MANCHESTER, England — They already had the huge “Three in a Row” celebratory banner hanging over the main entrance at the Etihad Stadium prior to Manchester City‘s latest coronation as Premier League champions. They don’t waste any time updating the list of achievements at City, but then again, it’s becoming an annual occurrence when it comes to Pep Guardiola’s team.
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Arsenal‘s 1-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest on Saturday evening confirmed City as champions without a ball being kicked against Chelsea on Sunday, so for the third time in three years — and fifth time in six seasons — the Etihad was dressed for a title party. There were celebratory scenes inside and outside the stadium, the smoke from blue flares accompanying the City team bus as it arrived for the game, but away from this blue corner of Manchester, City’s latest success has been greeted with apathy and suspicion in equal measure.
Winners tend to be disliked eventually, especially serial winners, but it’s different with this City team. Nobody quite knows what to feel.
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On the one hand, Guardiola’s team are arguably the best the Premier League has ever seen. They decimate opponents with ruthless consistency, playing a brand of football that makes them unbeatable on their day. Just ask Real Madrid, the reigning European champions, who were destroyed in a 4-0 Champions League semifinal second leg last Wednesday.
But City are also under the cloud of more than 100 Premier League charges for allegedly breaching financial regulations. The club vehemently deny all charges and have committed to fighting to overturn each of them, but the charge sheet is so lengthy and comprehensive that nobody outside of the Etihad is prepared to toast Guardiola’s team as being simply the best.
City are accused of 50 breaches of providing inaccurate financial information, eight breaches in relation to manager remuneration from 2009 to 2013, 12 breaches in relation to player remuneration from 2010 to 2015, five breaches linked to UEFA financial regulations, 25 profitability and sustainability breaches and 30 breaches of assisting the Premier League investigation, which dates back to March 2019. If found guilty, City face punishments ranging from fines and points deductions to expulsion from the league, making the stakes incredibly high.
Some teams or athletes stand out at the greatest of their generation, maybe of all time. Usain Bolt collected gold medals as the best sprinter the world has ever seen and Tiger Woods did the same on the golf course for more than a decade. So did cyclist Lance Armstrong, but he was eventually stripped of his seven consecutive Tour de France wins after being exposed as one of sport’s most prolific cheats.
City could be football’s Bolt or Woods, but until they clear their name — or otherwise — on all 115 charges, the risk of being instead bracketed alongside Armstrong remains.
The problem for Guardiola, who has won 10 major trophies since arriving in 2016, and his players is that a resolution is unlikely to be imminent. It could take years for those charges to be resolved, meaning this team might not get the recognition it deserves — good or bad — until many of the key figures have moved on.
Within the City bubble, there is no doubt and the team’s successes are celebrated, with any outside scrutiny prompting hostility from supporters on social media. Journalists who reference the Premier League charges are accused of working with an agenda against the club, while Guardiola has said his club has “already been condemned” by their rivals. A good job, then, that the charges will be dealt with by lawyers rather than football club owners and managers.
But while the investigation against the club is a matter of fact, there is also no question of jealousy from rival clubs and supporters towards City’s success. 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, they employ the best manager and their team is stocked with superstars including Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne.
Against Chelsea, Guardiola made nine changes to the side that beat Real: he rested virtually all of his best players to the extent that he had £475 million of talent on the bench. If that was an example of City having the biggest credit card in football, the presence of three homegrown local boys on the pitch — Phil Foden, Rico Lewis and Cole Palmer, who delivered the assist for Julian Alvarez’s winning goal — was a testament to the club also developing the best talent who cost nothing in transfer fees.
It’s also worth noting that while they have won the Premier League for a third year in a row, City have done the same at Under-21 and Under-18 level, making their dominance clear at every level. 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.
So while their rivals might cast doubt on how City have funded their era of dominance, they simply have to find a way to overcome them on and off the pitch where, for two years running, City have topped the Deloitte Football Money League as the club with the biggest commercial revenue in the game. They now have the opportunity next season to become the first team in English football history to win four successive titles.
If they go on to win the FA Cup and Champions League this season — completing the treble — Guardiola’s team will earn their place in the history books while hoping that an asterisk is not applied to them in the years to come. But from a purely football perspective, this team are in a different league to the rest, and they look like they’re only getting better.