Even six straight wins to kick off the league campaign, with cup victories interspersed, Pep seemed reluctant to talk-up City’s title chances. He went as far to say a defeat would be a good thing. Was this the first sign he realised his squad couldn’t live up to the hype? Did he want to see how players would react under adversity?

He didn’t have to wait too long.

Many point to the 3-1 home defeat by Chelsea as the season’s turning point. It was a game City rightly feel hard done by, but it wasn’t the significant moment many point to. That came on 21st September, with the laborious League Cup victory away to Swansea City.

Brendan Rodgers was declared the architect of City’s new tactical demise when they faced off in the 3-3 Champions League group stage match a week later. All he did was apply the same approach Swansea had. It was simple: City don’t like the pressing game played back on them.

When teams are winning, every decision the manager makes is genius, his transfer policy justified. By the 10th December’s 4-2 defeat by an underperforming Leicester City, with three defeats, three draws and three wins in the league since the start of October, it was time to ask questions.

A transfer policy that planned for the future failed to deal with problems in the present. It was no secret City needed full backs before a ball was kicked, and yet the team had no reinforcements and was even converting one into a makeshift centre-half.

Managers live and die by signings; the Claudio Bravo move was never popular with a core base of fans due to the Joe Hart connotations. It didn’t take long for the rest of the crowd to turn on the mistake riddled Chilean. It’s ironic that for a squad with two players named Jesus, it’s the goalkeeper that appeared to have holes in his hands.

Bravo Transfer Man City

City began to look one dimensional – good at the front, weak at the back, no plan B (a remark Pellegrini would smirk at now) – but signs of life were to come.

Over at Old Trafford, Mourinho did was he does best. He made the team hard to beat after suffering two consecutive defeats early on in the league. Unlike the Van Gaal awkwardness, there were signs the Portuguese manager was making strides forward. The problem was those around him took bigger ones.

United became experts at finding draws.

In hindsight, his more direct approach in the transfer market deserves plaudits. The four players brought in – Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba – all had good seasons. Pogba was the only player to face negative remarks, but that’s the cost of a £89m transfer clouding judgement.

Zlatan Ibrahimović United

Ibrahimović, season ending injury aside, did maintain the same high level throughout, dispelling concerns about his age.

All this United based positivity does, is fail to acknowledge one small minor issue: this isn’t the season José planned or talked about.

Before a ball was kicked, he spoke of getting his four players. It’s all he wanted. He gave his requests list to Edward Woodward and stated the quartet mentioned above was all he needed to make Manchester United competitive again.

When he made this claim (or should that be promise?) he wasn’t alluding to a sixth-place finish, England’s secondary cup and the Europa League.

This isn’t to devalue United’s achievements. Every fan that travels to Wembley wants to win and holds the League Cup in high regard on the day. And even though Mourinho himself has denounced the Europa League in the past, it is now an important prize.

Added to the equation it was the only piece of silverware United had never won and it feels like a grand achievement.

MUFC UEL

And it is, if only for the return of Champions League football, the riches it brings, and the players it allows clubs to attract.

But it was a last-ditch gamble from Mourinho. He went into the casino and placed all his chips on one colour (we’ll assume red) and hoped for the best. When he made his transfer requests to Woodward, so publicly as to bend his arm on the Pogba chase, a top four spot was the least of his desires.

To dip out, and in some fashion, would never have been the plan.

So, who spent their £100m best?

It’s hard to say – which indicates failings on both sides – but it comes down to who is positioned best moving forward.

City and United have slipped straight into the Champions League group stage. This will aid with some transfers and Guardiola doesn’t need to juggle an awkward qualifier this year. But just being in Europe’s elite competition isn’t good enough on its own.

The year of grace for both men has passed. Gambler or not, Mourinho needs to identify fast which players will turn his solid unit into a team with a sharp bite. Regardless of European performance this year, it’s hard to see the Old Trafford hierarchy accepting a league campaign that doesn’t have them in the title race.

The same goes for Guardiola, there has to be a clear upward trend. His transfers were a mixed bag. When the original article was written at the start of the season, the £100m figure was neat and tidy regarding both clubs’ Net Total. In reality, City spent a further £56m (£4m deducted for a youth transfer signed for in 2013) following the closing of the books at the season’s end.

Where Mourinho added several and worked with the rest, Pep brought in three times this amount but only kept six of the faces at the club. His nose for a bargain in the form of Nolito petered out, as did the belief John Stones would transform into a world class player before our eyes. It may still happen, but it was a burden the young Yorkshire man struggled with.

İlkay Gündoğan arrived injured and is so again. A gamble taken in a dressing room that often resembles a Bupa clinic. But eyes on the Leroy Sané’s second half of the season and Gabriel Jesus prove the Spaniard has a solid plan in place.

Gabriel Jesus

This was always a big undertaking. He isn’t trying to build upon the success of former managers, instead it’s a process of ripping out the footballing foundations at the club and starting again in his image.

Pep overvalued the talent at his disposal and underestimated the Premier League.

Unlike Mourinho, Pep – quite often to a fault – never criticises his players to the press. But one has to assume behind closed doors he’s been fuming. He must have expected more from them or that initial £100m would have been spent on emergency measures rather than youngsters – like Oleksandr Zinchenko and Marlos Moreno – who have yet to see a City shirt.

Mourinho’s experience and insight afforded him a more tailored approach. But the table never lies, and a year on from a change of managers, there has been clear – albeit, slow – progress at City. This will allow Pep more time to complete his vision.

He appears to appreciate the size of the task now, his early big money moves in the post-season prove this.

As for United, the Europa League success has given them a return to the perceived top table. If they fail to press those above in the coming season, a new type of pressure will come down on José. The safety net has been removed.

£100m meant both teams in Manchester breathed sighs of relief by the end of May. United had silverware for their endeavours but both clubs will look at the Premier League table and realise a monumental task still awaits.

Come August, we could be asking what £300m means in Manchester.

The Real Fan Problem at Manchester City

The Real Fan Problem at Manchester City

After watching City overcome Monaco in one of the most exciting European nights imaginable, it’d be easy to think the next article will be wax lyrical about Pep Guardiola’s side. Or, perhaps to fit in with the mainstream media, it will take away from the spirit shown and focus on the many faux pas we saw and bemoan two poor defences. It will do none of these things but it will attack a certain element of Manchester City, while defending its most important aspect: The fans.

When Willy Caballero saved from Falcao’s penalty, this writer celebrated like City had won the Champions League, such was the level of tension and passion in the stadium. It was a night where the Etihad took it up a notch. The fans feeding off the team’s fight, the buzz energising the players. The perfect example of the symbiotic relationship that should exist between those in the blue shirts and those in the stands.

If the people that have the direct say in City’s success – the men on the pitch – can see the importance of the fan base, why can’t the people that organise the club’s affairs do the same?

The official line from Manchester City will be that the fans are the number one priority: #Together. It’s great marketing, and on some level, there’ll be people that work for the club who believe it. But constant oversight and a lack of corrective action makes one doubt how genuine the words are at corporate level.

Of course, the example last night, and reason for this article, is the continued problem of gaining entry to Etihad Stadium on match day – especially European nights.

To have it happen once is forgivable, twice is disconcerting but no major issue, for it to happen constantly with no cure in sight is sacrilege.

Just like the Celtic game at home, queues zigzagged around the concourse, patiently waiting in lines that needn’t be there but the club refuse to address. Thousands of fans – that have paid full price for their ticket – are expected to miss up to twenty minutes of the first half. All because of City’s arrogance.

Before we go any further, let’s nip the two favourite retorts in the bud once and for all.

Get to the ground with plenty of time to spare.

Fans shouldn’t have to arrive one hour prior to kick-off to ensure access to their seat.

Increased security measures will cause delays.

The extra searches do not slow down or hinder access to turnstiles. They mean the person(s) being searched are delayed by thirty seconds. The queue moves past them, the turnstile never stops turning.

Another, weakly spoken, response, is fans arriving at the wrong gate cause delays. This does happen, and cup games mean new guests or people in different seats, but it does not equate to thirty minute delays. If there is any argument for ticket issues, it’s staff not directing supporters quick enough when their card or ticket is repeatedly jammed into a turnstile that’s displaying a red light. Patience, in this moment, actually saves time.

No, none of the diatribe aimed back at the fans adds up. A main contributory factor is clear: unnecessary redesigns have purposely limited the volume of traffic at preferred gates.

Take the M2 to M1 situation. Once upon a time – before the club started their final corporate solution of hospitality clubs and glass tunnels – allowed fans in the third tier of the South Stand to use both turnstiles. And the traffic flowed, not a queue in sight.

Fast forward to the present day, a wall has been built meaning those gaining entry via M2 can’t walk across to the stairwell for the upper tier. The preferred upper class customer no longer need worry about the upper tier riff raff sharing their turnstile. They can watch them queue instead.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Donald Trump’s comments, it’s that people don’t like walls being built.

The annoying thing about this wall is that it has a lovely set of double doors. The same doors that are opened post-match to speed-up everyone’s exit from the stadium. But, for reasons known only to City – those doors must remain closed until the ref blows his whistle for the last time.

etihad-stadium-the-problem-doorIt’d make no sense to allow the queue to dissipate and direct people once inside. Best to keep lots of people disgruntled, right? And it means staff manning the M2 side get to stand around and avoid work based stress. Excellent for all involved…

etihad-m2-empty-gate

Maybe United fans not being in the Champions League have gotten the last laugh: it gives them a free night to take jobs at the Etihad and help run City’s European nights.

It’s not as if City don’t know how many people to expect or can’t call upon vast experience of running match days. No fan should have to wait thirty minutes to gain entry to a ground. And it keeps happening. Against Everton, as reported here, the staff at the turnstile broke procedure and opened the exit gates to allow fans in. That, obviously, can never be the solution, but by now there should have been one.

Instead City show signs of madness, repeating mistakes, expecting a different outcome, and continue to neglect the working class fan. You can put your mortgage on the fact that if ten corporate visitors were made to queue outside in the cold for twenty minutes into the first half, there’d never be anything that resembles a line of people within a mile radius of Eastlands ever again.

Traditional fans, worried about becoming marginalised, continue to see basic consideration diminish. There’s no suggestion here it comes right from the top – Sheikh Mansour has gone to great pains to maintain inclusion for all City fans, all over the world – it’s the daily heads of office that are guilty of mismanagement, oversight, and a lack of care.

The current entry system (not security checks, the poor use of all turnstile resources) is not fit for purpose. If the people responsible for direction and management of City match days do not use some common sense to remove the current façade, they make themselves as effective as the crippled system they stand by.

Before the decision makers in Abu Dhabi consider further expansion, player acquisitions or ground improvements, they should look at the basic running of Etihad Stadium. There’s a lot of deadwood that needs removing.